Supporter owned. Supporter run. Non-profit. One member, one vote. The first football club to pay a living wage. The first fan-owned club in England to build its own ground. Pay-what-you-can season tickets. Strictly no sponsor on the shirt. Born from protest and fiercely protective of its non-commercial, democratic founding principles. Sixteen years since its inception FC United of Manchester remains an island of integrity in a global business awash with dirty money and parasitic billionaire owners. The name will ring a bell even for those whose interest in football is less than casual. It’s a rejigging of Manchester United—one of England’s oldest and most successful sporting institutions—and one of the world’s most recognizable brands. FC United was born when U.S. billionaire (and owner of Tampa Bay Buccaneers) Malcolm Glazer acquired a controlling stake in Manchester United in 2005, and in doing so loaded the club with the very debt he’d used to purchase the club in the first place; it’s estimated that the Glazer family’s ownership of Manchester United has cost the club £1.5 billion. Thus far, fan protests against the takeover have been as ineffective as they’ve been ferocious. One set of fans, however, had a different strategy. First mooted in a fanzine and fleshed out in a Manchester curry house, a break-away club was planned. It’d be everything Glazer’s United wasn’t.
Naysayers said it wouldn’t last until Christmas.
Fast forward to 2021 and back in the upper echelons of “the people’s game,” the billionaire cartel of Europe’s leading clubs concocts a plan to add yet another layer of financial elitism to a game already bloated on profit-driven avarice: a “European Super League.” Twenty clubs, fifteen of which would be permanent; immune to relegation. Six of these clubs, one of which was Manchester United, would be from the English Premier League. For once, the revulsion from a community supposed by many to be numbed to football’s free-market excess was universal: journalists, pundits, politicians—even Boris Johnson and Prince William chimed in. And at the heart of the whole torrid mess? The Glazer family. Meanwhile, at a club several leagues below the anointed “super six”—a club that had seen the writing on the wall a decade and a half earlier—a feeling of vindication was setting in.
John: Can you start by telling us who you are and what you do at FC United of Manchester?
George: I’m a former board member of FC United of Manchester, a founder member as well. Currently I’m a volunteer with the media team, helping out with social media and doing press interviews like this.
John: What percentage of the people who work at the club are volunteers?
George: Probably a good eighty to ninety percent. We do have a few full and part time staff, obviously, but the majority of the legwork is done by volunteers. As a board member, you’re a volunteer even though you’re an official at the club. There are only four or five members of staff in the office.
John: Do you still support Manchester United, the original Manchester United?
George: The vast majority of us are still Man United fans. FC United is a creation of what we want Man United to be. We still play in red, white, and black (Man United colors). The name is a re-jumbling of Manchester United Football Club. You can’t turn that off.
John: Can you tell me what Big Coat Day is?
George: That’s something that we’ve been doing since our first season! The name of it actually comes from an interview—a lad called Paul who I know was being interviewed by a news channel and he was being asked, “When it’s a cold, rainy Tuesday in a small town will you still be watching FC United?” And he said “Yeah, I’ll just buy a big coat.” Big Coat Day came about a few months later. It was an attempt to collect warm clothing to donate to the homeless and vulnerable people in Manchester, and it became very successful. It’s something we do every year, a clothing donation drive, preferably of warm winter clothing.
John: I think it’s in the manifesto that was written right at the start, right? To be a part of the local community and do stuff like that?
George: Yeah, it’s one of the core principals to be entrenched in the local community and contribute to it frequently. After ten years we built our own stadium in Moston (an area in North Manchester) and there was nothing like that around that area—a football club—so it was opportunity to contribute to that area.
John: Do a lot of people from that specific area go to the games? Are they members? Do you feel the club represents that neighbourhood?
George: I would say so, yeah. There was some opposition to us going to Moston—a lot of people thought it would just be a bunch of rowdy football fans turning up every Saturday and causing chaos! But, obviously, that’s not what we’re about. There was a little bit of skepticism from some people in the local area but a lot of people did come along from the local M40 post code areas when we started up, and over time they’ve seen the positive impact that we’ve had on the community. Over time, it’s become very popular in Moston.
John: So how exactly do you start a football club basically from scratch?
George: It’s a lot of hard work. I wasn’t involved personally with the creation of the club—I am a founding member; I donated as soon as the idea came out—pledged my support as soon as it came out. But there was a steering committee of ten to fifteen people. They were friends involved in various Manchester United supporters’ movements who would meet once a month in a curry house in Manchester and they discussed the idea of forming new club.
It was an idea that had been mooted just before the takeover of Manchester United (by the Glazer family) and after the takeover happened, they went, “Right, let’s do it,” so they had to get a team of together, a ground to play in, a league to play in. They had to put in a business plan through several organizations, including the league that we wanted to play in—the Northwest Counties League which is right at the bottom of the pyramid. So it was a hell of a lot—basically there were one-hundred-hour weeks put in by individuals over the next few months just to get it off the ground. We had a ground-share agreement in Droylsden which fell through because the council pulled the plug on it, so we then had to find another place. So we ended up getting a ground-share with Bury (FC). So yeah, it was a hell of a lot of work. But it paid off because those first two seasons were incredible!
John: Yeah, I think it was three promotions in a row, right? (Teams who finish in the top two positions in their league at the end of a season are promoted to the next league automatically. One of the following four can earn promotion by winning a four-team playoff. The bottom three teams are relegated to the tier below. Three teams up. Three teams down. This system is key to the competitive spirit of the British/European model.)
George: Yeah, it took us another seven years to get promoted again. Then four years later we got relegated back to the league where we spent seven years. The priority though was getting the ground built, and we went up just before we moved into the ground in 2015. I mean the results on the pitch are secondary…
John: That was gonna be one of my questions, like—just the existence of the club—there was a journalist, or I think he was a journalist, who said the club wouldn’t make it past its first Christmas!
George: Alan Gowling!
John: And it’s almost, what, sixteen years now?
George: Alan Gowling is an ex (Manchester) United player who works for, I think, Radio Manchester or something like that. But yeah, the famous line, “It won’t last ‘til Christmas,” which we had printed on T-shirts after we won the league that season. To be fair to Gowling—some of our fans still send him Christmas cards as a joke to remind him how wrong he was and how pleased he is to be wrong. We’ve had a lot of bumps in the road, a lot of ups and a lot of downs, but we’re still here.
John: So you mentioned results on the pitch being kind of secondary. Do you think the integrity of the whole idea is more important than results?
George: Yeah. Absolutely. Results are important; don‘t get me wrong. Obviously, we’re a football club and we want to compete. We don’t just want to exist. We want to compete and entertain—it’s about entertaining the fans on the pitch as well. That’s the United way after all; play attractive, attacking football.
Anything’s preferable to just one guy owning the club you love and just making decisions based on how much money they’re gonna make.
But the aims of the club and the ethos and the principals are integral, and they need protecting as much as possible, because it’s the basis of what the club’s founded on and we want to see how far we can go while not compromising on our principles. Obviously, compromise comes into everything, but the beauty of it being a fan-owned club means we can put any major changes or decisions to the fans. We have two general meetings every year and if you pay a membership of £15 a year, you’re a co-owner of the club and you get a vote. You get a say in how we run things, and if the majority want to do things one way that’s what we do. Like any democracy there’re disagreements but anything’s preferable to just one guy owning the club you love and just making decisions based on how much money they’re gonna make.
John: Like you say it’s a democracy and there’re ups and downs but those two things are kind of mutually inclusive. Like some of the press you’ve got seemed kind of surprised that it wasn’t this utopian dream, that there wasn’t any conflict. Which kind of surprised me because you’ve got a lot of voices.
George: I remember Daniel Taylor wrote a very well-researched Guardian article about the problem back in 2016. And as someone who was opposed to what the board—basically we had a board of directors and general manager that had been there since the beginning. Now, they’d done a lot of good work over the years. But over time, essentially because we’d been electing the same people—you have to stand every two years—there was a way of doing things that had become entrenched. And when they were asked about, for instance, the business plan for the new ground there was a bit of a wall of silence, a defensive attitude, alienating a lot of our base. So there was a lot of opposition and calls for them to step down—at least answer the fans’ questions or step down. The opposition to it became a necessary part. So we were actually pleased that the club hierarchy was being criticized in the press to bring a change that was needed at the club, because we were drifting away from those democratic principles.
[At this point in the interview George has to take an urgent call from his housemate. When they re-connect, John forgets to restart the recording. Embarrassing. When he finally realises his error they’re talking about other issues that’ve triggered mutiny in the past, specifically a 50 pence price rise on the match program.]
George: The 50p increase on the program seems like a small thing in hindsight but it’s something that we saw as the spark that ignited the flame in regard to dissatisfaction with the previous board and our desire for change. It was a price rise that was done without consultation with the fans who wanted to avoid outright commercialism, which is one of our core principals. So that decision didn’t sit right with a lot of fans and it led to other things being looked into.
As to the TV game: (The board approved the rescheduling of a match to a Monday night to accommodate TV broadcast rights) we got through to the first round of the FA Cup in 2015/16 for the first time in six years and we were playing Chesterfield at home and the game was moved to a Monday night by BT Sport (a U.K. sports broadcaster) without consulting either club. Now, one of the reasons FC United formed was because of the reliance on television, the influence of TV on the game, the unsociable nights for football such as Mondays. So a number of our fans decided to make a stand against that. We compromised on boycotting the first half.
In fact, it was a bit of another split in the fanbase at the time. Some said, “We need to support the team. The United atmosphere is what helps the team. It’s a big occasion and we want to be there. We’re not happy about the Monday night move, but supporting the team is more important,” whereas another half of the club were like, “Well, this is the founding principles of the club being compromised.” When we enter the FC Cup we understand that we have to play by their rules and games can be moved for TV. And we said yes to it. So we couldn’t just refuse to play their team. So there was a bit of a debate as to what to do with regards to that but I’m glad some fans did it. There were a good few hundred of us outside the ground for the first half of the game before going in for the second half.
John: What’s the atmosphere like at those general meetings?
There’s an atmosphere of—not tension, but one of passion and love for the club and people wanting the best for it.
George: Well around the time we were electing the new board it was getting quite tense and very popular, actually. We hosted one meeting—I think it was one in 2016—where it was standing room only for a large section. So the next meeting we had to move to an external venue. It’s got a lot better in the last few years and the board have steadied the ship somewhat. There are a lot less people upset about the way things are run. But it’s a forum of debate, and we were talking earlier about how it’s a democracy; people agree and disagree on things. So I’d say there’s an atmosphere of—not tension, but one of passion and love for the club and people wanting the best for it. We usually end it with a Q and A with the (team) manager just to get a few questions out about the team and what’s happening there, so any tensions that arise in the meetings are quelled a little bit by uniting everyone in being interested in the team on the pitch.
John: I wanted to ask what the main sources of income are for the club.
George: The fanbase. One hundred percent, whether it be gate receipts or season tickets or donations to the club. We encourage a donation to be added on to a season ticket, for example. Season tickets are relatively cheap. We charge £12 to get into a game. Season tickets are normally £150. So you essentially get nine or ten free games if you pay the minimum price. Even if you can’t afford the minimum price of £150, you can email or call and tell them what your situation is. So we have like a concession range whether it be over sixty, underage, universal credit (U.K. state benefits), just to support affordable football.
John: So there’s a pay-what-you-can season ticket scheme now. I mean that’s really cool, but does it make it hard to balance the books? Because it adds a kind of uncertainty to budgeting, I imagine.
George: Well, I wasn’t a finance leader on the board; I’ll just get that out there now. But the donations on top (of the regular season ticket price) really helps because you don’t have to declare those and that certainly helps. But we know the majority of our season ticket holders will actually adhere to that minimum donation so that helps forecast the budget. So the target for this season is 900 season ticket holders. £205 is the recommended price of a season ticket, but £150 is the minimum. So it’s 900 times 205, basically. We also have ten-month ticket books as well, which is like half a season ticket.
John: I mean it shows that if you operate honestly and democratically people are more willing to pay, so even though you’ve got that staggered season ticket payment thing, most people will still pay at least £150.
It’s just based on the passion and love that the fans have for the club, to sound a bit clichéd! The fans just believe in it that much, that any donation that’s recommended is trusted. And if trust is broken you can use the democratic process to change things.
George: It’s just based on the passion and love that the fans have for the club, to sound a bit clichéd! The fans just believe in it that much, that any donation that’s recommended is trusted. And if trust is broken you can use the democratic process to change things. And that’s what happens.
John: How proactive is the club in making connections with other worker-owned businesses and co-operatives?
George: Quite proactive, actually. We’re a Community Benefits Society, meaning it’s one member one vote, not for profit. If the company was to fail, any money left gets donated to charity. We were the first football club to introduce the living wage as well. So that was important as an act of solidarity with workers. We do work with other co-operatives, like the Co-Op itself (formed in 1844, a U.K.-wide cooperative chain working in a number of industries, including banking, funerals, legal services, pharmacies, and insurance) various branches of The Co-Op have sponsored us. The Phone Co-Op (mobile and broadband internet provider) were a major sponsor of ours for a certain amount of time. I used to work with Co-Op Insurance, and I did a presentation there about FC United.
John: Do you get a lot of inquiries from maybe, not just football, but other people who want to use the same model. Do people call you up and ask how you’ve done it.
George: Mainly other football clubs. There’re a lot of other clubs that have collapsed and reformed since FC formed, such as Chester City who have come back as Chester FC. They contacted us to ask the best way to set up a new club as a fan-owned club. We gave them advice. Bury AFC who started last year; our first pre-season friendly is against them in July. They contacted us, asked us about how best to do it.
John: Has the club seen more attention since the ESL (European Super League) stuff?
George: Yeah, we’ve had a flood of attention. This is, like, the eighth or ninth press interview I’ve had to pick up because of all the people who’ve been asking us about it. A lot of people realize that we were ahead of the curve when it came to the Glazer family. They were going to want to use the club for their own purposes and for their own greed—and Joel Glazer being essentially the vice president of the European Super League proved how integral they were in the foundation of it. So a lot of people remembered: “Oh do you remember that club that set up in protest against this very thing, are they still going?” And we’ve spoken out and said—not in a condescending, “I told you so” kind of way—we were very keen to avoid that as a communications team. We weren’t going to be gloating about this, because there’s nothing to gloat about. We were as pissed off as anybody. So we just said, “Yeah, it’s sixteen years on, we’re still as anti-Glazer as we ever were and any (Manchester) United fan is welcome to join us if they fancy it.
And so yeah, we’ve had a lot of attention. And it’s been really good. The social media followings ballooned. Loads of new members, season tickets sales a lot higher than they were two years ago before lockdown. So it’s been a really exciting time the last couple of weeks. It’s just a shame that it took something so ugly to trigger that.
John: Are you ever surprised at how much football fans sometimes do accept—I was almost surprised that it needed this one big trigger—whereas in actual fact Premier League clubs have been mugging off fans for decades, right?
George: I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of protests that were done. You normally associate that kind of rebellion with the continent, countries like Germany and Italy where fan movements have a lot of influence over the clubs, and they can boycott entire stadiums just at the click of a finger because they have that influence, and it really does help how fans control clubs. So it was really refreshing to see fans of those six teams protesting the way they did.
When FC United formed, I was under the impression we’d be getting tens of thousands of people watching us because a lot of people said, “If the Glazers take over I won’t go back to Old Trafford (Manchester United’s stadium).” But when it actually happened, people shrugged and said, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now, we’ll just go back and fight from within.” So I thought fans would do the same; that if the ESL did take off and the games started, fans would just say, “Well, we’re still fans so we’ll go.” So I’m really happy that they were saying, “No, this is way too much. It’s getting ridiculous and it needs to stop.” It’s tempting to say, “We’ve been saying this for sixteen years,” and we’ve been ridiculed and told the Glazers aren’t that bad, that we should have given them a chance and all that, so it’s nice to be vindicated but it’s also important to not be on a pedestal all the time.
John: Are there any FC United of Manchester fanzines?
We were essentially formed by a fanzine.
George: Yeah. There’s Top of the World. It’s brilliant. I know those guys quite well. They try and release three or four a season based on the amount of contributors they get. We had two zines in the past, one called Under the Boardwalk andanother onecalled A Fine Lung. And they were writings from a leftfield United and FC United perspective. We were essentially formed by a fanzine. It was Red Issue where the idea of FC United was first touted in January 2005. That’s sadly now out of print (but still on Twitter). But that was a very rebellious in-ya-face kind of fanzine, really didn’t care what the hierarchy at United thought. So it was always going to appear in a fanzine like that, the idea of a breakaway club. The first issue of Under the Boardwalk probably came out before the first match day program! They were really keen to start a fanzine straight away. That eventually ceased. They did about twenty issues. I’ve got them all. Top of the World was some young fans—most of them in their twenties, early thirties. They get a lot of the old contributors form the old ones back.
John: Do you have any favorite chants?
George: Pfft! Plenty! How can you choose? “I am an FC fan” to the tune of “Anarchy in the U.K.” by The Sex Pistols, that was one that started around the end of the first season and it really took off. The reason Top of The World, the fanzine, is called that is because we used to sing “Top of the World”by The Carpenters, not changed to suit football, just the chorus of that song, because it’s a song that’s uplifting and a love song, essentially, so it’s perfect. “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys, again, we’ve got plenty of songs to that tune, but we just sing the actual song because it’s just…
John: A great song!
George: Yeah. Do you know about the pre-match function we do called Course You Can Malcolm?
John: Is that when, like, unsigned bands play before the games?
George: Yeah, basically—some signed some many unsigned—preferably Manchester-based bands. This was set up when we were still playing at Gigg Lane, at Bury (FC), because they had a bar in the corner of the stadium that was going unused. So we thought why not use that space to put some pre-match entertainment on. And it’s not just bands, we’ve had comedians, poets. We get speakers from various organizations, trade unions, charities. I thought that’d be one of your first questions actually given the nature of the publication!
John: That’s my great journalistic mind! Didn’t occur to me!
Obviously… there’s a lot of boring stuff that goes with running a club as a co-operative, as a fan owned entity, but keeping that punk spirit alive is important. I don’t know any other club that has punk bands and poets performing before games.
George: A lot of the bands that we have on are alternative. And that’s the kind of ethos that’s come out of the club since the beginning. Obviously, we were talking about the governance earlier and there’s a lot of boring stuff that goes with running a club as a co-operative, as a fan owned entity, but keeping that punk spirit alive is important. And that pre-match function Course You Can Malcolm, to me that’s unique, I don’t know any other club that has punk bands and poets performing before games.
John: Have you ever thought about offering the bar in the stadium as a venue? Letting promoters put on gigs on nights that aren’t match days?
George: We looked into actually allowing the stadium to have gigs there. The general manager who took over from the one in 2016 inquired about getting gigs put on in the stadium itself. Sadly, the lease that we signed with the council to have it built doesn’t allow for that. A lot of changes have been made to that lease. It’s another example of poor governance in the past. We were just so keen to get the ground built. And that’s understandable, but it meant a few things were signed without going over them too many times. We couldn’t even have car boot sales in the car park. The Mary’s Road end (of the ground) is where we have Course You Can Malcolm now and I’m not sure we could get a gig license there, but it’s not necessarily what we want to do with that. We want something a bit more community-based. Right now we’re running a food hub out of it. During the pandemic, we set up a food hub that’s proven extremely popular and helped hundreds of families. That goes along with what we want the club to be. So it’s more important to do things like that rather than hiring it out for gigs.
John: Have you heard of any bands forming from within the fanbase, the membership base?
George: I know a few musicians who are FC fans. The lead singer of the Space Monkeys, he’s a fan. There’s a band called WU LYF that’ve professed to being supporters. There’re plenty of others in the local Manchester area who aren’t necessarily fans but have come to play a gig at the ground, who never expected to play at a football club before the game, and have found that they enjoy the ideals of the club and become supporters as a result.
John: Okay, George, well thanks a lot for this.
George: No problem, I enjoyed it, thanks mate.
John: No worries, bye!
The Seven Core Principles of FC United of Manchester
The Board will be democratically elected by its members.
Decisions taken by the membership will be decided on a one member, one vote basis.
The club will develop strong links with the local community and strive to be accessible to all, discriminating against none.
The club will endeavour to make admission prices as affordable as possible, to as wide a constituency as possible.
The club will encourage young, local participation – playing and supporting – whenever possible.
The Board will strive wherever possible to avoid outright commercialism.
The club will remain a non-profit organisation.
John Miskelly lives in Asturias, Northern Spain.