The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Six – FC United of Manchester vs AFC Telford United

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

Since I started writing about my football related travels, I’ve been lucky enough to have many of my chums from the world of comedy say to me “ooh, we should go to <INSERT TEAM NAME HERE> together”.  I’ll get around to them all eventually, because there’s nothing better than taking in a match with a mate, especially if he can give you some insight into the club.

Most people in comedy know Big Lou. That’s his name. Well, he’s really called Lewis Jones, but we all call him Big Lou.  He gave himself that name, may I add.  He’s a Manchester based comic and I think it’s fair to say that he’s one of the nicest people that I know.  The sort of lad who would help anybody out and only ever has good things to say about people.  Over the last few months he’s implored me to accompany him to FC United, and after missing out the last couple of weekends because I’ve been busy, it seemed the right time to take him up on his offer.  I checked the fixtures on Monday night and realised I could take in a game on my night off the next day, so all it took was a quick Facebook message to Lou and we were on.

I’ve been keen to watch FC United for quite some time because I think most football fans are completely aware of their entire history.  I can’t think of another non-league club where as many fans are as in tune with the minutiae of their existence since inception.

Here’s the short form: In 2005, fans of Manchester United decided to set up their own club in the wake of Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the Old Trafford club, amongst other reasons for their general feeling of disillusion.  The idea quickly gained traction, with the team quickly climbing the league ladder.  On the pitch the team achieved three promotions in their first three seasons (from level 10 of the football pyramid to level 7) whist off the pitch the club was lauded for being truly fan-owned and fan-governed.  It may have taken FC United a little longer than planned to get to the sixth tier of football, but now they’re there they have everything in place to try and stay at that level and maybe kick on and shoot for bigger things.

Until 2014, FC United had a ground share with Bury, using their Gigg Lane stadium for their games and often drawing magnificent crowds for matches at that level.  Then they had a season sharing with both Stalybridge Celtic and Curzon Ashton before moving in to their own new home – Broadhurst Park – in May of 2015.  The 4,400 capacity stadium was mainly funded by the fans themselves, from community share schemes (which raised around £2 million) and internet crowd funding alongside grants and loans from the FA and the local council.

If you know me by now – and I like to think that you do – then you’ll know that I can’t resist a new stadium and that I’m a massive fan of fan-power and ultras culture.  So going to FC United seems like it is far too overdue.  I can only presume that the reason I’ve held off for so long is the club’s ties to Manchester United, because like every fan of any other team in the country, I’m not too hot on them.  I’m also man enough to admit that this is 100% down to utter jealousy.  I support Leicester, and I can only dream of their success.  They’ve been the best team in the country for the vast majority of my football-watching life.

I’d spent my Monday in London, taking the train there and back to do a voiceover job.  On the way down I’d watched a magnificent documentary about Joy Division, one of my favourite bands.  The archive footage of Manchester in the 1970s and early 1980s came back into my mind as I drove down the M56 on my way to Broadhurst Park, which is in Moston, a few miles north-east of Manchester city centre itself.  That film made me muse upon how the Greater Manchester area can sustain so many football teams, with the working-class history of the area set into sharp focus.

Speaking of the M56, ever since I’ve returned from the Edinburgh Fringe it has become my nemesis.  It should take me around an hour to travel from my home in North Wales to Manchester.  Yesterday it took me nearly three hours to get to Moston.  It wasn’t just me that was stuck though, as the Telford team bus got delayed as well, pushing the kick-off back to 8.15pm.  I arrived at 7.30pm and parked up, just as Big Lou sent me one of the best messages that I’ve had in ages:

Kick off delayed to 8.15pm. Fuck me, you must be important

The large amount of cars parked on the streets around the stadium told me that it wouldn’t be a sparsely attended game for sure.  As you approach the ground you realise that it’s a very pleasant place to watch the game, not just a faceless metal and plastic bowl in the middle of nowhere.  With football pitches facing it for the younger sides to play on (Lou would explain to me that they’re set out that way deliberately to give young players a sense of aspiration, working their way towards the main stadium), it’s illuminated in a way that makes it stand out from every other non-league ground that I’ve ever visited.  Excuse the bad photograph, it was hammering down at the time:

2015-11-03 19.36.35I met up with Lou on the Boardwalk outside, and we made our way inside.  At this point I must confess to breaking one of my official rules.  I would usually pay to attend a game, but Lou insisted that he would sort this out.  For the record, it’s only £9 to watch FC United, but Lou does a few bits and bobs for the club so we managed to get in for free.  Even better, we didn’t even use the turnstile.  Lou nodded at a steward and he just let us in through one of the corner gates.  We even walked past the manager Karl Marginson, who Lou pointed out through a window.  He’s been the manager of the club since its inception, and has now abandoned his fruit and veg business to do the job full time.

The first thing that strikes you upon entering Broadhurst Park are the banners.  They are everywhere, especially on the smaller terraces to one side of the pitch and behind one of the goals.  Behind the other goal is a very large terrace where most of the vocal FC United fans stand, and then there is the impressive main stand with a mixture of seating and standing, as well as a bar area behind glass at the top and the usual food stands on the bottom.

Some of my favourite banners on display were as follows – and there were too many to list, as well as the massive scarf behind one goal in the colours of the club that I didn’t even notice it until the second half.

“Making friends not millionaires”

“Mancunian dissent”

“We are the resurrection”

You can buy sweets – and oddly, temporary tattoos – from a table just inside the entrance, but I required more sustenance.  I am happy to report that for £3 you can buy a pie, mushy peas and gravy.  Plus they keep the prices of drinks down (just £1) and they sell wafers (like those that you get in a coffee shop) rather than the usual Mars range.  I even had a can of Dandelion and Burdock, and they leave out free bread for anybody having their home-made soup.  I may have taken some bread.  I’m marathon training and need the carbs.

We went off to find a seat, and I realised that Lou knows everybody.  He introduced me to a chap called Vinny, who works in a commercial capacity for the club.  He seemed a smashing bloke, and he in turn introduced us to a chap who had just climbed Kilimanjaro for charity.  At every turn FC United feels like an inclusive, family club where everyone is welcome – although maybe if I was wearing a Manchester City shirt things might feel a little bit different.

We took our seat and I finished my pie.  I remained hungry, and spied a food van on the small terrace behind the goal nearest to us.  I walked over to it to get my second course, expecting the usual football fare.  I was pleasantly surprised with what I discovered.

2015-11-03 19.56.22Yes, that’s right. Quesadillas.  Two vegetarian options.  At a football match.  I ordered a chilli beef one and chatted to the chap serving them up.  With the sides warming up, he all of a sudden became very aware that footballs may well be flying into his kitchen area in the near future.  He told me he’d not thought about that when he got set up.  Whilst he toasted my quesadilla in front of me, another bloke ordered some of the home-made oxtail soup.  It looked amazing, loads of meat and vegetables in there.  I can happily report that my quesadilla was really rather wonderful, although it’s a hard thing to eat on a paper plate whilst sat at a football match.

FC United haven’t had the best of runs in recent games, with five consecutive defeats going into this match.  Telford were faring even worse, with them following up their relegation from Conference National last season with a dreadful start to this season, starting the game in bottom position.  I went to see them last season when they took on Dover and they looked poor at that level, but they tend to yo-yo between tiers five and six in the pyramid.  They had brought a couple of coaches worth of fans to this game as well, demonstrating decent support on a wet Tuesday.

I asked Lou how it works with FC United fans with regards to Manchester United – who were playing at home to CSKA Moscow at the same time – do they cheer their score if they’re winning? Or have they abandoned one side to support the new one?  It seems that most FC United fans remain fans of the Old Trafford club, although some of the younger fans will no grow up supporting FC United only.  For Lou it’s odd as he isn’t a Manchester United fan, he’s actually an Everton supporter as his Dad was from Bootle.  So it was only me, him and the Telford fans who weren’t bothered on how the Champions League game across town was going.

The game kicked off with Telford instantly taking it by the scruff of the neck and being much the better team.  If you didn’t know that they were struggling, you would have presumed that they were a team pushing for promotion.  They looked bigger, stronger and fitter, and midfielder Sean Clancy wore his floppy hair under a headband and wandered around the pitch like he was a Conference North version of Gareth Bale.  I love flair players at this level, mainly as I imagine that they’re a nightmare to train with and play alongside.

FC United’s keeper Dave Carnell had a rather schizophrenic opening few minutes, spilling routine shots but then redeeming himself with good saves.  In his defence, the goalmouth was very greasy as the rain continued to belt down.  One stop in particular was world-class after he had blocked a shot with his chest when it looked easier to catch the ball.  He’d then be bailed out by  centre-back Nia Bayunu after spilling another chance. Bayunu – who looked decent throughout – would then clear off the line after a Telford scramble.  It was all Telford at this stage, and the inevitable goal followed.

Was probably my fault for mocking him, but in the 20th minute Clancy tucked the ball away following a cross from Samuels.  I noted then how unsegregated the fans were, with a pocket of Telford fans behind the goal that he scored in, plus a larger contingent on the left side of the main terrace and a few dotted around us in the seats.  Was never any trouble between anybody though, everything was very cordial.  The only animosity came from one FC United fan near us who complained constantly about the performance of his own team.  True, they weren’t in the game at this point but during their first season at this level you’d think he’d cut them some slack.  He was the only fan at this stage to be so vocal in his criticism, mind you.

Even though they were behind, the FC United fans on the large terrace were excellent, singing their hearts out and possibly getting even louder when their team went a goal behind.  This seemed to galvanise the side on the pitch, as they improved greatly and seemed to have much more attacking nous from then on.  There was a scary moment as FC United’s Sam Sheridan and Telford’s Darren Campion both went hurtling into the advertising hoardings at great speed.  This held the game up for a while and Campion was eventually substituted (and apparently needed stitches to the inside of his mouth).

Sam Sheridan hit a decent free kick at goal which the Telford defence scrambled away for a corner, before Matthew Wolfenden forced keeper James Montgomery into a good save with a chance from the resulting corner.  With FC United doing a lot of pressing, their recent bad luck and form should tell you what happened next: They went 2-0 down.  Telford won a free kick, Kyle Brownhill whipped it in and Robert Paratore smashed it home.  The small pocket of Telford fans behind the goal spilled onto the pitch, so Lou nudged me and said “those lads should calm down, it’s only a Tuesday night”.

As the game drifted to half time, one FC United fan really made me laugh.  A Telford player won a throw in just in front of us, and his manager (Rob Smith) barked instructions at him.  The fan shouted “hey mate! Don’t listen to him! Have your own thoughts! Or listen to us!”  It gave everyone around us a good giggle, and even Smith acknowledged it with a grin.  As the half time whistle sounded, there were no boos from the home fans, even if the disappointment at their current run was palpable.

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I always tend to notice what music is played during half time breaks.  Quite aptly, the music played during this interval was “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy.  I couldn’t have made a better choice.  Whoever is responsible for that is a genius.  I noticed another couple of banners on the large terrace  – one representing German side St Pauli, another bearing the “Refugees Welcome” message and a third saying “Football: Saturday, 3pm”.  Broadhurst Park really does have the right vibe to it.

For the second half FC United brought on returning all-time top goalscorer Rory Patterson.  Initially at the club between 2005-2008, he scored 99 goals as the team ascended through the lowest reaches of the leagues, before going on to play in his native Northern Ireland and briefly for Plymouth Argyle.  He even earned 5 international caps before making his way back to Manchester.  The fans were pleading with Marginson to bring him on, and he replaced Matthew Wolfenden.  Having seen pictures of Patterson during his first run at the club, he’s a little heavier now than he was but as soon as he entered the field he looked to be exactly the catalyst that FC United needed.  He was eager and on occasion, his enthusiasm did transfer into being a little bit naughty as the game became scrappy and a tad ill-tempered.

Tackles were flying in like on the latest version of Pro Evolution Soccer, where you can pole-axe someone at knee height and the referee won’t even blow the whistle.  Challenges came in from both sides with increasing ferocity, leading me to think that if this was a Premier League match that both sides may well have been down to eight apiece.  Thing is, nobody rolled around as if they were injured, they just got on with it.  It wasn’t a dirty game, just a lot more enthusiastic in the tackle than you would normally see.

A few cards were handed out – to Wright and Daniels in quick succession, among others – but FC United struggled to make any clear chances despite having more possession than the first period.  A series of corners seems to yield nothing, until in the 74th minute Telford keeper Montgomery made a hash of one of them, punching the ball right onto the head of Tom Greaves.  FC United had a goal back, it was game on. Would the bottom side of the division start to wilt under the pressure?

In a word, no.  Telford wisely slowed the game down, with full-back Samuels getting booked for time wasting before a long goal kick in the 85th minute arrived on the head of Dave Hibbert.  It sailed past the onrushing Carnell, hit the post and trickled over the line.  That was it, game over.

Interestingly, whilst a few fans set off for home – after all, the game had been delayed by 30 minutes – most stayed put and carried on singing.  You cannot fault the fans at all, and it’s a lot to ask for the team to get to the sixth tier and just walk it to the next level.  It took a while to get to this stage, it might take a while to go higher but everything is in place for this club to do great things.

It’s a shame to go to Broadhurst Park for the first time and not see them win, but if you get a chance to go along there and you love your football, jump on it.  Yes, you might not like Manchester United, but there is nothing but a long list of things to like about FC United of Manchester.  A smashing club.

Summary:

FC United of Manchester 1 (Greaves 74) vs AFC Telford United 3 (Clancy 20, Paratore 40, Hibbert 85)

Attendance: 2,781

Cost: Ticket free (should be £9); parking free; Pie, peas and gravy £3; wafers £1; Dandelion and Burdock £1; Chilli Beef Quesadilla £4

Fun Factor: 8/10

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