A Fine Lung’s searingly honest account of the troubles down at FC United of Manchester
After experiencing all the recent discord at FC United, sadly it now seems more and more likely to me that rather than serving as an inspiration for football fans who are fed up of feeling powerless in the corporate world of modern football, the legacy of this Mancunian adventure will be one of deeply disappointing yet wistfully avoidable failure. We’ve got plenty right along the way, and I don’t regret taking the gut wrenching decision to do what we did in 2005, but I do regret not being savvy enough to spot what was happening a lot sooner.
The biggest factor in the recent problems has been the inability of those in charge at FC to pass that fundamental test for any organisation that represents the social, cultural or political aspirations of people: how to deal with dissenting voices. It is though slightly more complex than that because there are different kinds of dissenting voice, and it’s in this detail that the nature of the beast is most visible. FC are displaying classic pseudo-left tendencies, espousing socialist-sounding ideals while at the same time embedding themselves within a social and economic milieu that’s reliant on the crumbs it receives from the same capitalist masters it’s ostensibly opposed to. Why do they offer these crumbs of funding? Because they know that this layer of bourgeois careerists is too afraid of losing its privileged position to lead any real, meaningful change.
How this has manifested itself at FC United is much the same as at any number of formerly radical organisations over the years. Those in charge are very comfortable when faced with dissent from their right, when the odd racist, homophobe or someone seeking a more overtly corporate direction, raises their voice. This is easy to deal with because it gives them the chance to grandstand as the socialist champions they and their assorted acolytes like to think they are. They’ll even argue to keep this kind of ‘challenging’ voice around because that’s the democratic thing to do, like Obama or Corbyn being praised for surrounding themselves with more conservative voices for the purposes of healthy debate and representing a broader church.
What happens though when dissenting voices are calling for a return to the more radical thinking that established the movement as a force in the first place? Do they still think it’s healthy and democratic to have differing opinions on board? Do they fuck. They do whatever they can to remove this source of embarrassment as soon as possible, spurred on by echoes from their own more radical pasts pricking at their
conscience. If they can’t expel them directly, they do whatever they can to discredit and marginalise them, to get them out of the way one way or another. Whether that’s accusing them of bullying, harassing, abusing, lying or even changing their mind, FC have done all of this over the last year or so in order to cast out a certain kind of dissenting voice.
They’ve certainly learned lessons from their own defeats. The FC board were themselves accused of bullying a few years back, and melted, and they’ve employed that same tactic lately to avoid facing up to some home truths. They’ve also taken a leaf out of the Glazers’ and MUFC directors’ play book: staying silent for as long as possible when legitimate questions are asked, then pouncing with conservative indignation when they have some frustrated ‘unreasonable’ behaviour to condemn. Remember Bobby Charlton apologising to the Glazers after they weren’t given the nicest of welcomes? I wonder if Dave Boyle got a similar apology on behalf of the club for the ‘shameful’ reactions of a few FC fans to his being paid to investigate them.
This political degeneration isn’t just confined to a few individuals on the board or staff of FC. It is now embedded in the structure and culture of the club’s bureaucracy, from the reliance on third sector funding through to the legal knots they have tied the club in by cowardly characterising debate and critical questioning as abuse and bullying. It’s hard now to see a way back from the debilitating litigious fear they have instilled with all their talk of ‘duty of care’, and there’s a real sense that this disingenuous ‘safety first’ approach is already smothering open debate and democratic freedoms (wonder where they got that tactic from?). Of course, for ‘legal’ reasons we can never know any details of this alleged abuse or bullying, even though we’re told that members are, technically, liable as employers of some of the bullied and abused individuals.
That we’ve become so reliant on external funding seems to go against one of our core aims – to prove that fans can run football clubs on a sustainable footing. If those on stage at the Apollo had said ‘if we all stand together and learn how to write applications to benevolent third sector funders, we’ll have really demonstrated supporter power’, the much maligned fight from within would have started to look a lot more attractive. I’m not saying we shouldn’t accept any external funding, but we should certainly have stopped to think more carefully before we became so reliant on it. We’ve grown our operations not according to what the fan base can support, but to fit a funding trajectory that is not within our control. The associated business plan and revenue shortfalls have turned us from a club with hundreds of willing volunteers driven by a rebellious punk ethos of doing it for ourselves, into a club that prefers the more compliant jam and chutney charitable fundraising ethos of middle England’s union flag bedecked village greens.
That shift from being a club of activist volunteers to one of volunteer fundraisers has had a destructive effect on other aspects of supporter culture of FC United. When we first talked of ‘building our own ground’, many naturally expected this would involve active participation by the thousands of fans who shared this dream. Builders, plumbers, electricians, architects, and many more trades are well represented within the FC fan base, and many were keen to offer their expertise and labour to make our dream come true. That doesn’t mean we thought we could avoid health and safety, planning, insurance and other legal requirements… come on, I can sense the condescending rage at this foolish naivety in thinking we could just turn up with a spirit level and a few bricks and get it built in a day; the same reaction those in charge gave to romantic ideas about using our collective skills and labour, but there are plenty of examples of communities (including of football fans) really building things for themselves, not just fundraising to pay the corporate world to provide a corporate shell.
A genuine DIY approach wouldn’t though have placed quite so much reliance on third sector funding and the skill sets of those in charge, nor would it have left the legacy of such a weighty commercial imperative. Instead of a ground that could have been built with real character, with the match going fan always in mind, we have a ‘facility’ that’s only open to supporter input via aggregated survey findings (working class power in action!), or whatever we’re allowed to tinker with around the edges to make the third sector ‘community hub’ feel like ours. After all, so we’re reminded, the facility is only used by fans a few days in the year (unlike all other football grounds). Questioning this of course means you don’t care about the community and want to be ‘just a football club’ – another example of FC officials deliberately mischaracterising dissenting voices, painting a straw man caricature of the dissenting voices they prefer to deal with. When community groups use football grounds they buzz off it because it’s somewhere that exciting things happen, on and off the pitch. If it’s a football ground with a character created by a vibrant supporter culture, the wider community will want to come and use it, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work the other way round.
The third sector encroachment has also changed the nature of perhaps the most fundamental feature of being part of FC – club membership. By tying up the Community Share issue with club membership, we now have a situation whereby if you have shares you cannot give up your membership. When the General Manager wanted to exclude the most vocal of dissenting voices by refusing him membership, the board were forced to seek legal advice because he held Community Shares. The outcome? He was, exceptionally, given his shares back and the board were forced to reveal that if you choose not to renew your membership the yearly fee is taken from your shareholding until it’s gone. This means, ludicrously, that people will be kept as unwilling, captive members for years, even decades. Another related impact of club membership being tangled up with Community Shares is that if FC United’s members want to change any of the terms or conditions of our membership, we can’t without first running it by the Financial Services Authority… bottom-up democratic control indeed.
I gave up my Manchester United season ticket partly for an idea, but mostly for people. I saw that most of the people staying at Old Trafford didn’t after all have the same kind of dreams and ideas about United as me, whereas there was this small number of individuals, called malcontents by some, whose ideas and dreams reflected my own, and they weren’t going to be inside Old Trafford anymore. I couldn’t bring myself to stand inside with the majority, who I disagreed with, while the minority, who I agreed with, were left in limbo waiting for a larger boycott that wasn’t happening. So I chose to stand outside with them, and bought into the idea of setting up a new football club to keep the protest movement going and those people, my people, together. Sadly I don’t think FC United does that anymore.
I fully understand the arguments that we can make FC what we want it to be by voting and submitting resolutions and standing for the board, but for me it doesn’t feel so simple. Most of the people I came to so admire before and after 2005, through the fanzines and IMUSA, and who were a large part of the reason why I invested so much of myself into FC United, are now at one extreme or other of the most acrimonious issues that have enveloped the club. This includes current and former board members and employees, as well as fellow (former) volunteers who are no longer even members, by choice or exclusion.
What’s been keeping me awake is the thought that even if I do use my membership rights to successfully argue for the changes I want to see, that’s still unlikely to restore anything like the great composition of people that made me fall in love with FC United in those early years. This is important because we’re not a political party, we’re a football club with cultural as well as political values. I don’t relish the idea of winning a bitter struggle so I can go to the match at a football club with good governance but where (former) friends have been ‘forced’ out because they were in deeply entrenched opposition. I imagine it might be like emerging victorious from a legal dispute with your family over who gets your mum and dad’s house – you might feel morally justified, but you’d give anything to turn the clock back and stop the family home from losing the love it was built on.
I also don’t want to look around me at FC and see people who hold openly hostile views on migrants or other marginalised people. Not because I expect everyone to think the same way, but because I expect FC United to be a club at which it just isn’t possible for people to spend a lot of time and somehow not know that hateful, insular right wing politics are against everything we stand for. I’m not buying that it’s healthy for democratic debate to welcome UKIP or Britain First supporters in to the fold; it’s healthy to welcome everyone as long as we have an identity and culture that can’t be mistaken as a haven for such ugly reactionary politics.
The club’s identity has been deliberately softened under a vague conceptual rubric of being a community, voluntary, third sector social enterprise; selling ourselves as good eggs while at the same time indulging the neoliberal fantasy of being apolitical so as not to appear too threatening. This certainly ticks the right boxes on funding forms while also providing populist appeal to the ‘just want to enjoy the match’ types. It’s good that not every FC fan thinks the same way about the aims of the club, but there’s something not-quite-right when right-wing not-rights feel at home here (I enjoyed writing that).
FC have also seemingly become a magnet for those spying an opportunity to get some social status as a community volunteer, charitable fundraiser or whatever else helps to fluff out their CV. They might well actually have some altruistic motives, but these are people who are culturally and politically a million miles away from the radical ferment of Manchester United’s protesting supporters circa 2005 and shouldn’t get anywhere near positions of prominence at FC.
I’m still a member, and for now I’ll use that status to fight for what I think is right at FC, but I’m really struggling to imagine a likely future in which I’m spending Saturdays supporting this football club alongside the people that to me represented the spirit of our club. I can understand why so many have given up altogether – this isn’t through a lack of resolve or understanding about democracy, but because of deep disenchantment, not in decisions they don’t agree with, but in people they respected and trusted now refusing to accept their voice. Could the General Manager not have just tolerated, or even welcomed, some disagreement over programme pricing? We would have argued, but so what? Could the board not just have said it was an operational decision, taken after much debate, by someone doing what they thought was best for the club? Did they really have to launch such a defensive, vindictive and damaging attack on a member for raising a dissenting voice?
All that has followed since has been along the same lines… the board tying the club, and themselves, up in knots just to avoid accepting the unholy possibility that members might sometimes be able to lend a steadying hand to steer the club in the right direction, rather than their role being merely to ratify the board’s and General Manager’s decisions. In dealing with resolutions or other ideas coming from the rank and file, board responses have been contemptuous; even when a way to reject them outright can’t be found, arrogant retorts are designed to tell us ‘we were already going to do that anyway (so don’t go thinking you made it happen)’. So now it has become an unpleasant battle when it should have been about healthy debate and disagreement, it’s become a matter of people having to leave or be removed, about legal action and vague accusations. I will stay, for now at least, to fight for matters of principle for the club I helped build, but I doubt I’ll ever feel the same way again about FC United as I once did.