It is too easy to paint FC United as the Rebels. That was never a nickname they chose and it is a poor fit when the majority of their fans still have a strong affinity to the club they left behind
Sometimes, it is the little things that help to explain why, back in the era of Peter Kenyon, the words "football club" were lopped off the Manchester United badge and have not returned in the following 15 years.
In the past few days we have learned that Bulova, United's "global time-keeping partner", is planning its own monument to go with the Holy Trinity statue, of Best, Law and Charlton, on Sir Matt Busby Way. At the Arsenal game, the public announcer asked Old Trafford to show its appreciation for Saudi Telecom as "valued members of the Manchester United family". An American guy, from Aon, made the half-time presentation. On the front cover of the programme, where the traditional player-meets-fan handshake picture started in 1946, the player now has fluorescent green and orange boots. It is just a surprise there is no Nike swoosh. Or personal sponsor.
It can leave you cold sometimes. It is unshakeable, it will never change and the people who follow football at the elite level, not just at United, should all be aware by now that it forms part of the package. Everyone understands why it happens. It just does not necessarily mean we have to like it that way.
A few days ago I drove out to Moston, in north-east Manchester, to look round the site of FC United of Manchester's new stadium and learn a little more about a very different kind of football club. Building work has just started and, if everything goes to plan, the ground should be open in August, with a 5,000 capacity. First, though, there is a spade in the ground ceremony on Sunday and the chance to commemorate a story that, as my colleague David Conn once wrote, can feel like a "cleansing of the palate".
It is a complex, often divisive story, and the various arguments will probably polarise people in Manchester long after everyone has agreed to disagree whether it is a barm or muffin. Sir Alex Ferguson described them as "sad" once it became clear the people behind the breakaway were not willing to put up with Malcolm Glazer's 2005 takeover. Alan Gowling, a pundit on BBC Radio Manchester, predicted they would not last until Christmas, an Alan Hansen moment that is now commemorated on supporters' T-shirts, and there is a memorable scene in Ken Loach's film Looking For Eric when a supporter from each club get involved in a beery row about the rights and wrongs. "You can change your wife, your politics and your religion, but never your football team," the United fan says. "They left me," the guy in the non-sponsored FC shirt points out.
On another occasion, Ferguson was asked if he had any words for Karl Marginson, FC's manager, after the club's first promotion season. There were four. "Not interested! Not interested!"
Yet it is too easy to paint FC as the Rebels. That was never a nickname they chose for themselves and it is a poor fit when the majority of their supporters still have a strong affinity to the club they left behind. They are anti-Glazer, disillusioned by the rampant commercialism and gluttony of the sport, rather than anti-United. They want a better way of football and there are plenty of match-goers at Old Trafford who fully understand, and sympathise with, their reasons, even if they were not prepared to join en masse.
As for Marginson, a fruit and vegetables delivery man with a handshake that could shell a conker, his first United match was in 1978 and the irony is that ordinarily he would be precisely the kind of football man Ferguson would like and respect. Certainly the old Ferguson anyway, with his background in socialism and Govan shipyards, before it became apparent, as FC's general manager, Andy Walsh, recently put it, that people "don't always act in line with their stated beliefs".
At Gigg Lane – or the JD Stadium, as Bury now want us to call it – every home game for FC costs them around £5,000. Despite that, they have kept ticket prices low, at £8 an adult and £2 a junior. A season-ticket scheme has been running, a la Radiohead and In Rainbows, whereby fans can decide to pay whatever they want. They regularly get more than 2,000 in the Northern Premier League and those supporters have raised £2.5m for the new stadium, including £1.8m through a community share scheme. Altogether, it is costing £5.5m, with the rest made up by Sport England, the Football Foundation, Manchester City Council and Manchester College.
It has not, however, been straightforward. The club initially had planning permission in Newton Heath, where the original green-and-gold United were founded in 1878, only for the council to withdraw its backing at the last minute. At Moston, there was enough opposition about the idea of losing local playing fields to take it to a judicial review. Battery acid was used to spell out NO TO FC UTD in 10ft-high letters on the grass. Concrete was poured into holes for the goalposts. Graffiti told them they were not welcome.
Yet there is a pile of brochures in FC's offices, on the fifth floor of a renovated Ancoats mill, that explain why they were the 2012 Community Club of the Year. The new ground will include adjacent pitches for Moston Juniors and you just have to drop into the Miners Community Arts and Music Centre, directly across the road, to see plenty of evidence of the club's determination to remove any lingering friction and integrate with their new community. The venue already features framed photographs of their new neighbours, among the other pictures of George Best and the singer Ian Brown.
Further down the road, it is not a coincidence the Dean Brook Inn, currently boarded up, will soon be reopening. Cafe Supreme, on the corner of Lightbowne Road, can expect new trade. Other places will open, just as they have around the Etihad Stadium in another tough part of Manchester over the past few years. A drive past the old Maine Road ground, still a building site in some parts, tells its own story about the role a football club can have with its community. The pubs of the day – the Parkside, the Beehive, the Gardeners Arms, the Sherwood, the Clarence and at least four others – have just about all gone now. Many shops, too.
FC still have a long way to go in a city where two illustrious clubs are run by a sheikh from Abu Dhabi and investors from Florida. But then again there was always a sense of perspective about the breakaway. "Pies not Prawns", the banner states. Members not consumers. Supporters not customers. "Punk Football" – doing it their way.
At Old Trafford, meanwhile, the seats have been filled. Unilever has been announced as United's "first official personal care and laundry partner in south-east Asia" and journalists turning up for Bulova's press conference, many of them flown in from Japan, South Korea and other target-countries, were given a pair of his and her watches, worth £1,000, as a thank you.
David Gill, the former chief executive, cut off all contact with the main supporter groups after the takeover (Ed Woodward, to his credit, has reopened lines of communication). Ferguson told fans, on a trip to Budapest, that if they did not like Glazer, and the prospect of hiked prices, they could "go and watch Chelsea", and the mind goes back to another European excursion when some boisterous supporters passed by. A director, no longer at the club, watched them go, then turned to the nearby reporters. "Couldn't live with them, couldn't live without them," he said.
The beauty of FC, just like at Portsmouth, Wrexham and all the others, is that does not happen when a club is owned by their own supporters. At FC, people who were brought up on the Busby Babes, or who were in the Camp Nou to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer score the goal that defined the Ferguson years, have maybe surprised themselves with how much they have enjoyed the experience.
They have already climbed three rungs of the non-league pyramid. Another three would take them into the Football League and a new stadium will bring so many advantages it is perfectly realistic to think they can make it in the next five to 10 years. That really is when their story should be made into a movie.