So where do you begin with FC United? If you are reading this then you probably already know the story of FC United and their formation. It’s a fan owned club who have generated more publicity and visits from media organisations as any other fan owned club in this country, perhaps only second to AFC Wimbledon.
I’m not going to link you to anything here, all you have to do is type in FC United into google (other search engines available) and you will be hit with a constant stream of reports, posts and articles all praising the club till the end of the earth and rightly so.
Both of these clubs can take responsibility for me embarking on this journey, with my visit to the last day drama at AFC Wimbledon to secure their Football League status followed a week later by an heart breaking play off final defeat for FC United the week later (here).
Perhaps those two results encapsulate in a nutshell the gulf between the two in league status. Since forming in 2002, AFC Wimbledon has managed five promotions rising from Combined Counties Premier all the way to the promised land of League 2. In this time they have had two playoff final wins, the most dramatic a penalty shootout win against Luton at the home of Manchester City in the 2010-11 season. Plus, of course, last season’s dramatic win to ensure survival in the Football league.
Contrast that with FC United, who playing their first ever season in 2005 and starting one step down from AFC Wimbledon by going into the North West Counties Div Two (which 1874 Northwich have also started their journey), managed three straight promotions.
Since then unfortunately, FC United have remained stuck in the Evo Stik Prem and in their last three seasons have seen promotion snatched away in playoff final defeats. Both AFC Wimbledon and FC United are Clubs that are run excellently, do phenomenal community work but it’s in those small moments which make a big difference. A penalty scored, a free kick missed and clubs can diverge so dramatically.
Anyway, the focus here is FC United and since I last went to watch them the club has seen what will perhaps mark a new era for the club and the lasting proof of the clubs longevity and success. As I write this, work will be going on in Moston to build FC United their own ground and there is finally a structure up at the ground (here).
The stand being used was previously the property of Northwich Victoria and 1874 Northwich fans can at least be proud that the place they used to stand and sing for their team will now be a massive part of the history of FC United.
So off the field the progress is real and FC United are on course to have somewhere they can truly call home by the start of next season but of course the question many have is: Which division will it be in?
The last five games before I headed up to watch them on New Year’s Day FC United had gained 10 points, losing to Aston United 2-1 who themselves are fighting for promotion.
So I headed up to watch FC United, still feeling rough and tired from last morning’s adventures in C21 to meet up with my mate Justin, pop on a train and watch FC United take on Trafford. Justin greatest claim to fame is setting up a petition to ask Shrewsbury Town FC to change their badge back to the famous loggerheads and stop using a crappy piece of clipart.
The club, my club, then put out a public statement saying that Justin (who was currently 17) was responsible for the clubs first promotion in the Football League in 18 years being ‘curtailed and demeaned” here. All because he started a petition about the badge…
So I am of course delighted to be friends with someone who holds such extraordinary power and Justin can be followed on twitter @Salopian95 with the ‘Bring Back the Loggerheads’ campaign website here.
It is also a sad indictment of a club which has become such a sad shell of its former self. An identikit ground, with a clipart badge and a soulless atmosphere all for the price of £24 on the day. I can guarantee if my Stepdad had taken me to watch Shrewsbury for my first ever game at the New Meadow, I would have zero interest in football. I consider myself immensely lucky that I got to watch Town play at the Gay Meadow.
Anyway, back to New Year’s Day. As we headed on to the train at Salop we saw people who were also heading off to Manchester but they were going to watch the ‘other’ United. What saddos I thought, to be going to watch a team miles away you have no connection to in a soulless stadium, as I travelled even further to watch another team who wasn’t my own even further away, even lower down in the leagues.
Now we had not received any news the game was off and going from the twitter feed it seemed like it would be touch and go but we had already booked our train tickets so we took the chance. As we arrived in Manchester, I went to get some money out of the cashpoint but as we wanted to make sure we got to the ground I left it and got straight onto the Metro link to Bury. I’d remember to do it later…
It was as we were about to board the metro to Bury that we bumped into a bloke, who on hearing Justin go through the FC United song sheet had a chat to us. Unfortunately, he was off to watch the other team as he had got a cheap ticket to watch them and I wondered just how people could still support both. When I had previously been to watch FC United there wasn’t anyone who admitted to following the other United anymore and the youngsters were actually passionately against being associated with anyone else. For them, it was FC United or bust.
Perhaps though there are still many who still try and attend the other United and FC United is still some ‘little brother’ (a hideous phrase) but when that stadium goes up, it will be a real line in the sand for the unique identity of FC United. It would soon turn out however that the bloke we met off to Old Trafford would be feeling pleased about his decision.
It was on the metro link that doubts arose about whether game would be on, with the clubs Twitter page announcing a pitch inspection. As our phones were running low we spent the next half an hour praying for the game to be on. At this point Justin informed me about how he had twice travelled up to Bury, once on a Tuesday night, to have the game called off. The omens were not good.
We got off and it would be fair to say that Bury looked like a ghost town; the only places that were open were the bookies. Yes I can accept it was New Year’s Day but it really seemed to be a place with the life sucked out of it. The weirdest thing we saw was a bus going from Bury for Bolton Wanderers football ground… empty.
I have no idea why anyone from Bury would want to go and watch Bolton, a club in free fall and in massive amounts of debt with all the gruesome details covered by twohundredpercent here. So we made the walk towards the ground still unsure if the game was on and into the Staff of Life, five minutes’ walk from the ground, for a pint and to wait on news.
Justin had been in this exact pub when his previous game had been called off and he was about to have the same experience when half way through my pint a man came over, asked if we were here for the FC United game… “Sorry lads, it’s just been called off.”
Needless to say, although we had started to expect it, I was devastated. Having dragged ourselves from Salop to Bury to watch what would have been a great game. New Years’ day versus Trafford, a massive atmosphere in the FC United stands and a big crowd. It was alright for Justin, being a student in Liverpool to go and watch FC United as and when but I was pretty much buggered. I would have to hope FC United made the playoffs and I could look forward to another 4:30 am start to watch them.
We tried to search for another game that we could make it to in time but despite our best efforts it looked hopeless and as I finished my pint we were about to head back to Shrewsbury, Justin wasn’t even up for drinking as he was ill. So all in all: a total disaster of a day.
However, I had already arranged to speak to Alan Hargrave who is a Board Member of FC United so I crossed my fingers and walked to the ground in the hope of catching someone. As we walked through the back entrance we bumped into Alan and it was at this moment the day finally got better.
As me and Justin were waiting around Karl Marginson came through the doors and I thought bugger it, I might as well say hello and tell him about my sad little journey this season. Karl to his credit said hello and gave me what was now a defunct match program before checking his phone for a game to go to that was still on.
After also meeting Andy Walsh, General Manager of FC United, both Andy and Karl were in conversation about a game to go to and at this point I piped up to ask if Karl fancy giving us a lift to watch Chorley vs AFC Fylde in the top of the table clash.
To his credit, Karl could’ve just told us to piss off but after realising that game was on he was talking it over with Andy. In the end they settled to go watch Salford City FC which was a bit easier to get to then Chorley.
“Fancy going to the game?” Karl asked us and since we had come all this way we thought we might as well go and watch a game of footy. Plus, from my point of view it would give me a chance to pick Karl Marginson’s brain about how this season was going in a relaxed environment. Bluntly, if the FC United Manager is going to give you a free lift to the game you aren’t going to say no are you?
So me, Justin and some German bloke who had come to watch FC United (made my journey look a little bit better to be honest) bundled into the Karl’s car and we set off down to Salford. Here’s our horrible mugs.
We would be joined in the car by Garry Vaughan, Trafford Manager and so I started my attempt to have a chat with Karl without a) Stopping him from talking to Garry b) Pissing him off and c) Sounding like an arse kisser. I probably did two out of three.
Now, most of it snippets but the first impression you get when you meet Karl is he is just a normal bloke who happens to be a football manager. A former football league player turned fruit and veg man, he’s now full time at the club which enables him to devote a lot of time to joining in the clubs community work.
Whilst in the car, Karl let us in on a couple of his own views about formations “It’s not about a single formation but how the team plays in transition” and as it was around the time of the Malky Mackay episode at Cardiff, he was quick to point out some hypocrisy.
Brendon Rodgers had come out and said that these businessmen don’t understand football but instead of voicing support for Rodgers comments, Karl put it bluntly “Well why doesn’t Rodgers resign then?”
You could immediately tell that Karl has no time for what he sees as the hypocrisy of those taking part at football at the top of the game and I back him on this. If you are happy to take their money then why are you complaining? If Rodgers really believed in what he says then he’d manage at a club not run by ‘businessmen’ but he doesn’t, so it’s fair to call his comments hollow and meaningless.
We moved on to talk about money and FC United’s budget. Karl was quick to confirm what most of us knew in the car but those who only look at their attendances don’t, which is that FC United aren’t flush with cash.
Although, he did point out that one of his main cards to play in the deck when trying to sign players is the fact that at this level, there is no better club to play for in terms of atmosphere or support of the fans. It’s the difference between scoring a goal for FC United and having a thousand plus fans cheering and chanting your name or a couple of hundred for anybody else.
The most telling comment from Karl was as precise as it was short. “Any player that mentions money first, I put the phone down.” Again, that old school mentality that playing for the shirt and wanting to play for a big club should be worth more than a couple of extra quid.
There’s an argument that this is cutting your nose off to spite your face but it’s clear that Karl wants his players to have the same loyalty and commitment to the club that he himself shares but also that FC United have shown to him.
We arrived at the game and got out of the car. I went to my wallet to get out some notes but nothing was there, having not remembered to get any cash out earlier. I felt like a complete tit but Justin came to my rescue and I told him I’d pay him the fiver back later. What’s worse is I’d only be able to grab maybe one pint.
“Do you think they’ll take Visa at the turnstile?” I said jokingly, morphing immediately into the worse type of human being imaginable: A middle class student. “I’ll think they’ll tell you to fuck off” was Karl’s honest response.
Anyway, through the turnstiles we went and I wondered around to have a look at the ground. No sooner had I done that then me and Justin had lost where Karl was. Great I thought, there goes my meal ticket and only way back into town.
But I reasoned he’s a big bloke and you’ll be able to spot him if you see him so we headed into the club house, where we spotted him, at the bar. I grabbed myself what would have to be perhaps my only Guinness of the day until we got back to Shrewsbury and wondered over to see Andy Walsh.
I was keen not to be tripping over Karl’s toes because if you’ve now got a day off you probably want a pint or two in relative peace and not have some lanky 20 year old piss you off. Again to his credit, Karl properly introduced me to the Trafford Manager and what I was doing this season. It got better, Karl also brought Justin and me a pint so I was in my element: In a warm clubhouse with my Guinness in hand and having a chat with the Trafford Manager and Karl. All that was missing was a dartboard.
I can’t remember everyone we met in the bar but everyone at Salford were decent people and it was a proper non-league game so hats off to all at Salford, who recently of course have had some ex-United players having some nice photo ops with rumours of a possible investment.
Anyway we headed outside and the players looked a little bit, shall we say, bleary eyed. Not all of them but plenty had clearly been out on the piss the night before. Again, Karl put it bluntly. “I can’t be too harsh on them, I did the same thing.” When he was a player of course…
Karl handed me a hot dog which had been brought to him by Garry Vaughan but had mustard on and he wasn’t a fan, so in his words he gave it to the student. It seemed appearing skint had advantages but it did mean I couldn’t buy Karl a pint back.
So we headed to sit in the art deco terrace that Salford have and me and Justin for the first half stood up at the back whilst I finished my hotdog. Unfortunately, the beams in the terrace made watching the game standing up not great so we parked ourselves on the benches in the terraces, near Karl but not next to him.
I figured that I could annoy him in the second half and Justin had come all the way out so I didn’t want to be like all those tossers I’ve met at political events, who speak to you and as soon as they see the person they actually wanted to speak to, bugger off.
The game itself, first half anyway, wasn’t great. I’ve become accustomed to watching bad football but this time it was just so frustrating. I was getting more and more annoyed at the predictability, the aimlessness of the balls. It would be passed back to a defender who would then hoof it forward, to the opposition goalie who would then hoof it up.
It got so bad that I started doing what I normally do when I watch bad football, which is comment on how shit it is. “Oh back to the goalie, I wonder where this is going then … hoof maybe?” The ball is hoofed down field. The defender has the ball. “Pass it to feet maybe, nah just fucking hoof it into the corner” The ball is hoofed into the corner. “There you go.”
My mood was not helped by Karl quite visibly pissing himself at how animated I was getting at a Evo Stik Div One match, which annoyed me even more, which led to Karl pissing himself even more and so it continued for the majority of the first half.
Anyway, we headed back into the bar at half time and I found enough shrapnel, somehow, to buy myself a third pint. At half time I was told stories which still I find hard to believe. I can’t for the life of me remember the blokes name but he was a mate of Karl and Garry who if they were telling the truth, has some serious issues. The bloke was there with us and told us two stories from his time in the game.
On one occasion, when he kept discovering a teammate was nicking his sandwiches before the game whilst on the team coach devised a clever plan where he would smear the contents of his baby’s nappy into the sandwiches so whoever nicked them would then be crunching on baby faeces. Nice.
The second, as a coach, was when deciding to sign a player. As a United fan, he took a player who he was interested in signing to a game to have a chat. They went in the opposition end of the ground and after watching a bit of the game then proceeded to reveal a United shirt and belt out a few songs. The player ran away and because he didn’t stay and show some bottle, he was never signed.
Like I said, it doesn’t sound likely and I take these stories with a pinch of salt, especially as Karl and Garry could think telling a few tall tales along with the aforementioned bloke in question to a gullible student would be quite amusing. But who comes up with the idea of smearing baby crap on sandwiches off the top of their head?
We headed out and had already missed a goal at the game. I had decided to try not to get angry although I had remembered that with Prescot Cables in the same division as the teams on show, I preferred a Salford win to keep Radcliffe Borough below Prescot.
This half I sat down to annoy Karl some more and we discussed the recently departed Jon Worsnop which won’t be repeated here and conversation moved onto various shenanigans on a FC United tour of Germany (again, not repeatable here). I also asked Karl whether he felt under more pressure next year with the new stadium and the expectation that the club now have to push on.
Karl was quick to acknowledge that the club had been fantastic to stick with him despite not going up the last three years. It says a lot about the club that all the statements about loyalty and commitment to the long term is backed up by how Karl has not joined a long list of managers, who are disposed of at the earliest opportunity.
Karl himself was quick to say that yes there would be more pressure next year but then stated that next year the club itself would be in a better financial position. The club will have a new ground and when I asked Justin whether it would be largely seated Karl looked at me as if to say ‘no chance’. “Holds 5,000, only a couple of seats, the rest will be terraces.” Karl said it with a grin and you can tell that again unlike others who harp on about the atmosphere of the fans then stay silent when the terraces are knocked down, Karl loves being at a club where the atmosphere is always fantastic.
Financially, the club will no longer be paying out dead money to Bury FC and all the sales of food & drinks in the ground can go straight back to the club. Also, fewer matches will get called off with only one team using the pitch and the drainage will be top quality so less called off games plus the club will be in Manchester itself.
So yes, Karl admitted there was pressure but again reiterated that he will not bring in players who are looking for the money and still believed they could win the title. I’d asked about how losing in the play offs the last three times would affect them in the play offs this year but he wouldn’t have it. The aim was still the Title.
Now I was happy to tell him I didn’t think they really would catch up but I could tell wasn’t joking so I said I would buy him a crate of beer if they went up as Champions and we moved back to the new ground plus the community work. At which point, Karl told me about the project he’d been involved with in his time at FC United.
Karl had been working with kids from both our backgrounds, kids who hadn’t had the silver spoon upbringing and had fallen into drug and alcohol abuse. You could tell that Karl was really passionate about this work and took pride in being involved with it. He was quick to stress that the biggest benefit of the ground was the ability to expand this sort of work, have a base to work from to increase the coaching and community programs.
I know this is turning into a ‘Wow, isn’t Karl a great bloke?’ but I don’t care, because he is. He really lives his values and is therefore the best sort of old school left winger. Unlike the champagne socialism of Alex Ferguson, who proclaims himself to be left wing as he gladly took the Glazer shilling, Karl would call that sort of behaviour what it really is, the behaviour of a hypocrite.
So, the game ended and had passed me by to be honest. The score ended three- all and we headed back to the bar where Karl got me one last pint before me and Justin headed off to find a bus that Karl ‘assured’ us would run (lying bastard). We managed to get a taxi before my phone died and headed back to Shrewsbury. A day which could’ve ended as a disaster ending up being a great day out in the company of Karl, Andy Walsh and a host of others. I have no idea what happen to the German…
So I know it’s been now over three months (which has flown by) but let’s try and sum up FC United progress since I’ve been there. In a word: Solid. It didn’t look likely to be so good after dropping 7 points in the three games after New Years’ day but since then FC United have won their last six games with a massive win over Chorley.
And Chorley? Well they’ve only picked up five points in their last five games and it looks like they are choking and with Skem also having problems it means if FC United win their game in hand, they will be only six points behind Chorley who they have to play again. It seems I shouldn’t have written Karl off so soon and will need to start ordering that crate.
Off the field of course the good news keeps coming. The new ground is taking shape nicely and although the club stated they need to average 2,000 each home game to stay on budget, with the run Margy has got the boys on, plus the good weather coming in that shouldn’t be too hard.
Well that’s about it, I didn’t ask Karl the five year plan question so I’ll have a stab. At this point I will say I know I’ve heard some people, say Radio Swampy, say ‘of course we want success but we’d be happy at this level.’ That’s maybe a little a very shortened version of his view but I say: Bollocks to that.
I know those following FC United now will do so through thick and thin but my interest is mainly in pushing fan ownership forward. To do this, we need fan owned clubs to succeed and that way more fans can have confidence this is the way forward. The more fan owned clubs that are winning strengthens our hand, we can’t afford clubs like FC United to underperform. Football is a zero sum game, we have to win and that means other clubs not fan owned have to lose, end of.
So my hope is that the new ground will of course mean that more people will come having being spared the trip out to Bury and potential for games to be called off, FC United break the 2,000 plus barrier as standard every week.
They are promoted this season so attendances are boosted further by playing a brand new set of clubs, plus away fans wanting to go visit FC United to sample the famous atmosphere. They get on a good winning run at the start of next season and the game against Stockport at FC United passes the 4,000 attendance mark. After a great first season they again suffer the disappointment of the playoffs before promotion to the Conference in the 2015/16 season. They join a growing list of fan owned clubs competing for promotion to the Football League.
That’s got to be the dream but we’re a long way from the end of this season. I really hope that Karl is able to get them up this season as I can’t think of a club that deserve it more. I was perhaps thinking that my FC United game would have to be another playoff final but I’ve managed to squeeze in another game which if Karl continues to keep FC United on this run may be a title decider.
Tuesday 8th April: FC United vs Chorley. I’ll see you there and if anyone sees Karl, tell him I owe him two pints.
For more bitter rambling you can follow @eddyman00
The photo of the badge, programme cover and photo of the four of us is included here with the kind permission of Andy Walsh of FC United.
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