Football, the working class sport, is in danger of being taken over by the prawn sandwich brigade. Ticket prices are soaring, over the top stewarding is eliminating the atmosphere and Sky Sports will have you believe that only the ‘top four’ and champions league income matters in the modern game. Fans are beginning to take a stand and this is being shown by attendances dropping throughout the football league. For some people though football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that. There are supporters out there who are taking a stance against the modern game.
Step forward FC United. A club formed by a group of Manchester United supporters who were dismayed with the direction the professional game is heading. FC United of Manchester formed in protest of the controversial takeover of Manchester United by the Glazer family. This set of ‘United’ fans cannot be accused of being glory supporters and they have full control over of how their club is run. Despite plying their trade in the Evostick Northern Premier league the club regularly attract crowds of over 2000 at Gigg Lane, the home they share with Bury FC. In fact their record attendance stands at 6,731 for an FA Cup 2nd round encounter against Brighton in December 2010.
The club began their journey in the lowly ‘North West Counties Football league’. It was a memorable opening two campaigns as they constantly broke attendance records and impressively secured back to back promotions to the ‘Northern Premier League Division One North’. The success continued at this level as they made their debut in the FA Cup in addition to a second place finish in the league. FC United secured a third consecutive promotion with a play-off final victory over ‘Skelmersdale United’ in May 2008. Since then the club has established itself in the ‘Northern Premier League Premier Division’ and has gained valuable media exposure through a memorable FA Cup run. The 2010-2011 campaign was the club’s most memorable to date as they reached the second round proper of the FA Cup. The club defeated league one Rochdale, a team 97 places above them in the league pyramid, 3.2 with a dramatic 93rd minute winner in front of over 7000 fans at Spotland in the first round. Absolute mayhem ensued as thousands of away supporters invaded the pitch in pure ecstasy after what had just happened on the pitch. The second round was just as memorable after keeper Sam Ashton saved a last minute penalty away to Brighton to earn the non-league side a replay in front of a record 6,700 supporters. The side may have lost the replay but the supporters owned club had certainly put themselves on the map.
AFC Wimbledon has been the most successful supporters owned club to date. The Dons were formed after the disgusting decision by a specially elected FA Committee to allow the club to be relocated to a Buckinghamshire new town. Wimbledon FC became Franchise FC (officially known as MK Dons). Die hard Wimbledon supporters were not prepared to let this happen and within six weeks AFC Wimbledon were formed. Formed in 2002 the club would spend their inaugural campaign in the ‘Combined Counties League’.
The new club attracted a crowd of 2449 for their opening game and enjoyed an impressive first season with a third place finish. The 2003-2004 campaign was the beginning of the incredible rise of the new Dons as they secured a league and cup double for promotion to the ‘Ryman League First Division South’. Wimbledon were promoted as champions to the Premier Division at their first attempt and spent the next two seasons flirting with the play-offs at the higher level. The club’s meteoric rise really took off with the arrival of Terry Brown in 2007 as they secured promotion via the play-offs in his first season before finishing as ‘Conference South’ champions the following campaign.
It only took two seasons to gain promotion from the Conference to the Football League as they achieved play-off success in the 2010-2011 campaign. AFC Wimbledon are back where they belong, in the Football League, and have done it in fittingly similar circumstances to the original club’s rise from the Southern League to the top flight in the 70’s and 80’s. More importantly the dons have not backed down on their morale’s and are still owned by its supporters through the one-fan-one-vote Dons Trust.
More and more clubs are finding themselves in similar predicaments because of the financial implications involved with the modern game. In the summer of 2010 Chester FC formed after the original club was forced to fold with massive debts. Fortunately for the supporters the club has been another success story with back to back promotions to the Conference North, just one division below where their predecessors met their unfortunate outcome. More recently Darlington FC has been forced to reform in the ‘Northern League Division One’ after being liquidated just one year on from being victorious in FA Trophy Final at Wembley.
The rise of supporters owned football clubs can only be a good thing, providing a much needed reality check for those who think the game is all about the money and when the next television rights cheque can be cashed. The game entered a short spell of darkness when the three man FA committee declared that ‘it was not in the best interests of the game’ for Wimbledon to carry on at their rightful home and instead be up rooted to Franchise FC and the rise of the phoenix club was a brilliant kick in the balls for all those involved. Even more refreshing is the growing support for FC United with Manchester United fans so often being widely labelled as ‘Glory Supporters’ and looked down upon by fans across the country.