0 A great act of Mancunian defiance

FCUnited PitchConstructionIf you follow football, it is likely you will have heard of FC United of Manchester.

In 2005, a group of Manchester United fans had become so disillusioned with modern professional football - especially with the Glazer family's controversial takeover of the club - that they decided enough was enough. As a reaction to the perceived evils of the beautiful game, a supporter owned Phoenix club was established with a determination to 'do things differently'.

This April - ten years since their formation - FC United of Manchester sealed promotion to the Football Conference (North), the pinnacle of their on-field achievements and just two further promotions from the Football league.

After a decade of ground-sharing their way around Manchester, the club are shortly due to move to Broadhurst Park, their brand new, purpose built headquarters in Moston, M40. Pitchcare's Mark Allen was granted an exclusive behind the scenes tour with Press Officer Andy Walker and Stadium Manager Graham Byrne


FCUnited Andy&GrahamWith a professional background in the Charity sector, Andy Walker is well practised at driving organisations he strongly believes in. He has also spent his life following football, and is the perfect PR man for FC United - a 'Community Benefit Society' that puts its members first.

Funded primarily from supporters own pockets, with additional grants from the likes of the Football Foundation and Sport England, Broadhurst Park is everything that a football fan could want ... because the supporters designed it, the supporters paid for it and the supporters own it.

Whilst 'supporter ownership' might not sound that unusual (there are over thirty fan-owned football clubs in the UK), no other supporter owned club has gone about its business quite like FC United of Manchester ... literally building a football ground from scratch.

"As a one member, one vote organisation, everything we do as a club is driven by the membership." explains Andy Walker. "The annually elected board of twelve trustees - all of them supporters - make the day-to-day decisions on the running of the club. Even now, with 4000+ registered co-owners, everyone gets a say."

FCUnited WorkUnderway"More importantly, the structure of the organisation means that we will never be in a situation where ownership is dissolved into the hands of a single wealthy individual. This club is run by the fans, for the fans and we think it's the blue print for supporter ownership, not just in the UK, but across the world."

Andy's colleague, Graham Byrne, has recently wound up his own successful landscaping business to take on the role of full time Stadium Manager - which includes responsibility for maintaining the pitch. As a founder member of FC United, Graham has been in from the very beginning and talks with unmistakable passion about the journey they have all been on.

"Turning our backs on Manchester United wasn't a decision that we took lightly. Many of us had been following United for years - home and away - and you don't give up easily on a commitment like that. However, I and many others were feeling increasingly aggrieved at the way in which the modern game disregarded the thousands of people who followed it and made it the spectacle that it was."

Ironically, we are meeting on the very day that the Premier League announced a £5.1 billion deal with Sky Sport and BT Sport to cover the domestic game in Britain from 2016-2019.

"That TV deal means that every single televised match will cost the broadcasters £10 million ... and we've built our new home, in fact, a completely new community asset, for just over £6 million." grins Andy.

And what a home they've built! The new complex contains the main stadium pitch, a brand new 3G artificial pitch, two natural grass junior pitches, plus offices for the whole club and masses of function and community use space.

FCUnited Boardwalk2As well as looking fantastic, the brilliance of the design is in the attention to detail - a factor not always considered in new build stadiums.

"As an example," says Andy, "a favourite chant of our crowd is 'Under the Boardwalk' and so, at the main entrance to the building, there is a cedar 'boardwalk' connecting the junior pitches to the main stadium pitch - a sort of footballing 'Yellow Brick Road' for aspiring kids."

Walking around the site, it's impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of what is being achieved. You sense that something very significant is taking place - a genuine watershed for future models of ownership within the sport.

As we survey the ground, the most striking feature of the finished stadium is the St Mary's Road end. Stretching away to the right of the main stand, this will be the favoured home enclosure for the vociferous hoards - a 2000 capacity terrace with a history and character all of its own.

"When we were talking to our co-owners about exactly how they wanted their new ground to look, one element was top of everyone's list; a large, standing area behind the goal. The problem was, when we did our sums, we realised it would be very expensive." says Andy.

FCUnited PitchInPlaceButNo StMary'sHowever, a cost effective solution was found, as one of non-league's oldest clubs, Northwich Victoria, had fallen on hard times and their Victoria Stadium was ear marked for demolition. FC United were able to purchase the largest terrace, move it to Broadhurst Park and, with a bit of re-engineering, are now the proud owners of potentially the loudest and most characterful standing area in English football.

"By re-using the old Northwich Vic's stand, we feel we are also preserving something of the spirit of 'old football' - which is a huge part of why many people support our club to begin with," adds Graham.

As a non-league follower, I have watched FC United on a number of occasions and what immediately strikes you - either home or away - is the sheer amount of fun everyone seems to be having. If the things you used to love about football included standing at 3.00pm on a Saturday in an unsegregated terrace, singing and whirling a scarf around you head, then this is the place for you. Because it's run by real fans, the stuff that annoys people about football - such as ticket prices, kick off times, shabby catering, lack of atmosphere, lousy websites, etc. - has been thought about and improved upon. Season tickets are sold on a 'pay what you can afford' basis, kids are admitted for two quid, people bring flags, banners and rattles, they sell great local beers in the bar ... the list goes on.

FCUnited NorthwichVicStand2By deconstructing the accepted experience of supporting a modern day football club and offering an alternative way of operating, FC United have also been credited with forging the concept of 'Punk Football' - taking an anti-establishment position and promoting an ethic that anything is possible.

By daring to form a new club and build their own ground, that punk spirit permeates every aspect of the organisation - even down to the name, often deliberately shortened to 'FCUM' which, when you say it quickly and bear in mind they like to do things their way, requires no further explanation! If Old Trafford is the Theatre of Dreams, then Broadhurst Park is an 'Assembly Hall of Reality' - or "FCUM Hall" as one wag once suggested - dropping the 'H' and borrowing from the Manchester vernacular.

Whilst I could expend pages discussing "social activism in contemporary fan owned football clubs", there is no real need, as Cora Shafto, a Sociology Student from Liverpool has already done so - and the work is posted on the excellent club website, alongside other academic papers. Also, this being a turfcare publication, I'd better mention the pitch!

FCUnited ExternalPitches&3GGraham Byrne doesn't look much like a punk. He doesn't spit or wear a Mohican; he does, however, have a punk football heart and now, with the opening of Broadhurst Park just weeks away, the 'groundsman at the club without a ground', will shortly be preparing to host European giants (and fellow fan owned club) Benfica, in the 'Grand Opening' friendly.

As mentioned, such is Graham's devotion to the cause that he has given up the running of his own business to become the club's Stadium Manager - a decision no doubt made easier by FC United's commitment to become a living wage employer - the first football club at any level to achieve this.

Like many groundsmen, Graham gives a balanced view of the activity behind the scenes. "I won't lie," he smiles, "the situation with the pitch has been difficult at times over the last year or so."

"Originally, we had hoped to be playing at the stadium by Autumn 2014. Bearing in mind that work on constructing the pitch didn't really get going until mid-summer 2014, we took a decision to turf rather than seed the playing surface. Obviously, most groundsmen would prefer to establish a new pitch from seed, however timescales dictated that we needed a surface quickly, so a dwarf rye mix was ordered from County Turf in Lincolnshire."

FCUnited CountyTurf3

"In terms of pitch specification, the club needed to strike a balance between quality and price. As much as I would have liked a sand based pitch to work with, every penny that has been raised for this whole project has been down to sheer hard work, so there was a big responsibility on all of us to get good overall value. Further to that, we also needed to consider future ongoing maintenance costs and, in all honesty, I don't think we will be in a position where we can afford to be throwing down fertiliser for twelve months of the year."

Being blessed with good quality indigenous topsoil, and in consultation with the appointed contractor - BPG Sports Ground Contractors of Oldham - the decision was taken to strip the top 300mm off and stockpile it for later use. Land drains were installed at 7m centres and the pipework for the irrigation system was also added.

The original soil was then returned and levelled before being overlaid and ameliorated with additional sand. Finally, the whole area was laser graded and the turf laid on top.

FCUnited PitchApril2015 3By the end of August 2014 the pitch was ready to play on, however the stadium construction had hit various snags - notably with the St Mary's Road stand - and the completion date slipped further and further back.

Standing on the pitch in early spring, it looks ready to host a game at a moment's notice - though when I suggest this to Graham he just shrugs his shoulders and says, "Listen, I'm a groundsman; we are never happy!"

To their credit, the club have invested in good quality kit, with a Dennis G860 mower, a 40hp Landini Tractor and various trailed implements, including a Sisis Multi-slitter 1200 and a Dakota 410 topdressing spreader.

Listening to Graham's story and seeing the obvious delight he takes in just about every aspect of the stadium build (did I mention the wildflower areas that have been created around the perimeter of the site?), it's clear to see that this is a man who enjoys his work. Andy cuts back in with a dose of northern realism:

FCUnited ExternalWork

"It's not all perfect. There was some opposition from local residents to us coming here to this site in Moston and, in fairness, how many people would want to live cheek by jowl with a large football club?"

"But, we believe our values and ethos as a community social enterprise will ensure that we will attract and include the local community as much as we possibly can. The stadium has been designed to sit harmoniously within the landscape and we like to think that, rather than detracting from the area, we will make a positive contribution to this corner of east Manchester."

As I drive off into the drizzle, I contemplate what I've witnessed. It's something very special - due in equal measure to the intelligence of those steering the ship (notably Andy Walsh, FC United's General Manager) and the sheer number of people that have become involved.

FCUnited 3GWhen a group of like-minded individuals take a hard look at their situation and decide they can collectively change things for the better, it's a powerful force - and backs my long held view that a club is not about buildings, a club is about people. Having thrived for ten years without a place to call home, Broadhurst Park is now the icing on the FC United cake, not the foundation of it.

In ten years, FC United have evolved from 'a chat in a pub' to arguably the highest profile social enterprise in the country, and such an example of democracy in action has led to suggestions they are more a political movement than a football club. With their morals and their passion, their personalities and their songs, they do tread a fine line between the two. In truth, I think they can be accepted as both.

Also, in the interests of balance, I should make the point that, whilst the supporter owned model is working well at FC United, I suspect it is much easier with 4,000 co-owners than say, ten men and a dog in a less fashionable geographical area of the country.

FCUnited Mowing

And geography is key to this story because, to my mind, this project wouldn't have succeeded quite this well anywhere except Manchester.

With a long history of political engagement and a deeply ingrained civic pride, Mancunians have always displayed a fierce combination of passion and defiance. Throw in the motivation to stand up for something they believe in and you've got the perfect ingredients for a football revolution. FCUM indeed!

All pictures courtesy of Richard Searle, FC United supporter and photographer

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