A swirling wind is driving the rain across the training pitch, but it would be impossible to dampen the enthusiasm of the players, officials and supporters of FC United of Manchester. The club formed by Manchester United fans disillusioned with the rampant commercialism of the Glazer era have come a long way in five years and will enjoy their biggest moment yet when they travel to Rochdale on Friday night in the first round of the FA Cup.
Vinny Thompson, who went to his first match at Old Trafford 48 years ago and followed the Reds around the world, has been back only once since 2005 but says that supporting FC United has rekindled his love of the game.
"I miss the guys I used to stand on the terraces with for so many years, but that's the only thing," Thompson says as we watch Monday's training at Nicholls Campus in Ardwick.
"Supporting FC United, connecting with my fellow fans, has made me feel part of something again. You pay a sensible price to watch matches, you stand on the terraces, you sing and nobody is telling you where you have to sit and what you can and can't do. You meet so many wonderful people in non-league football. My heroes used to be people like Law, Charlton and Cantona, but now my heroes are the people who do so much for their clubs at this level."
After three promotions, FC United have reached the Premier Division of the Evo-Stik (formerly Northern Premier) League, which means they are theoretically just two steps away from the Football League. That is quite an achievement for a club without a home. Owned by their supporters, 300 of whom work for the club voluntarily, FC United play at Bury, train at Manchester College and hire facilities for the ever-increasing amount of work they do in the community.
That should change soon. The club are raising £3.5m to build their own stadium at Newton Heath, less than a mile from where Manchester United first played 132 years ago, as Newton Heath LYR. The location is a coincidence, but FC United believe they can recapture the spirit of the 19th-century pioneers by embedding their club in the local community.
The site at Ten Acres Lane is owned by Manchester City Council, who will offer a long-term lease on a peppercorn rent, as well as some financial support. There are plans for an artificial training pitch, five-a-side pitches, a sports hall and multi-purpose function rooms, which will all be made available for community use, as well as the main 5,000-capacity stadium. FC United consistently attract crowds of 2,000-plus – they have more than 2,000 members, who pay an annual fee of £12 – and have already sold their initial allocation of 3,200 tickets for Friday's match.
Having their own home should transform the club's finances. "We're effectively set up as a co-operative and the money we generate should be coming back into the club, but match days cost us about £5,000," Adam Brown, one of the club's founding board members, says. "We don't get the second spend in terms of bars and food outlets, or the benefit of stadium facilities during the week."
The biggest portion of the funding for the new stadium will come from an innovative "community shares" scheme, which it is hoped will raise £1.5m. The shares will not have any voting rights, meaning that FC United's one-member-one-vote founding principle is preserved, and subscribers will have to commit their money (up to a maximum of £20,000) for at least three years. Thereafter they can withdraw it only 10 per cent at a time, while an "asset lock" means the stadium can never be sold for profit and must always be used for community benefit.
FC United hope to pay interest at up to 2 per cent above bank base rate and expect the share offer to be approved as an Enterprise Investment Scheme, which would enable subscribers to claim a 20 per cent tax break. It is hoped that the scheme will appeal to supporters, football fans generally and the co-operative movement at large.
"The scheme could completely change football finances, all the way up to League One level," Andy Walsh, FC United's general manager, says. "If we manage to raise £1.5m from a fanbase of around 2,000, just think what clubs with bigger support might achieve. There's no reason why they can't raise enough money to own and run their clubs rather than forever having to look for wealthy owners."
It was the latest band of money men at Old Trafford that finally drove away the likes of Walsh. Becoming a plc, raising ticket prices, spending millions on players' wages and agents' fees, and constantly switching kick-off times for the benefit of television had tested the loyalty of fans for years, but the Glazers' takeover, loading the club with debt, proved the final straw for some.
"I was born a Manchester United fan and I'll die a Manchester United fan," Walsh says. "My father took me to my first game when I was five and I took my own children at the same age. Deciding to withdraw my season ticket application was one of the most painful decisions of my life, but I just couldn't afford to take my family to matches. The Glazers have shown they're not interested in fans like us. All they're interested in is people with big wallets."
Wayne Rooney's recent pay rise only reinforced Walsh's view that he made the right decision. "Rooney's contract negotiations were described by some people as a score draw between player and club, but the losers were the fans, because they're the ones who'll be picking up the tab," Walsh says. "The extra money to pay for Rooney's new contract will come out of their pockets, not the Glazers'."
Nevertheless, FC United's Old Trafford heritage, which is reflected in the club colours, is strong. Several players are Manchester United fans, as is Karl Marginson, who has been manager from the start and now works full-time for the club, having given up his job as a fruit-and-veg delivery man. Scott McManus, a defender, and Roy Soule, the assistant manager, were United youth team players. Whisper it quietly, but David Chadwick, the captain, is a Manchester City fan.
Playing for FC United involves certain obligations. Although they do not go as far as the old Corinthian Casuals club, who used to show the door to players who were sent off, FCUM's code of conduct says players should "avoid all forms of gamesmanship and time-wasting", "not use inappropriate language", "avoid violence and rough play" and "accept the decision of the match official without protest".
The code also calls on supporters to "show due respect to match officials" and "applaud the opposition as well as your own team". The club have a high proportion of young and female supporters and the fans' sense of fun and enjoyment is reflected in their match-day banners, such as one that reads "Pies not Prawns".
As evidence of their opposition to commercialism, it is a club rule that the players' shirts are not sponsored. "It means we lose out on some revenue, but I think we gain a lot through the symbolic statement we're making," Brown says.
The club's website also bemoans "changing kick-off times for the benefit of television" and cynics might question FC United's willingness to go along with switching this weekend's fixture to Friday night at the request of ESPN, which will benefit both clubs to the tune of £67,500.
"It wasn't an easy decision, but our priority at the moment is to raise the money to build our own ground," Brown says. "Going on TV without shirt sponsorship and being able to talk about the fan ownership gets the message across to a wider audience. We also had to recognise that if we turned it down we would be depriving Rochdale as well. It's a question of balance."
The two Uniteds: How FCUM compare with MUFC
FC United of Manchester/Manchester United FC
2005 Formed 1878
15th in the Evo-Stik League League position Third in the Premier League
£400k-£500k Annual turnover £286.4m
Several players on £150 pw Highest earner Wayne Rooney, £200k per week
£100,000 Annual wage bill £131.7m
Never paid a transfer fee Record signing Dimitar Berbatov £30.75m
£200k-£300k Matchday turnover for the season £100.2m
No borrowings Interest charges for the year £40m
From £90 Season ticket prices £513-£931
£2-£8 Ticket prices £27-£49
Gigg Lane: 11,699 Ground capacity Old Trafford: 75,957
2,379 Average attendance 75,198
For more information on FC United and details of their community shares scheme, visit their website at www.fc-utd.co.uk/communityshares
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