Shockwaves were sent through the footballing world in April when breaking news revealed that a group of six elite English football clubs — including Manchester City and Manchester United — planned to form a European Super League.
The plans quickly collapsed due to the overwhelming and widespread opposition to the plan, from all areas of society, to the embarrassment of the club owners who quickly backtracked and issued grovelling apologies to outraged supporters of the nation’s favourite sport.
In response, Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) issued a letter to the club’s billionaire owner and co-chair, Joel Glazer demanding, amongst other things, a “fan-led review of football” as a means of rebalancing “current ownership structure in the favour of supporters.”
Clearly, fans believe the aborted plan underlined a desperate need to democratise the beautiful game, and prevent it’s disfigurement by the greed of elite club owners who wanted to set in stone their clubs position in a League they could not be relegated from. But what does fan-owned football look like, and what are its benefits? The fan owned football club FC United of Manchester, who play at Broadhurst Park in Moston, show what this might look like.
“It wasn’t football anymore”
It is a balmy summer evening in June 2005, and the Glazers, Manchester United’s new owners, are making their first visit to Old Trafford stadium.
They are under police protection. Greater Manchester Police officers clear a path through barricades hastily erected by the club’s supporters. The terrace song which fans have been singing at games, “How we kill him I don’t know, cut him up from head to toe, all I know is Glazer’s gonna die!” has been ringing out all evening.
The Glazers’ takeover of Manchester United was controversial. Malcolm Glazer, a Floridian millionaire, possessed only around a third of the £800 million needed to buy the club, so he devised a scheme whereby he would be allowed to borrow hundreds of millions of pounds to buy out the shareholdings, before flipping the debt onto United and securing it against the club’s assets rather than his own.
This is how Manchester United could go from being the richest football club in the world in 2004, to being plunged into record levels of debt the following year.
“It wasn’t football anymore,” Leon, a former fan, says over the phone. Leon started supporting Manchester United in 1989, and says the club lost its soul long before the Glazers. “It was when they changed the badge in the mid-90s, from ‘Manchester United FC’ to just ‘Manchester United’, that did it for me” he tells me, “it was symbolic of how commercialised top-flight football had become.”
The Glazer takeover was symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the world of English football, a deviation from the social settlement it represented between wealthy industrialists and their workers. In 1899, the Football Association (FA) implemented Rule 34 to safeguard this settlement. The rule stipulated that no member of a football club could draw a salary as a director, that any dividends paid to owners could represent no more than 5% of the face value of shares held; and that any money made from selling the club would have to be redistributed to the local community.
“By ensuring that owners could not extract surplus wealth from clubs, Rule 34 embedded a communitarian ethic into the fabric of the game, forcing a compromise between owners and fans,” researchers from the Manchester-based think tank, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), argued in a 2019 report.
This all changed in 1992, the researchers say, when the major clubs broke away from the FA and formed their own footballing entity — the Premier League — which meant they did not have to follow regulations like Rule 34. It represented the elite clubs attempting to free themselves from the old paradigm of how football operated as a social institution, and instead build one modelled on aggressive commercialisation.
“Everyone’s an owner“
Where some fans resorted to barricades during the Glazer takeover, others took a less aggressive, but far more radical step. Rather than meekly fall into line and fund the Glazers’ aims of cashing in on Manchester United’s traditions, they formed a new club that started life in the tenth tier of English football: FC United of Manchester (which abbreviates to ‘FCUM’. The club’s subtle humour will not be lost on the discerning reader).
A registered co-operative, FC United provide affordable and accessible football for fans disillusioned with the top-flight game. According to the business data platform Statista, a season ticket at Manchester United in 2019-20 costs £950, and at Manchester City a season ticket would set you back £900.
FC United of Manchester supporters pay just £15 a year to own and run the club. Each member casts a vote on things like what kit the team plays in and how big club budgets are. They also receive discounted items at the ground, like food, drinks and kit.
The experience of other countries shows that alternative models of ownership are possible, and even advantageous. Germany’s Football Association’s introduced a ’50+1 rule’ in 1998 which guarantees fans own a majority share of their clubs. This empowers fans massively; it enabled Bayern Munich fans to reject the Super League plans.
“It’s special because you’re in it to achieve the same goal,” Michael Potts, the men’s team’s captain tells me.
“Everyone’s an owner. It feels like you become part of something. You all want the club to get promoted, you all want to win games. But you’ll be there for the team when they’re winning and when they’re losing; when they’re going through tough times and going through the good times.
“It’s about going through that journey, and becoming part of something where you can share memories with your children. You’ve got those stories. It’s like creating a story.”
“The best thing I ever did”
Like most footballers, Michael started young. “I signed for Manchester United at the age of seven, and I stayed there until I was 15 or 16. I just fell short of getting a scholarship with them. It was very close, but because United are a massive club they signed some foreign lads.” Michael left Manchester United to seek game time elsewhere. After a tough spell at Blackburn Rovers, York City signed him.
“In my first year I didn’t play much, but I did contribute towards our promotion to League Two.
“We had a good team. We were winning every week. It was difficult for me to get in, but I was just loving it because I was a part of a first team squad. We were travelling, I was learning so much, I was developing.”
“I ended up getting into the team consistently in my second year at the club. I played a good sixteen, seventeen games. I got my shirt. And then the manager got sacked, and a new manager came in and he just said I was too small for what he was looking for. He didn’t want to play football, he wanted to go direct, so I wasn’t suited for him.
Michael moved from club to club, and struggled with multiple career-delaying injuries. It was when he cracked his rib while playing at Bradford Park Avenue he decided to call time on professional football. “I just got to a point where I thought I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was going to call it a day.
He moved to Bamber Bridge FC, where he met Neil Reynolds, who managed Bamber Bridge but would soon move to FC United to manage that club. Neil brought Michael with him when he transferred. “It was the best thing I ever did,” Michael says, who now plays midfield and captains the men’s team.
Kirsty Chambers, a midfielder and the women’s team captain, has been at FC United of Manchester since the women team was founded in 2013. “The fans are just unbelievable. That’s why I’ve been there for so long, because you get a totally different feel from what you get at a usual club. With the fan ownership, I feel like you have more passion.
“If you were to come down to a game, the atmosphere is so different from what you’d get in a big stadium. It’s hard to explain until you see and feel it.”
Kirsty spoke highly about how much the club prized the women’s game alongside the men’s. “We get pretty much the same as the men get, we get the opportunity to play in the stadium, we use all of the home team facilities. It’s just getting better and better.”
Just like Kirsty, Neil speaks of having an instant connection to the club when he became manager in 2018. “The first time I walked into Broadhurst Park,” he tells me, “I just thought the surroundings were amazing. I remember Paul Howarth [a founder member] greeting me and giving me this book to read, Red Rebels by J.P. O’Neill. I fell in love with the club from the first moment I went in.”
Rebuilding our club
Do the majority of football fans actually want to own football, or are people like Glazer simply “bad apples” who fans would be happy to replace with another billionaire backer? I pose this question to Michael.
“The thing is, you don’t mind another billionaire taking over as long as they’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s all about their motivations. They shouldn’t think, ‘I’m going to make loads of money.’ They should think, ‘I want Manchester United to succeed. I want it to be the best in the Premiership, I want it to be in the Champions League, I want to do it for the club and the fans, I want to get amongst it and provide that figure for these young kids coming through now.’
“These young kids playing football now, they want to look up to clubs as a role model, not just a business. It’s more the fact that if a billionaire does come in, they need to be a role model for the younger generation coming through and developing the clubs with that in mind.”
Michael’s open-mindedness reflects a cultural frankness at the club which goes right to the top. I’m struck by just how open Neil is about the club’s mismanagement mishaps.
“It took about two years after moving into our own ground for us to realise that we were mortgage holders, you know, homeowners, with bills to pay. I think people just lost sight of that, and maybe overspent in different areas.
“That is gone now. I was brought in, the old board resigned, a new board came in. We’re rebuilding our football club. And we’ll adhere to the values the club was based on in the first place.”
Going all the way?
How far can this alternative model of ownership go? Could co-operative clubs compete in top-flight football?
Kirsty tells me the women’s team is currently in fourth tier football, but she thinks the team could go a long way. “We want to step up. We’ve applied for promotion to go into the national division, as Covid-19 meant the league was suspended.
“We’ve lost one league game in the last two years,” Kirsty tells me. “From where we started to where we are now, we could at least go two more leagues up.”
Michael says, “It could go all the way to the Premiership. Back in the day in the 1960s and 1970s, there was obviously money in the game, but all of these American owners who are coming in and taking over, they’re just in it for the profit, whereas the fans are in it for the club more than anything.
“Fans would never take money out of the club, they’d always put it into the club. The fans have got their own jobs, commitments, whatever, they just want to follow their club and do the best for it.”
Neil is unshaking in his belief in fan-ownership. “It’s got to be the future of football. You only have to look down and you know, the Championship or League One the likes of Sheffield Wednesday or Birmingham City — highly successful, well-run football clubs — ruined by millionaire owners who pull the money out and just have mismanagement at the football club. That won’t happen at FC United of Manchester.”
Sign up to The Meteor mailing list – click here.
Feature image: Mark Lee.