How clubs can use similar words to mean very different things

icon nofans24 February ~ In a couple of weeks earlier this year, I saw an FA Cup tie at Manchester City’s Ethiad Stadium, followed my team, Oldham Athletic, to Fleetwood Town and had a trip to see FC United of Manchester’s emerging stadium at Broadhurst Park in north Manchester. It made me think about how different, but how similar, the clubs are and how when they use similar words they mean quite different things.

All three clubs, City, Fleetwood and FCUM are, like many others, located in areas that face considerable challenges, both social and economic, and all would claim to be engaged with their communities in meeting those challenges. They are all ambitious clubs, not content to mark time, and all would see their future involving investment in the development of young players, a position for two of the clubs at odds with their recent history.

That recent history goes back to 2003 for Fleetwood when current chairman Andy Pilley took over the club. Better known is City’s back story, with the club’s takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008. Soon after that takeover, City chief executive Khaldoon al-Mubarak anticipated taking “a mid-tier club to become a big club because of the financial resources we are able to make available”. 

Pilley’s investment in Fleetwood, although substantially more modest, has helped his club continue its rise from the North West Counties Football League First Division (1998-99) to League One this season. Both clubs have, for different reasons, concluded that buying success can only be short term and have invested in new academy facilities. Again the difference in scale is staggering with City’s £200 million, 80-acre brownfield site a vastly different prospect from Fleetwood’s £4m plan, funded in part by a housing development. The model for success adopted by both clubs has attracted criticism and hostility, just as it has elsewhere.

For FCUM, founded in 2005, progress has been more modest with a hat-trick of promotions followed by a succession of play-off disappointments. But that tells so little of the difference. As a club owned and run by their fans, FCUM have not had the option of “buying success”, seeking instead a sustainable long-term future. Although on-field achievements have a part to play in that future, the club have a broader ambition “to change the way that football is owned and run”.

All three clubs talk about sustainability, but the reality of their commitment and the way they go about it will be very different. For City, the question will be how best to live with (rather than within) UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, while Fleetwood face the reality that their owner is not, as he puts it, “made of money”. At FCUM, for now it’s simply a question of purpose and ethos.

Perhaps another key difference goes back to the question of links to their local communities. All three clubs have active community programmes and doubtless they have achieved real benefits. Again, for FCUM there is a commitment rooted in the club’s founding principles around ownership and democracy. City can point to the local employment benefits from their activity (although they remain not signed up as a living wage employer). They can point also to the deal signed with the local authority to play a part in the housing redevelopment of east Manchester.

More interesting is Fleetwood Town’s position. The past 40 years has seen the town of Fleetwood suffer a range economic challenges with the loss of a ferry service and its place as a deepwater fishing port, alongside the failure of attempts to build a future as a container port. Pilley’s business and football activities employ in the region of 400 people making it arguably the town’s largest commercial employer – with a population of 26,000 the football club’s average attendance of 2,819 (season 2013-14) is remarkable. The club and their place in the community feels like something more than a community programme.

Doubtless, the same kinds of stories exist throughout the game, clubs using similar words but meaning quite different things. In the end I was reassured when talking to City fans to find that many still believe that their club will still be capable of messing things up despite the riches put at their disposal. Supporters understand the reality, whatever the clubs say. Brian Simpson

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