After ten years and four promotions, FC United stand two steps on the ladder away from the Football League. This season is a special one in north Manchester, not only does it mark a decade in existence for the club set up in protest to the Glazer family takeover of Manchester United, it is also the first season in their purpose built home, the £6.3million Broadhurst Park.
For a club which prides itself on its supporter ownership and sense of place in the community, the history of the site on which Broadhurst Park stands is poignant. The playing fields on which Broadhurst Park was built were purchased between the wars for the employees of a local metalworks, and housed a number of sporting facilities, including for tennis and cricket. The name of the ground comes from another local piece of parkland, again gifted between the wars to be held in common.
This trend of common ownership runs deep in the ethos of FC United. Each supporter can become a member, and every member has a vote in all major decisions. Members also finance the club, not just through ticket sales, but through a community shares scheme which brought in half of the cost of developing the ground. And the supporters have really embraced the move into a home of their own.
“You’ve only got to look at our attendance figures,” says FC United spokesman Andy Walker, “our last game had nearly 4,000 people here, which represents somewhere in the region of nearly a 60% increase in attendance figures compared to last season. We’ve got record numbers of members. We’ve got more members than any other supporter-owned club in the UK, and we’ve got nearly 2,000 season ticket holders - the local community have certainly responded to having this facility and this club in their area.”
Much of this, Walker says, is down to the way in which the club have made efforts to engage with supporters and the local community every step of the way. As well as keeping fans up to date with developments through the usual newsletters and social media, they also held open days to allow supporters - who were of course also investors in the development - to tour the construction site.
The local authority played a large role in FC United’s move to Broadhurst Park, and being able to show thousands of supporters who had bought into the idea, both literally and figuratively, was a big part of showing the club could be a success - and, crucially, a sustainable way to deliver community benefit.
As well as the ground itself, the site also contains a set of all-weather pitches, classroom facilities and meeting room facilities are all being used by the local community - and a series of free ‘breakfast clubs’ are being run for young people and families to stop in and try sports or arts and crafts.
This ethos involving the local community, and involving supporters, is integral to the FC United of Manchester way.
“It’s ABCs to us,” says Walker, “we’ve never operated any other way, we’ve got that close link with our members and it’s almost automatic as a mindset. What we’ve achieved has had to be worked at and we’ve had to ensure that we’ve kept our members informed every step of the way, it’s an absolute necessity.”
There are lessons there for others looking to go down the supporter-owned route. Keeping your members close to the process, and engaging early with the local authority and local residents to see how your club might fit into the wider area.
For all the graft that’s gone into getting it there, FC United is an idealistic enterprise, and a product of its conception; a club built to an ethos, in protest to what the founder-members felt was an unacceptable situation at Manchester United.
“Clearly there’s more than one model of supporter ownership,” says Walker. “We not only advocate our model of supporter ownership, we’ve quite vociferous in campaigning for more supporter ownership of football clubs, because ultimately you can’t control what you don’t own. We have a ‘purist’ model of supporter ownership, the one-member-one-vote model, but supporter ownership, if it is to mean anything, it needs to be set up in such a way that the supporters have majority control of the club. Unless clubs are genuinely supporter owned then there’s no guarantee that club, all the infrastructure around that club and ultimately the land that that club occupies, can’t be sold off to the highest bidder, and the club moved - in extreme cases, like that of Wimbledon, lock, stock and barrel, 120 miles up the motorway.”
The ballad of Wimbledon and MK Dons is a painful one, which resulted in its own supporter-founded phoenix club, if not one quite on the FC United model. Looking across the leagues, there are a handful of examples of clubs where the usual supporter-board animosity has opened into a chasm; clubs where lack of investment, allegations of financial mismanagement, or tumultuous leadership make the continuing existence of the club a questionable matter.
With this environment as the context, it’s easy to gaze adoringly at Germany, where the 50+1 rule prevents majority ownership of clubs. There protections are enshrined in law, and - outwardly at least - the signs suggest a better functioning system, with lower ticket prices, competitive domestic leagues and international success.
Here at home, the wind may also be changing. At the last election, each of the major parties included recognition of the role football clubs play in local communities and the need to protect the interests of football fans. And in Scotland, they have been consulting on extending community right to buy legislation to include football clubs.
If that wind does change, clubs like FC United of Manchester showcase how the new world could look.
Photo credits: Richard Searle