FC United of Manchester: The protest club at war with itself?

FC United

Thirteen months ago, FC United of Manchester opened their £6.3m home at Broadhurst Park with a prestigious friendly against Benfica.

Even though the hosts were beaten, a capacity 4,232 crowd generated a typically vibrant atmosphere.

Newly-promoted to National League North, it was supposed to mark the end of the beginning for a club formed in 2005 as a protest to the Glazer regime at Manchester United and the rampant commercialism taking hold of the national game.

But it has not worked out as imagined.

On the pitch there have been successes, notably reaching the FA Cup first round for the second time in their history, where they were beaten 4-1 by Chesterfield.

Off it, however, the period has been marked by rows, allegations, resignations and recriminations.

A packed general meeting was adjourned for a month, in part owing to voting irregularities.

Their final home game of the season was stopped for five minutes when protestors invaded the pitch.

Concerns have been expressed about the club's finances and uncertainty exists over work required to keep the St Mary's Road End terrace functioning fully.

So, is the club held up as the ownership model every supporter should aspire to beginning to destroy itself?

FC United tickets

Price rises and controversy

Broadhurst Park should have been ready in September 2014 but a combination of construction delays as contractors went bust and poor weather meant it was not finished until May 2015.

First estimates put the cost of the stadium at £5.5m, but that budget was exceeded by £800,000. The delay also put a greater strain than envisaged on club finances.

The price of the match programme for the Benfica game was increased, with officials justifying it on the grounds it was bigger than normal, at 44 pages. Others argued the rise went against the principle of not exploiting supporters.

Programme editor Tony Howard ended up resigning in protest.

Then in November during the Conservative party conference in Manchester, a photoshoot at Broadhurst Park with Damian Hinds, exchequer secretary to the Treasury, created discontent among members given it is FC United policy not to allow itself to be used for political promotion.

Many members found out what had happened when a picture of the meeting was posted on the club's Twitter feed, which a former club official now accepts was "a mistake".

FC United programme

Broadhurst Park dilemma

The centrepiece of Broadhurst Park, the St Mary's Road End terrace, was bought from the administrators of Northwich Victoria and has a capacity of 2,500.

The temporary bar underneath it generates around £2,200 per game.

Due to ground regulations, the bar needs £140,000 of work for it to be open next season.

A £400,000 grant application for work that would create a community asset has been put on hold until October. There is also an obligation to turn standing areas at the end of the main stand into seating.

Members helped build the stadium by contributing £2m through a community shares scheme. They are able to start withdrawing up to 10% of their contribution annually from 2018.

Financial struggles

With more than 5,000 members, 2,200 season ticket holders and an average attendance of 3,500, FC United boast some impressive figures. But by their own admission, they have failed commercially.

A £300,000 target for commercial income has been described as "naive" by a source close to the club and they are forecast to make a loss of over £90,000 this year - even with £92,000 coming from their FA Cup run.

FC United complained when the Chesterfield tie was moved to a Monday night for live TV coverage, but the source said the £67,500 fee was "very, very handy".

A sponsorship deal with a local company that was expected to generate £30,000, was then reduced to £15,000 and might ultimately yield nothing. "We have not been good at contracts," said the source.

FC United

The fall-out

One of FC United's founding members, John-Paul O'Neill, was part of a campaign to make the FC United board answerable for their decisions.

These efforts created ill-feeling and on 6 April, following the threat of legal action, FC United made a public apology to O'Neill.

Seven board members have resigned, including another founder member, Adam Brown, who cited an alleged 'hate campaign'.

Club stalwart Andy Walsh is to stand down as general manager at the end of June.

The general meeting

A stormy general meeting was anticipated at Broadhurst Park on 24 April, with a proposal of no confidence in the board was on the agenda.

In the absence of fully-independent invigilators, two club members took on the role instead.

The room had exceeded its 350-person capacity, with some members standing on tables at the back.

As the meeting began a member pointed out she had already cast her postal vote but had been issued with a further voting slip.

Neither her postal vote, nor that of other members of her family, had been registered.

For a club whose philosophy is one member, one vote, the overwhelming majority decided the meeting should be adjourned.

FC United

Unrest and upset

In the wake of the general meeting fiasco, two more board members stood down and the club said it "recognised the unrest and upset felt by many members".

Chief fundraiser Andy Walker, who had been the subject of much criticism, relinquished his position at the end of April.

On 8 May, another three board members resigned, claiming "staff members and volunteers alike have at various times come to fear for their own safety".

Before that, on 30 April, two dozen supporters invaded the Broadhurst Park pitch, causing FC United's final home match of the season to be briefly halted. The protestors cited concerns about democracy at the club and said the board had presided over a 'financial catastrophe'.

The future

FC United say cash flow will not be an issue until 2017 but concede managing their own stadium puts a strain on finances that did not exist during their nomadic years.

Season ticket sales for the 2016-17 season are "significantly behind" where they were 12 months ago.

The club are asking members to renew as soon as possible and anticipate, in a league now containing local rivals Stockport, Altrincham and Salford City - the club owned by the ex-Manchester United players known as the 'Class of 92' - their average attendance will rise.

On 16 June an independent arbitrator overturned the club's decision to deny O'Neill membership and the club has also apologised to Howard for its handling of the Benfica programme fall-out.

And at the 25 June emergency general meeting to elect a new board, questions to candidate Alison Watt, who had resigned from the board in April, were restricted to avoid a "witch-hunt" according to the chairman of the meeting. Watt gained the 14th highest number of votes and did not get elected.

What they say

Outgoing general manager Andy Walsh, speaking to BBC Radio Manchester in a personal capacity:

"Of course there is criticism [about the stadium]. After 11 years you would expect some gripes and grumbles along the way.

"But let's get it into perspective. We had a judicial review, which added hundreds of thousands of pounds, the lawyers went bump, the accountants went bump, the main contractors went bump.

"We found contaminated materials on site that had to be dealt with. We had issues over maintaining relationships with local residents and the funders. Yes, we were late, but we still delivered the stadium."

Founding member, JP O'Neill, on his criticisms:

"I have made criticisms. But they were constructive criticisms. Instead they reject it and say nothing is wrong, so I will go on criticising."

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