Despite my team Newcastle Benfield going out of the FA Cup at the end of August (4-2 away to Guisborough Town in the Preliminary Round since you asked), I’ve been impressed by the BBC’s coverage of the tournament thus far. The live Friday night games on free to air TV are a great way to increase the profile of the early stages of the competition proper and the innovation of having cameras at each one of the Sunday games, cutting across to each one at moments of high tension or drama, doesn’t feel clumsy. If anything, speaking as a neutral of course, it adds to the sense of occasion and makes for an exciting afternoon’s viewing. Of course, now we’ve got the “big boys” in from round 3, the media will no doubt revert to type and start salivating at the prospect of Arsenal’s youth team against Sunderland reserves. However, in some ways, this might be preferable to the current obsession of the corporation’s pundits with Salford City, as the quality of analysis has been far less impressive than the visual images of football itself.
Words By: Ian Cusack - @PopularSideZine
Words By: Ian Cusack - @PopularSideZine
As a child, I first became aware of the phenomenon of giant killing when Ronnie Radford wrote his name in the eternal pantheon of FA Cup legends, breaking a 7 year old’s heart. To be fair, it’s not a goal I enjoy watching, which is a bit of a shame as it is shown about 500 times a season; the minute I hear Motson utter those fateful words and Tudor’s gone down for Newcastle, the nightmares of 44 years ago come flooding back. However Blyth Spartans, who can justifiably claim to be the most famous non-league club in the country, provide happier memories of David slaying Goliath; Stoke in 77/78, Bournemouth in 08/09 and last season Hartlepool, then being 2-0 up at the break against Birmingham City in round 3. Admittedly they lost that one, but they’d had a hell of a run for their money. The frosty Friday night victory away Hartlepool in round 2 was compelling television; though my regional bias made me more than a little sorry for that great club from Victoria Park.
This season, the creditable exploits of Home Counties parvenus Eastleigh and Whitehawk notwithstanding, the seemingly compulsory patronising hyperbole for the diddy men of the competition has had a pronounced Mancunian flavour to it. For many years I’ve been a devoted reader of United We Stand, whose cynical, sardonic view of football is imbued with some of the bleakest, most cruel humour imaginable. But it also contains some damn fine writing; I remember a piece years back, talking about the simple pleasures of watching Trafford Borough or Abbey Hey, in fact anywhere other than Maine Road (for obvious reasons), when the Reds didn’t have a Saturday game. I’ve written many such pieces myself in The Popular Side and other publications, extolling the virtues of Benfield, Whitley Bay and dear old Percy Main Amateurs. However, similar to how the emergence of both North Shields and South Shields, on opposite sides of the Tyne, has changed the demographic and atmosphere in the Northern League, by providing refuges for those sickened by events at both Newcastle United and Sunderland (though it must be recognised followers of the two Shields clubs have wildly divergent interpretations of what it means to be “against modern football”), UWS would have a very different story to tell if one factors the existence of both FC United of Manchester and the reconfigured Salford City into the equation. Suffice to say, I was mightily relieved that Hartlepool rescued a draw from their game away to Salford.
Before I go any further, I have to reiterate that I am an outsider here and that my opinions of the current poster children of Mancunian football have been formed at a geographical and emotional distance, though my profound love of and involvement with non-league football for a quarter of a century means that I am very sympathetic to both clubs. The events surrounding the formation of FCUM and their subsequent journey through the leagues and the opening of their stunning Broadhurst Park ground have been well documented. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that their progress has been nothing short of miraculous, for a club founded entirely on fan ownership and, prior to the current season perhaps, a democratic organisation with a seemingly unbreakable moral code, enshrined in the 7 guiding, core principles -:
- The Board will be democratically elected by its members
- Decisions taken by the membership will be decided on a one member, one vote basis
- The club will develop strong links with the local community and strive to be accessible to all, discriminating against none
- The club will endeavour to make admission prices as affordable as possible, to as wide a constituency as possible
- The club will encourage young, local participation—playing and supporting—whenever possible
- The Board will strive wherever possible to avoid outright commercialism
- The club will remain a non-profit organisation
Regardless of whether future promotion would be a reality, FCUM started 2015/2016, to all intents and purposes, on a high, as their first season in their proper home would be marked by their debut campaign in the Conference North, or whatever it’s calling itself these days. The club had already left its stamp on the FA Cup, with a notable win over Rochdale in the 2010/2011 competition, before gaining headlines for slightly less positive reasons this time around. In the final qualifying round, a 3-1 victory away to Sporting Khalsa (a fascinating club and one who deserve to have their story more widely told) was marred by a pre-game bout of fisticuffs, with giddy locals no doubt expecting the grandchildren of Doc’s Red Army to have descended en masse. However, the real problems occurred when the euphoria of a home draw against Chesterfield in Round 1 proper slowly dispersed when the ugly reality of having to cede control over both admission prices and kick off time dawned on FCUM’s support.
The FA Cup competition rules stipulate the minimum entry fee for First Round ties is a tenner; FCUM charge £9 for home games and once they found they couldn’t do that, they decided to give everyone attending a £1 voucher, redeemable against the entry price to another home game, or in the catering outlets. To me, this seemed a totally reasonable, pragmatic response, though some FCUM zealots see compromise as collaboration. When BT Sport announced they wanted to move the tie to a Monday night for live transmission, FCUM furiously resisted, but those self-same competition rules that stipulate entrance prices also dictate when games can be played. In short, if FCUM didn’t agree, they would have to forfeit the tie. Around the same time Morpeth Town of the Northern League drew 1874 Northwich at home in the FA Vase. The game was rained off on the Saturday and, because the clubs had failed to negotiate what would happen in this eventuality, the rescheduled game was slated by the FA for the Wednesday following. Northwich claimed they couldn’t raise a team to travel so far midweek and conceded, making valid points about the idiocy of having midweek rearranged games and replays. I agree with them 100%; these games should always be Saturdays, but the cup they signed up for had a set of rules their participation gave tacit approval to. The same is true of FCUM and the FA Cup.
When the game took place, aside from Chesterfield easing to a 4-1 win, the big story was to do with fan boycotts and banner protests in the ground. I don’t know the ins and outs of FCUM’s supporter politics though it seems, to this veteran of UK ultra-left politics from the late 70s to the present day at any rate, that debate is founded on the same kind of internecine, captious ideological nit-picking that Maoist groups engaged when debating whether Albania under Enver Hoxha was more of a Socialist paradise than the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. To me, it seems clear; either live in the real world or stagnate and ultimately die. The founding principles of FCUM’s constitution are utterly irreproachable, but they lack the pragmatism required to utilise the energy and momentum the club has sparked. Perhaps this minor civil war, that played out so viciously on-line, has hampered the club’s progress, as they lie just outside of the relegation zone after a run of 6 games without a win following the Chesterfield exit. However, things may be looking up again, following a 2-1 win away to Stockport County. At Edgeley Park. The same Stockport County who beat Man City at Maine Road in 1998. The same Stockport County, formed in 1883, who went bust.
In defence of FCUM though; at least the club listens to its support and considers their views. The benign despotism of the Class of 92’s ownership of Salford City and their plans for the future seem somewhat less of a matter for negotiation, or so it appears. I would welcome with open arms anyone who sought to exchange the professional game for the amateur one, as more and more are doing. However, I would counsel the non-league neophyte to understand that you are not just exchanging one club for another, but one version of the game as a whole for a far more rewarding model. Unfortunately, some people just don’t seem to get that point and, similar to texting in church or breaking wind in front of the in-laws, show themselves up. The less said about chair Karen Baird’s twitter meltdown the better I feel. Personally, I wouldn’t for one second decry Butt, Giggs, Scholes or the Neville siblings for seeking to put something back into the game that has made them unimaginably rich (comparatively) young men. I would say I have less faith in the co-owner Peter Lim, now effectively also the Nevilles’ employer at Valencia, sharing such lofty ideals. Where I am at variance with the Class of 92 is with their stated ambition of turning Salford City into a league club in 15 years. Is that really a sensible ambition? Is it acceptable that 75 years of history can be swept away because of this “project?”
Did all those who supported, nurtured, maintained and developed Salford City from their foundation in 1940 until the takeover in 2014 really do so in the hope of a local derby with Bury? Of course not; they chose to follow a community, grassroots club where they were on speaking terms with the players and the committee. Of course they could have gone to City, United, Bury, Stockport, Stalybridge, Altrincham or whoever if they’d wanted to see the professional game, but they didn’t. They stayed watching their club; Salford City. Of course, as was shown by the BBC documentary about the club, not to mention the gushing, uncritical praise that flowed like an unguent tide during the cup games against Notts County and Hartlepool, there is no room for an interpretation seeking to challenge the accepted narrative that every club wants to be in the big time. Salford’s fanbase may have exploded exponentially, but that is no guarantee of success. What if the current owners get bored or seek to extricate themselves from their investment, in either a financial or emotional sense? Recent history is littered with the husks of dead clubs, from Colne Dynamos to Celtic Nation, which were once seemingly bound for a double quick leap up the non-league pyramid, but foundered after their moneyed owners lost faith.
Clint Eastwood was right; a man’s got to know his limitations. Perhaps that’s something for South Shields fans to ponder as they queue for entry to their Boxing Day home clash against Hebburn Town; the first ever all-ticket game in the Northern League Second Division.