It’s 90 minutes before kick off and the stadium’s concourse is filling up with excited United fans clutching their match tickets and wearing red-and-white scarves and shirts.
Inside the ground, a full repertoire of United songs is belted out in the main stand.
Anticipation is building – a huge European game is weeks away and this sunny afternoon in Manchester is a significant milestone for the club.
This isn’t Old Trafford, though.
Fifteen miles to the east of Manchester United’s “Theatre of Dreams” a club with a special link to England’s biggest football team are hosting a first match in their new 5,000-capacity stadium. After a decade on the road, FC United of Manchester finally have somewhere to call home.
FC United are a breakaway club set up in 2005 by a group of disaffected Manchester United supporters in protest at the £790 million (Dh4.56 billion) takeover of their club by the Glazer family. A debt-free club was suddenly saddled with loans to finance the buyout and, at its peak, debt under the American family reached £716.5 million.
Some fans reacted to the acrimonious takeover by burning effigies of Malcolm Glazer – the head of the family – in the streets outside the 76,000-capacity Old Trafford. Others, angry as much about the direction modern-day football was taking than about what was happening to their beloved club, had a more radical idea.
“A number of us decided we wouldn’t pay one more penny to United,” said Alan Hargrave, a founding member of FC United who has supported Manchester United for 30 years. “We made that stand but we didn’t know what we were going to be doing with our Saturdays.
“Then, after some drinks, one of the guys said, ‘Let’s form our own football club.’ But there isn’t a book that says how to do it.”
The group of fans – about 1,000 strong – threw together a team that began playing weeks later in the local league, in the 10th tier of the English pyramid.
“We turned up for our first friendly, not knowing how many would come to watch,” recalled Karl Marginson, who has coached FC United from the very start. “There ended up being 2,500 people there.”
FC United’s progress has been spectacular, on and off the field. The team have just been promoted to the Conferece North – the sixth tier and two more promotions from the Football League. And the team now have their own stadium, after 10 years of renting from others.
Broadhurst Park hosted a match last week that acted as a test event ahead of its official opening on Friday, when two-time European champions Benfica fly in from Portugal for a friendly. It will be a proud moment for everyone involved with FC United.
The club are a co-operative run by the members – the fans. It costs £12 a year to be a member, and for that you get to vote on everything from the look of the shirts and the badge, to ticket prices and the name of the club. There are more than 3,000 members, some in outposts as far-flung as Australia, New Zealand, Russia and China.
“One member, one vote,” said Nick Wolfenden, the club’s strength and conditioning coach. “That’s the whole point, you get to have a say. The choice isn’t taken out of your hands by a fat cat who is creaming a load of money out of the club.”
The new stadium cost £6.3m to build, with money coming from community shares, a government-run social investment fund, crowd-funding and members digging deep into their pockets. Broadhurst Park is a compact ground, with banners and flags lining the field that are adorned with words such as “2 Uniteds, 1 Soul,” “Traffordable,” and “Football without fans is nothing”.
Those messages strike at the very heart of the club. FC United are about more than being anti-Glazer and anti-commercialist – it’s about putting fans first, and that means cheap ticket prices, normal kickoff times and not bowing to the demands of TV companies.
“I’m a Man United fan – and I will be to the day I die – but it’s the club’s business model I don’t support,” FC United general manager Andy Walsh said in the corridor outside the team’s dressing rooms. “Our aim is to build a sustainable football club that is owned and run by its supporters. I think what we’ve done is the future of the game.”
FC United fans are renowned for their non-stop singing – “I call it 90-90 football,” Marginson says, “90 per cent of the people singing for 90 minutes” – and many of the chants are directed at the Glazers.
“Glazers wherever you may be, you bought Old Trafford but you can’t buy me,” was one chant during the test-event match.
The rapid rise up the English football pyramid will bring its own challenges. League status would mean more dealings with commercial partners, such as television stations, but the members vow they will never let the club be exploited.
And what about the prospect of playing Manchester United at Old Trafford somewhere down the line?
“I’ll listen to it on the radio,” FC United fan Rob Barrow said. “I don’t want to go there and give the Glazers money, do I?”
* Associated Press
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