At a ground that sits amongst the Pennine hills, I'm watching the rebel team formed by fans of Manchester United. It's the first FC United of Manchester home game of their 7th season, and it's like I've fallen through a time portal. My ticket was only £8, I'm standing on a terrace, surrounded by supporters determined to sing for the full 90 minutes, and we're all watching players who give a damn.
On the right wing there's Carlos “feet like lighting” Rocca, who used to play at Oldham Athletic and looks like a 1930s matinee idol. Up front, cult figure Ben “football genius” Deegan, is playing out of his skin. With his beard, tattoos and odd gait, he looks like a character from Kes, but he's got gifted feet and he's keeping last season's other top scorer and star striker, Mike Norton (who's not from Gorton) on the bench. Down the other flank is Matthew Wolfenden, who inspires howling from the crowd whenever he scores, and was also on the books at Oldham. Behind them, driving the team forward is Jake Cottrell, the midfielder who scored a wonder goal in last season's famous victory over Rochdale in the FA Cup.
Although most home games are played at Gigg Lane, Bury's ground, tonight the game is at Bower Fold, home to Stalybridge Celtic. Here the fans change ends at half-time so that the team feels the full force of the supporters behind the goal. The crowds have been consistently around the 2000 mark for the past few years, and this season there's been an upsurge in sales of season tickets after the club announced a “pay what you can afford scheme.” Putting the fans first is in the DNA of the club and there's a lively social scene before matches with live bands and comedy in the bars around the ground.
These fans have had to adjust. A few years ago they'd have been planning flights to Barcelona or Rome to watch Giggs and Scholes. Now they're working out whether to catch the 11.52 from Piccadilly to Buxton or get the supporter's coach to Bradford Park Avenue to see players who have day jobs as window fitters and roofers. One of them is even rumoured to wear a thong when he plays. We are a long way from the glittering temple of the Premiership. But it's not as far away as it once was, as FC United, currently playing in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League are just 2 promotions away from Division 2.
I first went to football aged 7 to watch Bolton Wanderers. I remember Sam Allardyce scoring early in an FA Cup tie in 1974 against Newcastle and was smitten. In 1979, instead of visiting my mum in hospital after my sister's birth, I chose to stand in lashing rain, watching the Trotters trying to avoid relegation. And, whenever I recall hoisting my young daughter onto my shoulders, to witness the crowds streaming away from Burnden Park after the first Premiership game, I'm still warmed by an August sun from 1995.
This has to be the future of football. AFC Wimbledon, the first of the fan owned clubs, now play in the Football League and have shown that it's possible to succeed without millionaire owners exploiting the supporters.
This was football where songs were sung throughout the match. I sometimes hugged the man next to me when a goal was scored and it was an experience I could afford to share with my kids, hoping that they would also be inspired to become the next generation of supporters. After the team transferred to the Reebok stadium, however, I stopped taking my children - it became too expensive. And the atmosphere changed. Nobody sang and, if I'd tried to embrace the man now sitting next to me, he'd have punched me. By 2006 I realised that I'd begun to hate the avarice of the Premiership and stopped going to football.
And so, after a gap of 4 years, I felt like a rescued Labrador when I found a new home at FC United. I blame my daughter. She fancied one of the players and took me along one night. Like a lot of men, I hadn't thought it possible to transfer my heart to another team. But, just like Alex Drake falling for Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes, I felt myself being drawn in the more I learned. It was when 1000 people started singing The Carpenters' hit “ Top of the World” that I fell in love.
Back in August 2011 and one of the crowd has just thrown a till roll at the North Ferriby goalie and called out to ask him if he's wearing a bra. The terrace explodes into a rousing chorus of “Margey's van, is full of veg, oh Margey's van is full of veg”, (the manager, Karl Marginson, used to have a grocery delivery business). On the far side of the pitch, their number 11 loses his temper and is immediately assailed with “Just because you're losing”. It's like being back on the fields with my school team, when mates of the other team's players would stand behind the goal, mocking our every move.
With about 10 minutes to go, United go 6-3 up as club legend Steve Torpey lobs the keeper from 25 yards out. Everyone goes mental. Ticker tape is thrown in the air, bar scarves are twirled and the full repertoire of songs is belted out with the gusto of Bavarians at Oktoberfest. Dads beam at their sons and husbands and wives dance like they've paid off the mortgage and the kids have left home.
This has to be the future of football. AFC Wimbledon, the first of the fan owned clubs, now play in the Football League and have shown that it's possible to succeed without millionaire owners exploiting the supporters. And as empty seats become more common in Premiership grounds, the footballing authorities need to learn from history.
When the Romans built the Colosseum, they probably believed that gladiators would forever be slicing Christians in half for the entertainment of the masses. The warriors were big business for their owners, and politicians used the games to secure popularity with the public. But, whilst mankind has survived for millennia, these contests lasted just a couple of centuries before people grew bored and deserted the amphitheatres.
Football, as we know it today, has existed for less time than the gladiators, and yet guardians of the sport display the hubris and greed of ancient Senators, clearly believing the plebs will always be sated by a simple formula of tribal blood, sweat and tears endorsed by a Nike tick. Gradually, though, we're losing faith in our leaders, and each season more of us are defiantly pointing our thumbs at the ground.
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