Fan-Owned Football In Manchester

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These players represent Manchester United — the team whose former fans founded FC Manchester United. (Jon Super/AP)
These players represent Manchester United, the team whose former fans founded FC United of Manchester. (Jon Super/AP)

Manchester is a city famous for its football teams. It's half time here at a match at Gigg Lane Stadium, and the home team is down 3-0.

“Typical United, 40th birthday, and they're playing rubbish, and we'll probably get beat,” said Mark Fitzsimons.

But the “United” Mark Fitzsimons is talking about, isn't the legendary Manchester United you're probably thinking of. This is FC United of Manchester. I'm in Bury, 20 minutes outside Manchester city center, but a world away from the premier league. Despite the score, Fitzsimons says he wouldn't be anywhere else.

“It's everything that the Premier League isn't. I hate everything about football at the minute. All the wages, the premier league the way the whole thing is set up — I hate it. But when you come here it's the way football should be.”

What makes this team different, is that many of the people watching the match, actually own the club. Fitzsimons himself isn't an owner but his friend Paul Shay is.

“I am- founder member and co-owner,” said Shay.

Like many FC fans, Paul Shay grew up going to Manchester United matches, but eventually found himself priced out of the stadium.

“By the end I was sat in my seat surrounded by strangers, being quiet, being told what to do, being asked to pay four pounds for a fizzy cold beer and a crap burger and not enjoying myself,” said Shay. “So it was time to get out of there because all we were doing was supplying money to parasites.”

Football in Manchester is a serious business, and an increasingly profitable one for the companies that own and run the teams. According to Forbes magazine, Manchester United is currently worth $3.3 billion.  As prices of tickets have continued to rise, football owners have become wealthier.

“If you look one of my favorite ones is ‘Making Friends Not Millionaires,’” said Alan Hargrave.

Standing on the touch line and dodging the occasional football Alan Hargrave, points out the banners hanging around the stadium.

“I'm Alan Hargrave, I'm a board member at FC United. I followed Manchester United for over 30 years, went home and away, everywhere with them, throughout Europe. I was one of the fans that felt when the takeover took place by the Glazer family that it was for the benefit of the club.”

For many fans, when Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer bought Manchester United in 2005, it was the final straw. After buying the team, Glazer controversially loaded some of his own debts onto the club, which meant every year millions of pounds would have to be go towards paying back interest instead of being spent on the club itself.

“We do know how these things work in business but we sort of see football clubs as being slightly different from business,” said Hargrave. “Terms when they came to take over, like referring to Manchester United as a franchise and things like that. They sort of set the heckles of an English supporter up a bit.”

It's been several years since the Glazer's took over at Manchester United, but people in Manchester still haven't forgotten what it meant to the fans. Even at today's match, Mossley Town supporters still taunt FC fans about the takeover.

“You see that's them baiting our supporters with the USA stuff,” added Hargrave. “Even the visiting supporters know the issue.”

After an ugly struggle for what's some still call “the beautiful game” the Glazers bought the club, leaving the supporters who had opposed them with a problem.

We campaigned against the takeover, and then when the takeover happened there were two options we either went back into the ground and say we're beat, or we thought we're not going to give them our money,” explained Hargrave.

About 2,000 fans decided they weren't beat, and instead decided to go it alone — and form their own team.

“People in the past have always said leave us to run your football club. We know more than you. We know better than you, so we thought right we'll show them what football supporters can do.”

Outside the stadium Brian Pendlebury stands behind a table loaded with membership forms.

“Membership is really the form of ownership of the club: 12 pound for adults, three pound for under 16 but obviously once you've joined as members you own the club so it's a good deal for ownership of a football club — you can tell all your friends you’re an owner,” said Pendlebury.

“Are you an owner?” I asked.

“Of course! Would I be anything but if I was on the membership stall?!”

The club's 3,000 or so members get to vote on everything from admission prices to the team uniform. It's a model, he says, that's changing football for the better.

“There's nothing quite like FC United. It's something really special.”

That's a view shared by Sheena Robertson, who, like many FC fans had a long history supporting Manchester United.

“I actually, got married in the morning and then went to watch Manchester United in the afternoon!” said Sheena.

She's now part of FC's red-army of volunteers and says the club has taken football back to its working class roots.

“It’s made football affordable for people who, like my husband, had to stop going to United even before the Glazers took over, because they’re pensioners and it got too much. It made it affordable for people in the area, especially in North Manchester which is renowned for being a poor area of Manchester.”

The club has gone from strength to strength, winning promotion three seasons in a row. They now play seven leagues below the Premiership, and enjoy the largest following of any semi-professional team at this level, according to two of the team's players Kyle Jacobs, and Carlos Roca.

“The fan base that we've got is a lot more than a lot of non-league clubs out there,” said Jacobs. “It's just fantastic to play in front of such a crowd like that. The fans own the club don't they, so whether you put a pound in or a million pound you have the same say."

“As Kyle says, you're pretty privileged to play in front of a couple of thousand people each week,” Roca added. “At this level you don't really get that, but we do. And the way the fans get behind us, regardless of the results they're always there cheering us on. They believe in the bigger picture of what we’re going to do long term.”

In their match against Mossley Town the second half has already kicked off, and FC are playing better. They score one then two goals and, with the clock ticking — they get a free kick about 30 yards out.

Jerome Wright, steps up and scores a goal that wouldn't have looked out of place inside Manchester United's stadium. Up in the stands, Paul Shay says that whatever the score, every time the team runs out on the pitch, it's a victory for owners like him.

“It is the start and the seed of something that can become great and can become a great international success and show the way for fan ownership and how to do things in a democratic and progressive manner,” said Shay.

This game against Mossley Town ended with the scores level at 3-3. FC United fans like Paul Shay, say they hope that when it comes to taking on the multimillion pound football industry, they can level the playing field there too.

This segment aired on November 16, 2013.


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