FC United of Manchester have earned a reputation for doing things differently. The club – formed 15 years ago this spring in protest against Malcolm Glazer’s leveraged takeover of Manchester United – are just one of many in the non-league system fearing that the coronavirus pandemic will not only end their season but cause significant financial damage. And yet, their response to the unprecedented problems facing English football can provide a lesson for those further up the pyramid.
Last week, the club’s board released a statement which caught the eye for two reasons. Firstly, while Uefa, the Premier League, the EFL and other footballing bodies held meetings on how best to squeeze the remainder of the 2019-20 season into a truncated schedule, FC announced they were “working to a scenario that the six remaining home games will not be played, and we will not resume until September”. Essentially, they declared their season was over.
Secondly and more significantly, as promotion-chasing and relegation-battling clubs up and down the country lawyered up for the long and litigious months ahead, FC declared that they would not apply pressure – legally or otherwise – on those who must now come up with a fair way of ending the season. “There is little chance of a decision being possible that will satisfy all,” the club said. “We will accept any decision that the league reaches in this regard.”
FC have every reason to fight their corner. After being relegated last year, Neil Reynolds’ side currently sit second in the Northern Premier League in the third tier of non-league football. Defeat to leaders South Shields in their last game before football’s suspension made automatic promotion an unlikely prospect. Even so, FC would have enjoyed home advantage in the end-of-season play-offs and would have been considered favourites to return to the National League North at the first time of asking.
Even so, the club’s board, staff and players are united in accepting whatever fate comes their way. “With the history of the club, there is a wider perspective,” says Sam Mullock, FC’s deputy chair. “Fans used to say every time we kick off is a victory. Just having our own football club is victory enough. Success on the pitch is not everything for us. And we’re absolutely not going to be fighting for a particular outcome which favours us in the league. I think the leagues need to be left in peace, to think about the issues and come to us with a fair way forward.”
It is a refreshing stance. A remarkable one, in fact, given that this crisis is an existential threat to many clubs at non-league level. Mullock expects FC to incur a loss of around £100,000 due to coronavirus cancellations – £70,000 from six or seven lost home games and another £30,000 through functions, events and filming at Broadhurst Park which can no longer go ahead. For a club which emerged out of messy, well-documented internal struggles four years ago with financial problems to solve, that is a substantial hit to swallow.
To mitigate it, FC have sought donations from a 2,087-strong membership base, the people through which the club is democratically run. “That’s the strength of being a member-owned club. People are that extra bit invested,” says Mullock. “The first day the link went live, we had £600 donations. On Saturday, people were donating what they had spent in the bar, on a programme, things like that.” This will help to pay club staff and three contracted first-team players.
The rest of the squad are on non-contract agreements – pay-as-you-play, essentially – and they tend to supplement their income through other precarious part-time work. The old FA Cup third round day cliché of builders, electricians and ‘postmen who always deliver’ is becoming less and less relevant at the non-league level nowadays. Personal trainers, youth workers and carers are far more common. Whether their football wages are covered by the government’s furloughed workers scheme is unclear.
But FC’s current squad have embraced the club’s community ethos – “I think they’ve all become members of the club. After games they stay around, shake hands, take photographs in the bar,” says Mullock – and to acknowledge that commitment, the club has set up a fund specifically for those players who will miss out on match fees due to the crisis. Members and supporters have been encouraged to donate separately to support a group of players who are not guaranteed to still be at the club next season by any means, but have nevertheless bonded with fans.
At the same time, there is that ‘wider perspective’ Mullock mentioned earlier and the sense that the struggles of a football club should not be the main concern at the moment. “We’re quite mindful that football is not the most important thing at the moment,” he says. “We can’t just ram it down people’s throats to start donating to a football club when people are worried about their own circumstances.”
On Tuesday, steps three through to six of the non-league system decided – like FC a week earlier – that the 2019-20 season was effectively over. The National League was hoping to follow the Premier League and EFL’s example and extend the campaign into the summer but yesterday, they too fell into line. As the Isthmian League said in a strongly-worded statement, non-league clubs simply “do not have the financial resources to continue to honour player contracts indefinitely”.
The Football Association must now help decide how to settle the season. Promotion and relegation may be enforced according to each team’s average points-per-game or the season could simply be declared null and void. If that happens, FC will lose out on and “one of the most satisfying and enjoyable seasons in the club’s history” will be scrubbed from the record. But if the game is to resolve the many questions posed by this crisis, more clubs will need to follow FC’s example, accept their fate and acknowledge there are more important things than football.