The day after the premiership title has been decided, I am on my way to Gigg Lane in Bury, just outside Manchester. Not to see the local club, the Shakers, who have just been condemned to relegation from League One and need a £ million to stay in business, but to see their tenants, FC United of Manchester. The club born in the aftermath of the Glazer family buying Manchester United in 2005. There have been a few academic studies into fan culture and the reactions to the transformation of English football over the past two decades. There are the new corporate fans, who buy all the merchandise and “consume” the new culture. There are the lads, who follow their team everywhere, but will not buy a pie inside the ground as a protest against the commercialism. And there are the more intellectual, reflecting fans. But FC United opened up an alternative route. Start all over again with a club that places community work at the heart of its activities.
Now, as quoted in the Kevin Loach movie “Looking for Eric”, you can change your wife and you can change your political views, but you can’t change your football team. But nevertheless, that is what FC United has tried to make Manchester United fans do. And families have been divided. Arthur Albiston. star of the seventies and eighties, has described how one of his sons has gone over to the FC, whereas the other has stayed loyal. And you could look at Ryan Giggs playing for Manchester United, and his younger brother for FC.
Trying to find my way to the ground, I spot a FC fan and chat with him on the way. He is travelling from Stoke, but there are ex-United supporters travelling from all over England. One of his mates comes up from Brighton. After winning promotion in their opening seasons, FC has stalled in the EvoStick Premier Division, missing out in the playoffs two seasons running. With a win tonight, they can clinch their place in the playoffs once again. But – being a midweek match – he predicts a low gate of around 1.500, which is very much spot on.
As the ground belongs to Bury, FC have to set up their gear on a match-to-match basis. Adding to the sense that this is very much an alternative club that attracts a different audience. It feels like market stalls set up in a local town square – or perhaps outside the venue for a rock festival.
Some of the people there look a bit bohemian compared to other crowds, but I spot a big skinhead with his MUFC tatoo just showing on his neck. Adding to the sense of an alternative community, are the Che Guevara banners on sale in the stalls.
The ground is not that old, but it looks like it. It is a bit grotty, to be frank, but in a nice way. Somehow reflecting the values. It is not important to have a shiny, glass facade. The catering inside the ground is sparse, but I do manage to get a steak and ale pie before the match and the only pasty left during the half time interval.
The FC put a lot of effort into marking that Gigg Lane is, indeed, their territory. There are at least 50 banners adorning the three stands not in use. Some declare support from other countries and even continents. Others are political in their content: “Supporters, not customers”, “Making friends, not millionaires”. A giant bar scarf, about 40 * 3 meter, represent the most common garment among the FC fans. The good, old fashioned bar scarf from the mid-/late seventies that Manchester United by the way also has taken up again this season, perhaps inspired by the FC. It seems like a shift in fashion at the Manchester United, but the meaning attributed to it by the FC fans is reflected in the text of one of their banners: “Childhood memories”.
Trying to fit in, I had bought a scarf at the stalls, nostalgically going for the black-white-red rather than the common red-white-black. But with one exception, nobody but me wears it.
As the players are about to enter the field, the FC United half of the stand (there are a few Ashton supporters in the other half) start chanting. And amazingly, they carry on singing and chanting throughout the first half! It appears that this is really what it is about. Making a vocal statement of what they want football to be. Standing, singing, declaring their love for their team. And as football songs go, their repertoire is quite sophisticated, the songs last up to five minutes – and the only ones carrying an edge are directed at the Glazers. “Please don’t worry, about a thing, We are FC, we are gonna be all right”.
This is my third match in Manchester within a week, and it follows the same pattern as the previous two. The home side plays devastating, sharp football in the first half, storming into a three goal lead, which could and should have been much bigger. And then in the second half, they do not really pick up the momentum again, and it falls a bit flat. Every goal is greeted by frantic waving of scarves and halts the singing momentarily. “I am an FC fan, I am a Mancunian, I know what I want, and I know where to get it”.
Even though the second half doesn’t really live up to the first, the singing is once again non-stop. People take it in turns to join in – and to chat with each other when they have a break. There is a high proportion of women, but ethnically and age-wise it is mainly a white +40 crowd. “So come on cheer the boys, hear the FC noise, we go wild wild wild” The tunes for the songs to a large extent reflect that most of the crowd grew into football in the 70’s like me.
When I leave the ground, I am just about the only person heading for the station. Everybody seems to have gone to the match by car, and with crowds not being bigger, that is the easiest way to go. But it also reflects the composition of the crowd – most of them are driving cars.
Looking at some of the people standing around me, contemplating the political statements that permeat most things around the club, and with ears ringing from the non-stop singing, I wonder whether I would convert if I lived here permanently.