It was when I saw Barrie George, our goalkeeper, in the pub before a home game against Daisy Hill, that I knew I was following a very different kind of football club. Barrie, the keeper in the England partially sighted XI, was accompanied by another player and the FC United of Manchester kit man. The crowded bar, in chorus, told them it was "the worst fucking warm-up" they had ever seen. FC United won the match 6-1. And everyone, including half the players, met back at the Swan and Cemetery afterwards.
Just another match day in the surreal development of a football club that has acquired a momentum that astonishes even the supporter-directors who dreamt it up in a Manchester curry house. The takeover by Malcolm Glazer of Manchester United was the catalyst for the formation of FCUM, and high ticket prices, rampant commercialism and the increasingly anaemic atmosphere at Premiership games contributed to the revolution.
FCUM's chairman, Andy Walsh, sought and received sterling support from AFC Wimbledon, the pioneer breakaway club formed in 2002. A veteran of non-League, Karl Marginson, whose contacts enabled him to bring in a number of players from the Unibond League, somewhat higher up the non-League pyramid, became our manager. Mass open trials, similar to those at Wimbledon, also brought in some players.
What began as a boycott of Old Trafford now has a life and identity of its own. A club for supporters run by supporters. As a favourite song has it at Bury's Gigg Lane, where FCUM have made their home: "And Fergie said, 'Go and watch Chelsea. Are you having a laugh? We'll be watching FC."
Over new year a record 4,328 did just that, witnessing a 2-1 home win against Winsford, the team's closest challengers in the North West Counties League Second Division. That was more than Hartlepool managed at home in League One, seven divisions higher. In fact, that is more than Manchester City managed for a first-team League Cup match a few years back. No other crowd in the North West Counties League topped 200 that day. A club formed in anger in the summer now command a higher average gate than four Football League clubs. And FC are top of their league by 14 points.
But there have been strange moments in the new "Two Uniteds" era. This is an experiment with unforeseeable and possibly disturbing consequences.
It felt odd, watching "Big United" vs Chelsea on television, when the team needed all the support they could get. And I never did manage to resolve the debate between my heart and my head over United's stalled progress in Europe. Did I want the club to fail to hasten the departure of the owner, Malcolm Glazer? Or progress because, well... because they're United.
When George Best died, Old Trafford would have been the natural place to be. And questions of a quasi-theological nature still preoccupy me occasionally. Can two Uniteds have one soul? Or must the soul temporarily reside at Gigg Lane during the Glazer time?
Some at the Swan and Cemetery are contemplating never going back. "For me this is United," said Chris Porter, who was among a thousand or so demonstrators who ensured an uncomfortable first visit to Old Trafford for the three Glazer sons. "Until United are fully supporter-owned, like FC, I don't think I'll be going back to Old Trafford."
Others, like Alison Watt, a "United duoist" who is still going to both Big and Little United, believe that even the departure of Glazer might not be enough to reunite a divided support. "As an educated guess, I'd say when Glazer goes, some might drift back, but as the world of football stands at the moment that would only be a small minority Glazer is the catalyst, not the sole reason. If all the other things that are wrong with the game could be put right, then the decision might be tougher, but (a) that's not going to happen and (b) I honestly believe there would still be enough people who would want FCUM to survive irrespective of changes elsewhere."
How can an entirely new team engender such instant loyalty? Well, the players might be new, but the supporters are veterans. One of the most frequent comments I hear from older fans is "It's just like the Seventies all over again."
This is the Red Army, witty and irreverent but without the riots. Freed from the feeling of powerlessness that followed by the Glazer takeover; able to stand if they choose and no longer the targets of ruthless commercial practice, the support has come into its own.
Half the Big United hard-core vocal support has decamped from Old Trafford and created Premiership standard backing for a team at step six (the bottom step) of the non-League ladder. It is surreal, at times hilarious, and always passionate.
Goalkeepers from places such as Eccleshall, Nelson and Ashton are cruelly abused for being too fat or, failing that, too thin. The goalkeeper of Colne, while retrieving the ball, was offered a cheeseburger by a fan worried that he would waste away. The singing is constant, loud and endlessly varied. When Spandau Ballet's "Gold" can be adapted for Adie Orr, FC's free-scoring centre-forward and former Manchester City trainee, ("he's indestructible"), you know the match atmosphere is in good hands.
Colour is back. At Big United, the legacy of the casual era and a distrust of megastore culture created a largely monochrome support. At Little United the scarves are everywhere, usually being waved around to the tune of "Que Sera Sera".
A full-sized dinghy bounces over the crowd's heads at Gigg Lane, symbolising the escape to the lifeboats from Glazer's Titanic. The players, when not in action, sometimes stand with the crowd. Steve Torpey, a Scouser who played for Liverpool Schoolboys, did a stint there recently and launched into a rendition of "We don't care about Rio, He don't care about me, All I care about is FC".
After a recent away match against Holker Old Boys of Barrow, a long-standing Holker supporter wrote to the club's directors to tell them that he had never witnessed a better atmosphere in 30 years of attending amateur football. Anyone who believes that watching football is a spectator sport should visit an FC match. This crowd participates in the event it helps to create. And a fair proportion of that crowd are children who have never experienced anything like this before.
What the future holds partly depends on when Glazer realises that his surely ill-conceived business plan for Big United is not going to yield the profits he requires and sells up. At that point there will be an enormous opportunity for the political wing of United's support. But it also depends on what FC United's growing support want to do with the club they have called into being. At their current rate of progress, FC could legitimately aspire to become a League club within 10 years. But can one really follow two clubs, formed by same support and reserves of passion? Some of us may need a counsellor before long. Or a bloody good philosopher.
Julian Coman is a founder member of FCUM
The making of FC United...
* Founded July 2005 by Manchester United fans angry at the takeover by the Glazer family.
* Home ground Gigg Lane, Bury
* League status North West Counties League Second Division.
* First competitive match 13 Aug 2005, v Leek CSOB (away). Won 5-2. Attendance: 2,590.
* Manager Karl Marginson (former player with Rotherham Utd and Macclesfield Town).
* Most illustrious player Leon Mike is only 24 but the striker has played for Manchester City and Aberdeen, for whom he scored five times.
* How they stand: North West Counties LeagueSecond Division - Top of the table
... and how AFC Wimbledon have done it
* Founded June 2002, in association with Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (WISA) and The Dons Trust
* Home ground The Fans' Stadium (formerly Kingstonian's ground, Kingsmeadow). AFC Wimbledon bought the ground from them when Kingstonian went into liquidation.
* League status Ryman League, Premier Division (currently lying eighth).
* First match (friendly) 10 July 2002, v Sutton United at Gander Green Lane. Lost 4-0. Attendance: 4,657
* First competitive match 17 Aug 2002, v Sandhurst Town (away, Combined Counties League Prem Div). Won 2-1. Attendance: 2,449.
* Honours, 2002-03 won the Supporters Direct Cup
2003-04 Won Combined Counties League and CCL Premier Challenge Cup.
2004-05 Won Isthmian League First Division and Surrey Senior Cup.
* 23 July 2005 AFC Wimbledon played FC United in the Supporters Direct Cup and beat them 1-0.Reuse content