National League North, Broadhurst Park, 02/10/15.It’s a worry when you get on a bus, and the driver doesn't know where it goes. Having faith in my research, and that I was at the correct bus stop just off Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, I hopped back on, but even after showing him the map, of where I wanted to get off, he was still unsure. Only thanks to a couple who overheard where I wanted to go, and after much debate and convincing of the driver, that he does in fact go there, did we finally take a seat on the top deck.
I’m one man down today, so it’s more accurate to say it’s “One Man And His Fiancee In Search Of The Beautiful Game”, having managed to shoehorn a game into a visit to the the North West to see the soon to be in-laws, as my fiancee is a native of these parts.
Today Manchester has been blessed with what is the main topic of conversation, with every person we have happend to talk to since arriving, a sunny day. It’s also a Friday night, not a day you would typically watch football in England, until recently that is, and having only done it once before when we visited Berlin, and what a night that was it meant that a Friday night under the flood lights had a lot to live up to.
Unless you are a follower of Manchester Untd or you are up on your football history, the area of Newton Heath may not mean much to you, but as we pass through it on the bus, it seems pertinent, considering tonight's final destination. It reminds me of the yellow and green scarves that were so prevalent at Old Trafford in the early days of the Glazers takeover, a sign of protest from United fans appalled by the actions of their new owners, flying the colours of the Newton Heath LYR FC, a club formed at a local railway yard in 1878, by the Carriage and Wagon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, that would eventually go on to become the world famous Red Devils.
No talking buses round here, no robotic female voice informing you of the next stop, and not having a lot of faith is this ship’s captain, it was thanks to the same passenger who got us on the bus, who told us we had arrived, Broadhurst Park home of FC United of Manchester (FCUM).
As seems very much the way round here, we get chatting to the couple of FCUM fans, and I get the feeling their story is one replicated a lot at FCUM, one of split loyalties, but ultimately siding with the club that will give them a voice, be affordable and not be totally engulfed in all the trappings of modern football.
They have been coming since day one in 2005, in fact he had missed that game, but she was clearly very proud to have attended. Now ex season ticket holders at United, they had kept them on for the first season of FCUM formation, but have now stopped going. I ask if they prefer to come here, he is quick to say “yes” her reply is stifled with a little hesitation, but she ultimately agrees. She says they “occasionally go to Old Trafford, but the atmosphere” she gestures to the stand closest to the road, just behind us “is stunning”, so not only does she make our mind up for where we are standing this evening, but also confirms what I have heard, read and seen.
There is already a considerable amount of people here as we arrive, either ordering from the burger van, sitting around or like a couple of kids are, kicking a ball around on one of two greens in front of the main entrance. We are so punctual, that the turnstiles are not open yet, and a queue of people has informally formed.
“Two pound your match day programme” says a cheery women, holding one high above her head, on the wooden Nucky Thompson absent walkway, leading between the two greens outside the ground.
Although admittedly not a huge fan of new build grounds, I think I’m with the majority who would prefer a history filled, ageing ground, over a flat pack Ikea one, but Broadhurst Park is a bit more stylish, a bit more modernistic, the combination of wood, metal and brick, all red and black, is almost chic, in fact it does not look like a football stadium at all.
The opportunity to win a fudge hamper or £200 is too hard to resist as one of the raffle prizes, so another roll of the dice, and the chance to win big, and as with all of these things, it’s all for a good cause “the money goes towards the ground development fund”.
A clunk from behind the red turnstile door, grabs the attention of the informal queue comprised of kids and families, which very quickly becomes a formal one, waiting for the door to open. I stand studying the ground regulations on the wall, which whilst I was taking a picture earlier someone had asked me if it was an “eviction notice”.
Once inside it’s very easy to be blown away by the compact, but perfectly sized ground. The fact one of my favourite bands are playing Queens Of The Stone Age, and the large ever ascending covered terrace behind one goal, the "The St. Mary's Road End" recommended by our bus saviour, with its red railings brightly lit, is currently empty, will undoubtedly be where we stand tonight, but before we pick our spot, there is a lot to take in beforehand.
A tarpaulin covered market stall, you would normally see outside, is pitch side, with clothes rails of shirts, as well as hats and scarves, and pins. If you have a sweet tooth, there is a stall selling enough sweets, all lined up in white boxes side by side, to satisfy Augustus Gloop, where you can pick up a bottle of “pop” or an FCUM lolly.Although tempted, very tempted indeed to get Tom a shirt, the red with white collar, and no sponsor, is very cool indeed, a nod I’m sure to the other team which fills so many hearts of the people and fans of FCUM, a retro design that looks very 21st century. Instead I plumb for a pin to add to his ever growing collection from the clubs we have visited so far.
Walking past the "The St. Mary's Road End" you can not help but want to go and investigate the flags and banners of various sizes, suspended from the stand, that runs the whole length of the pitch. “FC UNITED SONGS OF FREEDOM” and “TRAFFORDABLE FOOTBALL”, are just a couple, but the one that sums up FCUM up perfectly is the one that reads "2 UNITED'S 1 SOUL". There are no seats, but just a gallery if you like for all the supporters groups, from all around the world, France, Poland and China, to display their allegiance. An opportunity for all those people who have invested their emotion, time and money into this idea, this ethos which seems to have captured so many imagination's, just like a medieval army, the Vanguard flying its colours before battle. Behind the other goal, the “away end” is a huge scarf that almost runs the full width of the pitch.
“Dad can we stand behind the goals?”.
The main stand, mostly all seating, with a couple of small standing sections at the front is almost full, by the time we have done a lap of the ground. One thing that caught my eye was the man offering historical walking tours on Saturday's, before a match. Taking in all the local sights and points of interest in the area relevant to the history of both United and FCUM. Staring in Newton Heath, and ending up at the ground well in time for kick off.
Allowing a man with a walking stick, decorated in the clubs colours to pass, we climb the terrace and take up our spot for the night, and as we hang our flag from the railings someone asks us “have you found it yet?”.
There is a steady stream of people making their way in, and as the attendance grows, so does the atmosphere, fewer and fewer places to stand are available. People selling more raffle tickets, climb up and down the stand, weaving in and out, taking a pound here, a pound there, from all the lovers of fudge here this evening.
“Bring on United, bring on United, bring on United” starts just to the right of us, and engulfs the crowd. It keeps going, getting more intense until a swarm of luminous green hoody wearing ball boys fly out of the tunnel, followed by the the teams, FCUM and Worcester City FC (WC) breaking the hypnotic chant with shouts of “come on” and “FC, United. FC United” as the supporters call and respond amongst themselves.
As the flag with a bee waves back and forth in front with the slogan “buzzin” below it, a kid drops his chips and looks mortified, more and more songs flood from the terrace
“I am an FC fan, I am a Mancunian”
“We go wild, wild, wild, FC make some noise”
It mostly starts from a core in the middle directly behind the goal, and on hearing the first rendition of “Dirty Old Town”, something which has become a personal obsession of mine it sends the hairs up on the back of my neck.
“I met my love by the gas works wall.
Dreamed my dream by the old canal,I kissed my girl by the factory walldirty old town, dirty old town.
This is our club belongs to you and mewe're United, United FC”
While this has all been going on, a football match broke out, and I realise quite how long I have been watching and listening to the crowd, and things going on around me, like the smell of chips and gravy or the frankly pornographic way the slightly drunk man in front of us devours and digests one of the gourmet hot dogs on offer.
FCUM really look great running around under the flood lights, a combination of their vintage look, standing on a terrace, the signing, the sound of a wooden rattle, it’s like a football DeLorean, a time warp to a rose tinted time of pure nostalgia. A time I’m too young to have experienced directly, but one you can read about, watch films on YouTube about, but this was real, this was happening right here, right now.
“You soft bastard, you soft bastard, you soft bastard” is the opinion of the crowd in regards to the WC player who goes down injured, rolls off the pitch, and then rolls back on, forcing the referee to halt the play.
The game, yes I have not completely forgotten about it, has been a bit stop start, with no clear chances for either side, with FCUM slightly shading it, so with 25 mins gone, WC go 1 - 0 up, you might say it's against the run of play. It’s a nice goal, a high ball controlled well, a touch to take it away from his marker in red, and a clinical low curling shot, well out of reach of the keeper.
For the first time in about an hour the chants are slightly muted except for the youths behind me “You blue cunts!”, but this is quickly remedied “FC United, FC United, FC United, FC United”.
Since the goal WC have taken control, and their rapid number 7 is causing all sorts of problems. When FCUM do break out of their half, they pass the ball well around the box, but the killer ball is just not there for them.
WC have everyone laughing when a free kick routine ends up with each player leaving the ball for the other, and they both run away from the ball, one has a bit of a strop and an FCUM fan near us quite rightly asks “what the fuck was that?!?”.
Once again the WC number 7 is creating all the danger, a quick counter attack finds him running along the goal line, after cutting inside from out wide, passing into the area, only for the resulting shot to be cleared off the line.
FCUM are handed a lifeline, after the goal scorer Lee Hughes, who is probably more famous for spending 3 years in prison, than playing football is given a straight red, after raising his hands, and what looks like putting them around the neck of his appointment. An innocuous coming together, seems to rub him up the wrong way, and he leaves the pitch to a chorus of “cheerio, cheerio, cheerio” and the half finishes with FCUM a goal behind, but a man ahead.
Half time went like this: Players off, sprinklers on, subs warm up dodging the water. No £50, no £200 and NO FUDGE! Gambling is cruel, I have to take deep breaths and remember it all goes to a good cause, breathe, it all goes to a good cause.
“United, United, United, United” the noise of the wooden rattle starts again as the teams come out for the second half, FCUM have 45 mins against 10 men, “United, United, United, United”.
The home side as you would expect with the numerical advantage come out the stronger side, and it’s not long into the half that they have an attempt cleared off the line, but the same affliction of the first half is hampering them in the second, as they continue to get into good positions, but with little or no final product.
“Manchester, la, la, la, la, la”
WC are happy to sit back, and are doing a good job in nullifying the FCUM attacks, they are proving very hard to break down. The fan next to us sums up the half so far perfectly “we’ve got 11 men, but can’t get hold of the game!”
Perhaps the biggest cheer of the game is for the booking for the WC keeper, the same keeper who every time he kicks the ball the whole terrace shout “ohhhhhhhhhhhh, you soft bastard, ahhhhhhhhhh” after he went down after a very tame nudge from an FCUM player. The referee has had enough of his blatant attempts to run down the clock, and so have the fans “you time wasting bastard”.
A chant to the tune of ‘Peaches’ by the Stranglers, accompanies FCUM’s best chance of the half so, with 10 minutes to go, a great turn and long range shot, is just tipped over the bar, and the two resulting corners come to nothing.
“Get the ball in their fucking half”
“How?!” I scream with minutes left of the half when FCUM are offered a golden chance to salvage something, from what could be a bit of an embarrassing result, considering how long they have had the man advantage. A superb flick, sends the ball out wide, a cross into the box is dummied at the front post, leaving a player practically under the bar to grab the equalizer, but he misses, he puts it over. In the words of Rachel, my fiancee “that sums up their night”.
The request of the FCUM fans for the team to “attack, attack, attack” ends up biting the team in the arse, because as the whole team floods forward, they are vulnerable to the counter attack, and WC’s pace sends them flying up the left and a great finish across the keeper into the opposite corner. For the first time this evening I’m aware of the travelling support, jumping up and down beneath the mega scarf, and the team race to the barrier to celebrate with them. Not long after the restart, the announcement of the attendance 3,619, gets a massive round of applause, and is just shy of the 4,000 the couple we met outside had hoped would be here.
The final whistle brings a reasonably quick exodus, but not before the team, gracious in defeat approach the fans and applaud them on mass, not in dribs and drabs as the rest slink off, but as a team they thank the fans. It’s something we are seeing more and more, the first time was in Germany, and I think it highlights wonderfully the connection between players and supporters “we love United we do”.
A fan in a pragmatic mood walks past us on the way out and I think expresses the overall emotion perfectly “who gives a fuck, I own this club”.
“Booo get off the pitch, hang them” is the tongue in cheek opinion of a woman standing behind us as a couple of kids jump the barrier, and start a mini pitch invasion. The remainder of the fans still here, as we take down our flag, walk along with a bin bag in hand cleaning up, just like the anti fascist wombles we had seen at Clapton, these must be their left wing Northern cousins.
On our way to the bus stop, it’s now dark and chilly, and we find 3 Portuguese tourists who have been somewhat caught out, as we are about to be, by the infrequency of the evening buses, and we potentially have a 1 hour wait until the next one. They disappear into the night in search of transport, we walk back the way we came, in search of a drink at the fingers crossed still open bar in the ground.
Through the white double doors, and directed up the stairs by a man on the front desk, past a display of all the clubs silverware, and into a still busy bar, full of fans from each team, standing around in small groups.
£5.20 for two pints, not one, two! I’m not going into some rant about the North South divide, but this is fucking mental, and the look on my face, brings a slight grin from the bar man. All the tables in the bar are full, so we take a chance, and lucky for us some of the doors leading outside, are open, and on our way out I overhear one fan who hits the nail on the head “we never looked like winning that”. We join some of the press in the process of the packing up, and take a seat in the area reserved for “accredited press and media representatives”.
I’m not sure I have ever had a nicer spot for a post match pint, the Irish Centre after a game at Spurs will never feel the same again. From on top of the main stand, the ground in almost complete silence, we sit with perhaps the best view of the pitch you could want. The main flood lights are off, but each stand is still lit, the flags look fantastic, and the terrace we had watched the game from is very imposing.
The last bus has been and gone, as one pint turns into three and four, and we are the last people to leave the bar. Broadhurst Park is a very different place now than when we first arrived, a few hours earlier, a much quieter place, a much less vibrant place. This evening has left me scratching my head a little, perhaps only something a visitor would not understand: I just didn’t get the anti City, Chelsea and Leeds songs. Now anything this young is going to have a identity crisis, and I’m sure that will resolve itself in time. Old grudges die hard, and with so many fans coming over from United, it’s inevitable, but I just don’t understand what it has to do with FCUM. Is it just a new version of the old, but without all the fluff and hangers on that is plaguing so many big clubs, or is it a whole new enterprise built around a core value of the fan led football, or is it both, or maybe it’s neither.
We had a fantastic time, with out a doubt on par with one of the best atmospheres at any game I have been to, non-league or not, and the music kicked ass to boot. It ticked every box, and we would be back in a heartbeat. I have never been sure if I like punk music, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that I love punk football!