A Night with the Manchester United Fans Who Walked Away to Start Their Own Team

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportNovember 6, 2018

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 28: FC United of Manchester Fans look on during the National League North match between FC United of Manchester v Salford City at the Broadhurst Park on January 28, 2017 in Manchester, England (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

It's a cold night in Moston, Manchester, as fans make their way through the main entrance of Broadhurst Park. It's an impressive little ground, and on the night that B/R Football makes a visit, supporters of FC United of Manchester are turning up for a fixture against Alfreton Town.

Most grab a programme and head straight to the bar, situated in a large concourse beneath a stand behind the goal. Unlike professional clubs in England, you are free to grab a pint of beer here to take out to the terraces.

As kick-off approaches, chants of "United, United" begin to filter down from outside. We head out to see if the club really have managed to recapture the true essence of football.

FC United of Manchester were set up in response to Malcolm Glazer's takeover at Old Trafford, and they vowed to bring back the spirit of Manchester United. These fans made global news when they broke away in 2005.

They were sick of corporate greed; they were sick of kick-off times made to suit television broadcasters; they were sick of extortionate ticket prices and no longer feeling like they had a connection to the players on the pitch.

They wanted a place where they could watch football with friends without worrying about the price of admission or whether they could get a ticket. They wanted to have a pint during the game and pat the manager on the back after a win. They wanted to remember why they ever fell in love with the game in the first place.

The journey has been difficult at times, but for these fans who gave up their season tickets at Old Trafford, their football lives will never be the same again.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 09:  Fans walk outside the stadium prior to the Emirates FA Cup first round match between FC United of Manchester and Chesterfield at Broadhurst Park on November 9, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

A chant starts early in the game among a bunch of fans huddled together in the St Mary's Road End. It's a terrace behind the goal that reminds many of their days stood on the old Stretford End: "Won't pay Glazer or work for Sky, We still sing City's gonna die, Two Uniteds but the soul is one, as the Busby Babes carry on."

The team are trying to turn around a difficult start to the season, and new manager Neil Reynolds has brought them fresh hope of moving away from the relegation places of the National League North, a division two steps below League Two.

The team are playing well, the fans are behind them and constantly chanting or making quips between one another. It feels different from a matchday sat watching Jose Mourinho's United at home.

David Heath is a volunteer who works in the club's merchandising team, and he tells me how it feels to be part of this family.

"I have been here since virtually day one," he tells me. "I still had a season ticket at Manchester United the first year and swapped between watching the two clubs, but by the end of that first year I gave up my ticket at Old Trafford and decided this was the future. The atmosphere had gone and I wasn't enjoying it. It had become a drag. Coming to watch FC is a bit of a throwback. I'm on the terraces with mates, drinking in the stands. It brought the fun back.

"I still watch United on telly, but the atmosphere isn't there and the way they play isn't the way we want them to. The Premier League just doesn't appeal to me anymore."

Not everyone feels that way though. Some diehard United fans could never bring themselves to start watching another team, even if they are a spin-off of the original.

"I have got mates that still go to United and would never come down here," David admits. "They see it as a sort of betrayal because once you are a United supporter, you always are. But I also have friends who will never go to Old Trafford again. They say even if we drew them in the FA Cup, they wouldn't go!"

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FC United take the lead 20 minutes into the game when Josh Wallen, a former QPR midfielder, heads home from a corner kick.

Over 1,500 fans are in attendance and celebrate the opening goal. It's come after a good spell of football, and everyone is in good voice. Throughout the night a variety of chants come up, almost every single one unique to anything you would hear anywhere else in the country. United have a proud history of coming up with quirky, fresh songs, and this club has certainly embraced that aspect.

One of the favourites is aimed at United's modern rebranding: "This badge is your badge, This badge is my badge, Three stripes and three sails, Oh what a fine badge, They tried to take it, But we replaced it, On the shirt of United FC."

Rob is an FC fan who began watching Manchester United in the 1960s but gave up his season ticket in 2011.

"When I first went to Old Trafford, you felt part of the club, but when they decided to take the words 'Football Club' off of the badge, that was a big one for me," Rob recalls. "That was a big one.

"I remember the days of Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton—it was amazing. I also remember when Fergie almost got sacked—I remember that well! But he turned it around, and when we had the Class of '92, it was like the Busby Babes had been reborn.

"I used to love going, but gradually the club changed. I still support them, of course I do, but I watch on TV. Often we all watch them in the bar here after our game. I would say only about 20 percent of the people that come to FC United still go to Old Trafford.

"By the end of my time going, I just didn't want to give any money to the Glazers. I even took a flask of coffee so I wouldn't spend money inside the ground. And since then, Mourinho has sucked the life out of United. Whatever had been built up before, he has got rid of it in two years. I am totally on board with what Paul Scholes and Gary Neville say about his team. We were always free-flowing, attacking, and now it's...well, I'm not sure what it is."

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Songs from The Stone Roses play around the ground at half-time, and we mingle with more fans to discover how they feel about their decision to start watching non-league football 13 years on.

It has not all been plain sailing for the club since its formation. Legal battles and changes at both board and management level have threatened to rock the foundations. There have been side-effects to their promotions up the league pyramid and building their own 4,400-capacity ground. In 2016, the BBC reported how the club had stopped making a profit. A wrangle involving former general manager Andy Walsh, who was integral to the club's launch, has also caused tension.

A 2016 report in the Guardian by Daniel Taylor explained how the club was mired in "legal action, resignations, protests, gagging orders and the overall feeling that FC are locked in an identity crisis" in the wake of Walsh's announcement that he would stand down.

It has been a complicated saga, but fans feel the club are coming out the other side. Average attendances have dropped, but those left behind seem optimistic about the future.

"I think we have come a long way, especially since moving in to this stadium," season-ticket holder Tony tells me. "We started off playing at Bury's Gigg Lane but came in here three years ago. There have been ups and downs, but we think we have turned the corner now. The new manager has already got us playing better football, which is important to us. We all know how Jose Mourinho is always happy to win by one goal—but I couldn't watch that every week!

"To be honest, we could be in a worse situation than the one we actually find ourselves in."

The financial difficulties continue, but the people still here refuse to budge on their belief of how this club should be run. It is a fan-owned, anti-debt football club, and they are intent on making it work. They do not want to have a shirt sponsor, and season tickets remain "pay what you can afford," with a current minimum charge of £100. As it stands, around 60 percent of their income is derived from matchdays, but new initiatives are underway to help secure the long-term future. Soul nights are a popular addition to the club's event list, and there are also donation buckets situated around the ground.

"It costs 12 pounds to go to one game, so we just ask people to try to pay in line with how many games they think they will attend," Steve, another volunteer, explains to me. "But ultimately if they cannot afford it, they can meet the minimum cost to help the club and still come along."

As the teams emerge for the second half, fans head back to their spot to watch the game. There's no chance of "prawn sandwich brigade" accusations at Broadhurst Park.

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FC United continue to play attacking, attractive football for much of the second half but can't find the second goal they need. It bites them on the backside when Alfreton grab an equaliser two minutes from time.

It's a disappointing twist as the team had deserved a win that would have taken them out of the relegation zone, but fans stay to clap their players and chant "We love United, we do." The appreciation is reciprocated as every FC United player applauds back. (N.B. The team did lift themselves out of the relegation zone on Saturday with a 3-0 win over Blyth Spartans.)

In the bar after the game, striker Kurt Willoughby, who also works part time in a carpet store, explained what it is like to play in front of such support at this level of the game.

"The main reason to play here is because of the fans," he admits. "Win, lose or draw, they chant the whole way through. The fanbase on social media is big too, it's great exposure for everyone. I'm a United fan, and this is as close as you can really get to actually playing for United.

"The fans here don't like how the big clubs are run as a business. But here they get to know us personally and come and chat to us. Their opinions actually impact the team and the club. We all love being part of it. It's pretty special."

None of the players at FC United are full time, though some are on contracts. Manager Reynolds, a school headmaster by day, has been brought in from Lancashire-based Evo-Stik Premier Division side Bamber Bridge, where he built a great reputation. He enters the bar around an hour after the game and is immediately met with handshakes and pats on the back from fans who are pleased to see how the team is transitioning under him.

This is why so many of them turned their back on going to Old Trafford. They wanted to feel part of something again.

Reynolds is signing a birthday card for a young supporter when we approach him for a quick chat, and within moments it becomes clear he has adopted a mentality that any FC United manager needs.

"My aim is to bring success, and this club deserves it," he tells B/R. "I haven't experienced anything like this before. When FC United came knocking, I couldn't turn it down.

"The way everyone has taken to me, I am going to repay them for their faith. My promise is to give these people more. Football is football, and whoever you play for, you will have a fanbase of some sort. But what's unique here is you have a core of Man United fans who fell out of love and set this up and vowed to support it forever.

"All I know is this is only going to get better and better. I don't fail. That will bring pressure for me, but it also brings excitement.

"When Mourinho came to the Premier League, he was a breath of fresh air—he brought it. When [Sir Alex] Ferguson did interviews, you knew if he wasn't happy and he would make it better for the next game. I have taken bits from different managers I have seen. I'm not positive for positive's sake, I want to win games and move this club to the next level."

Talk to fans around Manchester United these days and you will hear about how the team have struggled for an identity since Ferguson stepped down. Since the Glazers came into the club, fans have also protested about how it is run off the pitch.

FC United was formed to forge a different way of life, and while they have ironically run into a lot of the same problems, the future is in their own hands.

The supporters have witnessed Champions League glory and Premier League titles firsthand, but they now remember them with mates over a beer while helping to make decisions that shape a club that reflects everything they have ever believed in.

It's not glamorous, it's not always easy, but it does appear fun. No one here seems to miss Old Trafford.