Vision of the future

Non-League crowd-pullers FC United played Curzon Ashton in front of empty stands in late December, after the game was moved so it could be shown live on the internet. Michael Whalley reports

First came the Manchester United boycott. Now the FC United fans who stayed away from Old Trafford as a result of the Malcolm Glazer takeover have boycotted their new team, too. On December 29, FC’s board and all but a handful of their supporters stayed away from their side’s 2-0 victory at Curzon Ashton in the Unibond League First Division North. The reason? A dispute over the league’s decision to move the kick-off time forward from 3pm to 12.45pm, so that the match could be shown live on the internet.

After years of being inconvenienced by the demands that Sky makes of Premier League supporters with evening, lunchtime and Sunday kick-offs, those fans who swapped Old Trafford for the non-League scene have seen history repeat itself in miniature. Perhaps this was inevitable. FC United may be a supporter-owned, not-for-profit club that refuse to sport a sponsor’s logo on their shirts, but the very circumstances of their formation has attracted worldwide publicity, making them ideal fodder for TV companies. As one FC board member put it: “We expected that, if we made progress through the non-League pyramid, we would have to take decisions about matters that butted against our principles, but we didn’t expect it to happen in the Unibond League.”

FC didn’t object to the kick-off time being moved for television, but to it being moved without their agreement. The club’s board insist they are not trying to fight live ­coverage altogether. But for weekend games, that means moving kick-off times, as UEFA article 48 prevents Saturday 3pm kick-offs being shown live in Great Britain. And this is where it gets messy.

The volcano began bubbling last summer. As FC celebrated a second successive promotion, leaving the North West Counties League as champions under manager Karl Marginson, the Unibond League agreed a six-figure, three-year deal with Invision. Based in west London, Invision had previously produced, among other things, Charlton Athletic highlights packages for overseas television. Its managing director, John Warrington – a television sports producer who was once on Brentford’s books – saw potential at regional non-League level, and had unsuccessfully tried to secure a similar deal with the Ryman League.

The Unibond League’s new broadband website has shown extended highlights of one game per week this season and attracted 1,000 viewers for a live midweek match between Gateshead and Guiseley in September. But the decision to show FC United’s game at Curzon Ashton provoked an almighty row.

Amid a lot of hot air, these are the facts: Invision asked the Unibond League to switch the kick-off time so it could be shown live. The Unibond League had the power to move the game under their own rules, and FC United then raised an objection, dismissed in early December. From there, FC United and the Unibond League issued a series of increasingly provocative statements via their websites.

FC claimed they had been given assurances that only midweek games would be shown live, which the league insisted was not the case. The league then went public with rumours circulating among local journalists that fans were planning to vandalise Invision’s cameras with spray paint the next time they turned up at an FC match.

Those rumours worried Warrington enough to offer to pull out of showing the game, but FC insisted that there was no evidence to suggest the threats came from their fans. In the end, Invision went ahead with the broadcast, and only a handful of FC fans turned up in a crowd of 297: the lowest for a competitive game in the club’s short history. FC’s fans returned for the New Year’s Day clash with Mossley.

Was it a battle worth fighting? FC’s board think so. Could the Unibond League have handled it better? Probably. Either way, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Curzon Ashton, caught in the middle of a dispute that had little to do with them. In their final word on the saga, the Unibond League effectively told FC United that if they didn’t like the competition’s rules, they should go and play somewhere else. It’s something to think about: if FC United reach the Conference, where Setanta moves games to Thursday and Sunday nights, the disruption will be far greater. Even the most famous rebels in non-League football may have to think about compromise one day.

From WSC 252 February 2008