Stick the kettle on, grab a biscuit or two and let’s look back at some of the highlights of the last twelve months - On the pitch, to those observing the club from a distance, it might appear to have been a fairly dull season at FC United - Off the pitch though it’s been a year of huge change for the club.
As Tony Walsh’s stirring ode to Manchester, “This Is The Place???, boomed out across Albert Square at the vigil to remember those children, young people, parents and others killed at a pop concert at the Manchester Arena, the words may well have resonated, on several levels, with FC United supporters.
That Mancunian spirit of defiance in the face of adversity and the desire to do our own thing, to be creative, to make things better is part of this football club’s DNA. At times like this football appears trivial set aside the heartbreaking loss of young lives destroyed simply because they went to a pop concert but there is much more to this football club than kicking a ball around a patch of grass.
A few days before Tony Walsh’s appearance in front of the Manchester Town Hall was beamed across the world, he had entertained more than three hundred supporters at FC United’s fundraising Gala Dinner at the Midland Hotel, earning a rapturous ovation for his wonderful poetry. And a week before that he’d also done a turn at our Supporters’ Dinner at Broadhurst Park. Two gigs for FC United in eight days. Not to mention an appearance at Course You Can Malcolm at Gigg Lane many moons ago.
This is a fella that clearly “gets??? what we are about and after the recent Gala Dinner Tony expressed his pride at being invited along and the “huge respect??? that he has for what this football club is achieving on and off the pitch. And he’s right, because despite all our well-documented difficulties over the last year there has still been much to be proud of and to celebrate. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind us of that.
On the pitch, to those observing the club from a distance, it might appear to have been a fairly dull season at FC United. Our second campaign in National League North ended with us in thirteenth place, exactly the same position as last year, this time with a total of 54 points, a mere one point more than we garnered in 2015-16.
Indeed the rhythm of the season was similar to the previous one with a sluggish start followed by a brief flirtation with the relegation zone in the new year before a decent run of results to pull ourselves into the safety of mid-table by the end of March. But given that this season’s league campaign has undoubtedly been a tougher one with the likes of Kidderminster Harriers, Salford City, FC Halifax Town and Darlington thrown into the mix it’s no mean feat to finish in mid-table again. Most of us would probably have settled for that at the start of the season even if, at times, the football has lacked some of the attacking urgency of old.
Off the pitch though it’s been a year of huge change for the club, a year of growing up and of finally getting to grips with the reality of not only owning a football club but a multi-million pound facility too. Yet although it’s been bloody hard work there has been much to celebrate which may come as a surprise for outside observers for whom Danny Taylor’s piece on disharmony at the club in the Guardian over a year ago or that headline on the BBC’s website last November about our financial troubles (“protest club may apply for overdraft???) might have been the last thing they read about FC.
But through it all the club has continued to cement its place as a Mancunian organisation that offers a helping hand to some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our community; like offering a refuge for the homeless at Christmas, supplying breakfast for kids and families that might otherwise struggle to get a decent one, offering companionship for often socially isolated older people, contributing to collections for refugees and recognising the power of football to help victims of torture who choose to make Manchester their home. A football club to be truly proud of.
So even if there’s an understandable temptation to sigh “who cares about football at a time like this??? let’s make a brew, grab a biscuit or two and allow ourselves a few minutes to reflect on some of the highlights of the last twelve months.
Now we’re at the wheel….
In times of strife it’s tempting to look for turning points, a six-two-at-Arsenal-in-1990 moment when the future begins to take on a brighter hue. The reconvened General Meeting in May of last year may well come to be seen as a watershed moment in FC United’s history as around four hundred members gathered on a sunny Sunday in Prestwich. We could easily have hit the deck that day and not got back up but instead we summoned that DIY punk spirit that got the club off the ground within a matter of weeks in 2005.
At the end of an often acrimonious twelve months which had seen the resignation of the club’s longstanding Chief Executive and seven Board members, the debate was lively but as the details of more than thirty motions were discussed and voted on, over the course of four hours, the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get things back on track was clear for all to see. A record turnout of more than eight hundred co-owners voted on these motions - perhaps not trumpet blowing territory but there are plenty of football clubs at this level that would love to have that many supporters attending matches let alone engaged in the running of the club.
And this participatory zeal was demonstrated again in June when a record nineteen candidates stood for election to fill the eleven board vacancies at an Extraordinary General Meeting. Of the eleven subsequently elected only two had previous experience of being on FC’s board. They deserve our thanks for having the balls to stand up and be counted in the club’s darkest hour and thanks too for grafting to keep the club afloat over the next few months, for much of this time without key members of staff in place to take care of day to day issues.
The new board met for the first time in July and quickly got down to business, signalling their intention to operate with greater openness and transparency than in the past and there were welcome apologies to several individuals wronged by the previous board. Another of the new board’s first actions was to announce a friendly match against Rochdale at the end of July that was used to pay tribute to the hundreds of volunteers, past and present, who give up their time and skills week in week out to make the club what it is. The Friday night before the Rochdale match also saw the return of the much missed Course You Can Malcolm club night in the afternoon (but this time not in the afternoon) for the first time since 2014. Another refreshing attempt by the club to heal the rifts that had developed in the club’s support and to move forward as a united body of supporters.
Despite our off-pitch travails the often innovative community work that is woven into the fabric of the club continued throughout the summer in the form of breakfast clubs and youth projects during the school holidays. In addition, the club was the only organisation in Manchester to participate in a national charity-run event to distribute breakfast cereals to community groups, food banks and local residents who might otherwise not get a decent breakfast. The cereal was distributed from a huge container in the car park at Broadhurst Park.
The car park was also the setting in July for Jimmy Cauty’s unusual artwork, the Aftermath Dislocation Principle, which attracted considerable interest. Slightly older readers may recall Jimmy’s role in the acid house scene of the late eighties as part of the KLF. The artwork depicted a model village in a post-riot landscape and was set in a 40 foot shipping container and toured the UK visiting places where “significant civil unrest??? had occurred in the past. Civil unrest? Us? Given the radical history of this city the fact that FC United was the only place in Manchester it was displayed also represented something of a coup for the club.
And continuing on the arty theme, a theatre production of the FC United story called “Conceived in a Curry House??? and featuring FC supporters and local residents played at the Lowry Theatre, another example of our thriving, longstanding relationship with local theatre group Moston Active Drama.
Doesn’t matter if it’s far or to Broadhurst Park….
Despite all the drama and comings and goings off the pitch, remarkably most of the first team squad had remained intact over the summer and the squad was strengthened with a sprinkling of mainly youthful new signings. The season kicked off with draws against Chorley and Telford but the highlight of the opening weeks was a well deserved Friday night 2-0 win against Stockport County with one of the new signings, Nathan Lowe, sealing the victory only moments after coming on as a late substitute. The first of several important, often spectacular, goals that he would go on to score as the season progressed. The win put FC into the dizzy heights of second place in the table for a few hours at least.
The home match against Darlington on August bank holiday Monday saw the club working with the charity Sporting Memories for the first time. The Sporting Memories Foundation supports older people across the UK living with dementia, depression and loneliness helping them to recall fond memories of watching or playing sport and to connect with others and with their past. Following the match a Sporting Memories group was established and met in the classroom at Broadhurst Park on Friday afternoons throughout the season, proving to be a very popular new strand of the club’s community programme.
Boston three party
The vacant Chief Executive Officer role attracted considerable interest, reflecting the club’s wide appeal, and in the first week of September the board announced the appointment of Damian Chadwick (no relation to FC’s former “nutter in the middle???) as the club’s new CEO. A founder member of FC United, Damian was the Venue Controller at the Macron Stadium, the home of Bolton Wanderers, and was responsible for managing the year round operation of the stadium and the adjacent Bolton Arena. Quite a coup for the club to find someone of this calibre from within our own ranks to step into the Chief Executive role. A reminder, once again, that it is not merely a cliché to note that our very own members are our greatest asset.
The following day FC United recorded their first away win of the season defeating Boston 3-2 at York Street. But that was to be our only league win in September as losses at Harrogate and at home to eventual champions Fylde were followed by draws with Tamworth and Curzon Ashton. However the season’s FA Cup campaign got off to a flyer as the Reds banged in seven goals on a sunny afternoon at Ossett Town.
Unfortunately another revenue boosting FA Cup run wasn’t to be as, on the opening day of October, with the Reds only seconds away from being in the hat for the draw for the fourth and final qualifying round Harrogate Town snatched a 95th minute equaliser to draw 3-3 and subsequently ran out comfortable 2-0 winners in the replay the following Tuesday night.
The following Saturday saw the long awaited and welcome return of a matchday Course You Can Malcolm to the right end of the tram tracks with poetry, pandas, spaghetti western garage rock and an appearance by lifelong Red and telly presenter and writer Terry Christian. All of this was played out in front of a packed two-thirds of the Main Stand bar before FC United beat Alfreton Town in a topsy turvy seven goal thriller.
The trip to AFC Telford United the following week wasn’t quite as lively as FC once again failed to beat our Salopian bogeymen, losing to a single goal. But all of that was forgotten a week later when FC roared on by a raucous travelling Red Army took all three points back up the M6 after a remarkable, backs to the wall 2-0 win away at promotion chasing Kidderminster Harriers. However, a midweek 3-1 defeat at Halifax Town and a 4-2 mauling at home to the Tigers of Gloucester City had us peering nervously, once again, at the relegation zone.
The Gloucester match took place on People United Day, FC’s annual celebration of the diversity of our local community and, once again, it was a wonderfully heartwarming occasion that featured a special friendly match, after the Gloucester match, on the 3G pitch adjacent to the ground, between a team from United Glasgow FC, comprised largely of refugees and a team from the Freedom from Torture charity. It was refereed by Karl Marginson and watched by a decent crowd.
Freedom from Torture provide clinical support for victims of torture who arrive in the UK as asylum seekers having endured the kind of pain and suffering that the rest of us can probably barely imagine. One of the many strands of FC United’s community work involves a group from Freedom from Torture attending weekly football sessions at Broadhurst Park. A return match in Glasgow is planned as part of Refugee Week in June and it is hoped that these friendly matches will become regular fixtures in the calendar. People United Day with its celebration of diversity and clear anti-discriminatory message proved, once again, that it is as much to do with what this football club is about as winning trophies and snaffling occasional late winners.
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