Community spirit

Chris Taylor explains that while FC United of Manchester’s FA Cup exploits are exciting, news of a new ground is the best thing to happen to the club this season

My dad used to point at stars and tell me that they could have expired thousands of years ago, and yet we can still see them because of how far away they are. I can now tell him that the away end of the Withdean Stadium is so far away from the pitch, you see events roughly 70 minutes after the rest of the ground.

I know this to be true as I received texts informing me of Sam Ashton’s 96th-minute penalty save some time around the 26-minute mark. When I finally caught up, I screamed so hard and long, I knocked my jaw out of alignment. Even as I type this three days later I’m struggling to eat a scotch egg. Still, had I been offered a pre-season Faustian pact of seeing FC United in the draw for the third round of the FA Cup in exchange for a temporary inability to eat spherical foodstuffs, I probably would have gone for it.

Brighton was a weird day out. The high of beating Rochdale was matched by an almost insane giddiness at a prospective trip to the south coast. Then, shortly after Brighton beat Woking, a grim reality set in. The match was awarded Category C status. In architectural terms, this isn’t so bad; you’re just a building of local importance, such as the Belmont Picturehouse in Aberdeen. But in footballing terms it means there’s a high risk of disorder. And it also means you can only expect to receive a paltry 845 tickets to a game you have to travel the length of the country to attend.

Over 4,000 had travelled to watch FC United play at Rochdale in the previous round and, ironically, this is perhaps what led to our reduced allocation at Brighton. With home attendances this year hovering around 2,000, it’d be easy to blame the smoke bombs and the pitch invasions that were cited as reasons for the reduced allocation on newcomers. But that wouldn’t be fair. There were plenty of faces on the pitch that I recognised, and plenty who should have known better. And while over-exuberance has never been given as a reason to classify a game as Category C before, the feeling among fans was that we’d given the authorities enough rope to hang ourselves. It didn’t escape our attention, however, that the FA, ever hypocritical, decided to publicise their new Ronnie Radford award for giant killing with pictures of a pitch invasion, 1970s-style. Nor did it help to be called “the best fans to ever visit the Withdean” by Sussex Police after the event. By then the damage had been done.

It felt odd to receive negative press. Ever since Michael Norton wrote himself into FA Cup history with his in-no-way-at-all-cheaty 94th-minute winner in the previous round, we’d received nothing but plaudits. ESPN’s commentator for the Rochdale game, Jon Champion, described his experience as reinvigorating. His co-commentator Craig Burley, a veteran of numerous Old Firm games, described the atmosphere as the best he’d encountered for years. David Lloyd gave us a mention in his Daily Mail cricket column.

In the days following the Rochdale game, membership to the club rocketed from the 2,000 mark to around 2,500. People were joining up from as far away as Kenya, Australia, Brazil and Ukraine. Following the draw at Brighton, that figure jumped again to just shy of 3,000.

Clearly a chord had been struck. But away from the FA Cup with its last-minute winners and penalty saves, the really important work was continuing. On Thursday November 25, Manchester City Council gave the green light to the club’s plans for a new stadium and facilities at Ten Acres Lane in Newton Heath. This, rather than any individual match or performance, is the highlight of the season and what the club has been working towards for the past five years.

Getting the planning permission accepted was the easy part, however. The difficult part remains: generating the funds to pay for the project. This will partly be done by the community share scheme, a groundbreaking initiative which allows the club the opportunity to raise money from the local community, individuals and businesses. All will share FC United’s vision and belief that: “A football club set up by supporters, owned and run by supporters and committed to wider community development can be both socially successful and financially sustainable.”

The deadline for the share issue was to be at the end of November, but after many individuals pledged to buy shares after Christmas, and with the increased media spotlight on the club thanks to the prolonged Cup run, this was extended, provisionally, until March 1. Speaking on the Non-League Football Show, FC United’s general manager Andy Walsh suggested that £700,000 had already been raised by the scheme, with a further £200,000 to come in. This is a sizeable chunk of the £1.5 million the club hopes to raise.

While the FA Cup is a brilliant diversion, the fans and members can’t lose focus on the real goal, and that is being a club run for the benefit of its supporters and the community it serves. This can’t be achieved fully until the move to Ten Acres Lane. With the players performing so heroically on the pitch (in the Cup at least – the less said about the league the better) and the fans doing their bit behind the scenes, there is an optimism that games against the likes of Rochdale and Brighton will soon become more common place, even if the associated drama doesn’t.

From WSC 287 January 2011