A MIDDLE-AGED bloke is waving the white and blue Argentinian flag, with the word ‘MARGENTINA’ printed on it, wafting the aroma of chips, pies, beer and aftershave – with just a hint of weed – towards the back of the stand. Someone passes around a hip flask and a fiery liquor of indeterminate origin burns its way down my throat.
Everyone in the crowd wearing FC United of Manchester scarves starts twirling them above their heads like so many synchronised red and white helicopters. A minute later, they’re all singing “I don’t care about Rio, and he don’t care about me ..” to the tune of Mellow Yellow.
I ask Boardy, my affable guide to the wonderful and strange world of FCUM, who makes up the new words to the half-forgotten pop tunes – Donovan’s drippy-hippie classic, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Hong Kong Garden, even Peaches by the Stranglers – being enthusiastically bawled out by the crowd. It sounds like there’s an old bondage-trousered punk at work among the sea of Berghaus, One True Saxon and the North Face.
Boardy rolls his eyes and jerks a thumb back towards the big, wild-eyed guy who’s bellowing his heart out further back in the stand. Right on cue, Gary, the man responsible for composing many of the FCUM morale-boosting singalongs, lurches in between us, fired up and in his element. He looks like a kid let loose in a toy shop.
“Y’know when you wake up in a morning?” he tells me breathlessly. “It’s like I get a scrambled radio signal, it’s all going on in my head. My mate’s girlfriend is from Greece and she’s a psychologist. She did the post-match analysis last week. She said to me, you’re fucked, aren’t you? I said, is that your professional opinion?”
It’s all a bit surreal, a full-on assault on the senses which is only heightened by the entire 3000 strong FCUM crowd suddenly chanting ‘Attack! Attack!’ over and over again. They only stop when the ref blows the half-time whistle.
Oh yes, there’s a football match on too.
Malcolm Glazer’s calculated and clinical boardroom takeover of Manchester United last year wasn’t unusual or surprising. Like any other public limited company, Manchester United shares are bought and sold. Buy enough of them and you’re the boss. The reaction of ordinary fans to the American billionaire acquiring a controlling interest in the club was, however, absolutely extraordinary.
Rightfully fearful that, despite their enormous wealth, the Glazers would have to borrow a large part of the £790million it eventually cost to buy Manchester United, using the club, Old Trafford and even the players as collateral on the loan, fans were against the move from the outset. Efforts to exert pressure through the stock market achieved little and more militant voices came to the fore. Any members of the Glazer family who want to visit Old Trafford need a police escort.
Some fans decided to stop going to Manchester United games altogether, and formed their own non-profit making football club, FC United of Manchester.
“It’s alright people going on about Glazer but if they want to get all upset about something, they should’ve got all upset when the club became a PLC in the first place,” Boardy tells me at half-time. “It’s all okay when you’re winning trophies, isn’t it? It’s brilliant, you’ve got loads of money for this and that, but you’re still paying money to shareholders, you’re still running the club as a business. You could argue that if people are that bothered about it all, they should have done something about it then.
“Thing is though, Glazer just had a really bad reputation, and it all just incensed people.”
Glazer is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. After 96 Liverpool fans died in a crush on the terraces at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground in 1989, the Taylor Report recommended that grounds’ big unseated pens should be replaced by banks of seating. Rather than paying on the door, on the day, fans now had to buy season tickets with allocated seating and it was the luck of the draw who they sat next to. And season tickets are expensive.
You could say it’s all Nick Hornby’s fault. When he wrote his tedious Fever Pitch book he managed to persuade the middle classes that football was not only modishly laddish and edgily tribal, but also sufficiently disengaged from its working class origins for them to avoid anything too unsettling or dangerous.
“When United went a bit nuclear in the Nineties, when they started winning the league again and everyone wanted to see them, it got a bit more difficult to get tickets,” says Wolfie, who edits the FCUM fanzine Under the Boardwalk. “But it was the pricing of the tickets that got me thinking, and this was when it was twenty quid a ticket.
“Towards the end of the time I was going down to Old Trafford, I wasn’t even buying a programme. I might’ve bought a beer. They don’t want the likes of me down there. They want the tourists, who’ll spend a bit of money in the shop.”
So you all cut yourselves off from something you obviously care deeply about?
“Well no, they cut me off, and I’ve been drifting away for the last two or three years. I sometimes wonder what my grandad would make of it. He went to see Manchester United in the days when it was the Busby Babes and all that. It was a different game to what it is now. Would my grandad understand the idea behind FC United or is it about blind loyalty to United, whatever they do, wherever they’re at? Even if it means your principles fly out of the window?”
The young side that did so well in the Nineties, says Wolfie, “obviously they were getting paid a lot of money but they were in touch with the fans, there was a community connection there, with people like the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, even Beckham to an extent. He’s not local but he came up through that squad. Ryan Giggs – he’s technically Welsh but he’s as Salford as they come. They had a link to the local fans that we’re probably losing now.”
Everyone may still refer to Manchester United as ‘us’ but there’s much more of a connection with the team put together by greengrocer and Manchester United fan turned FC United manager, Karl Marginson (hence the ‘Margentinian’ flag and the frequent lyrical references to fruit and veg) than an Alex Ferguson side they often regard as flash, arrogant and mercenary.
Made up of a number of disaffected United fans, as well as canny players dropping down a few levels to play for a team so obviously on the way up, FCUM is a phenomenally well supported club, especially in a league where their opponents can generally muster perhaps a couple of dozen souls. No less than 4000 fans made their way to Blackpool in February.
Clearly relishing the step back in time they experience when they crowd onto the unseated terraces at the Manchester Road end of their adopted home of Gigg Lane in Bury, FCUM fans actually seem to spend a lot of money on club merchandise, wearing the full gamut of team shirts, striped bar scarves, badges and hats in a way that fashion-conscious football fans haven’t done in decades.
As Under the Boardwalk columnist ‘Politico’ notes, FC United games are “football how it used to be, full of fun, laughter, and raw, uninhibited passion.”
Everyone is having the time of their lives, with non-stop singing and chanting and ear-to-ear grins the order of the day. I get the impression that, as one puts it, “acting like a bit of a knob, jumping up and down, singing songs” on the terraces is as important to FCUM fans as anything that happens on the pitch. Almost everyone else I speak to had been going to see Manchester United since they were kids.
“There’s all this thing about it being anti-United and everything. It’s not anti-United. That’s the whole thing about it. The only people here are people who still care, do you know what I mean? It’s just they don’t want to pay 35 quid to be here,” Boardy tells me.
“I just want to see how far it goes. That’s all it’s about. See how far it goes. Enjoy the ride. People say, what do you expect to achieve? And all that. Well, what I achieve is a fucking laugh, that’s what I achieve. Which I don’t at Old Trafford.”
[This piece first ran in Flux magazine in February 2006]