It was a sight Manchester has seen many times before. Hordes of fans wearing red, white and black scarves, piling off a late-night train at Victoria, after a November night fixture away from home. Triumphant chants reverberating around the station forecourt. Dancing football players in red pictured on the front page of the newspaper the next day. Not unfamiliar stuff in a city that sees itself as the "new Milan" of world football. But there was one crucial difference.
This time the headlines made no reference to the reds of Manchester United. Instead, they celebrated a fireworks- night insurgency by another United, FC United of Manchester – the team formed by a group of football activists in opposition to the debt-financed takeover of the Old Trafford club by the American Glazer family in 2005.
To the acclaim of the wider football world, the delight of ESPN – the satellite sports channel which chose to show the match live – and the outright astonishment of their own travelling army of supporters, on 5 November non-league FC beat Rochdale AFC – a team 95 places above them in the football league pyramid – 3-2 in the first round proper of the FA Cup.
It was their first competitive match against league opposition and their first match at this stage of the world's oldest football competition. The game was shown in China, Germany, Scandinavia and beyond. And on a rainy Lancashire night, victory was achieved in a manner that suggested that on Guy Fawkes night 2010, the fates had finally decided to take the side of the rebel: the winner was scored in injury-time by centre-forward Michael Norton, who may, possibly, have kicked the ball out of the goalkeeper's hands.
A tiler by trade, Norton earns £80 a week playing his football in a city where Sheikh Mansour of the United Arab Emirates has spent £355m buying Manchester City a new team. Where Wayne Rooney has just signed a contract worth £200,000 a week after threatening to leave Manchester United to join them. By contrast, the £100,000 earned by FC on 5 November is enough to pay the wages of FC's playing and coaching staff for an entire season.
"Glory Glory FC United" announced the Manchester Evening News. The fan-owned, members-run club, once described as a bunch of "attention-seekers" by Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United, had succeeded in grabbing the attention of the entire football community. When Zoo magazine publishes a double-page spread comparing Rooney with Carlos Roca, the diminutive FC winger who works by day as a debt adviser, a threshold has clearly been crossed.
I should, at this point, declare an interest. Five years ago I became a founder member of FC United of Manchester, after a lifetime supporting Manchester United. Like 4,000 others that summer, I joined out of a sense of outrage at the takeover of United by a Florida-based businessman who bought a footballing institution with debt he then piled on to the club. Since 2005, Manchester United, previously debt-free, has paid out hundreds of millions of pounds to service the debt of the Glazer family. Levels of investment in players have dropped markedly and ticket prices have gone up by around 50%. Last season, the green and gold protest campaign, sponsored by the Manchester United Shareholder's Trust (Must), prompted tens of thousands of United fans to wear the original colours of the Newton Heath club that was the forerunner to the modern Manchester United. "Green and gold until United are sold" went the slogan.
But this season, the Glazers are still here. Or rather over there, in the United States. The family cannot freely walk the streets of Manchester for fear of attack. Meanwhile, among those who chose to give up their Old Trafford season tickets, in some cases after decades of attendance at matches home and away, something remarkable has happened: a club formed out of a sense of revulsion at the Glazer takeover, and run on the basis of one member one vote, has become the focal point of a strangely wonderful, slightly bonkers, always passionate football community.
The rise of FC United of Manchester is another sign of times in which, to paraphrase the Annie Lennox/Aretha Franklin hit, sisters and brothers are beginning to do it for themselves. In music, the pioneering American rock band Nine Inch Nails, after becoming exasperated with the corporate side of the business, cut out the executives altogether. Across Europe, workers' co-operatives of all kinds are booming. In Britain, new technologies have allowed a boom in self-publishing. Last month, the Portobello film festival in London celebrated good-quality DIY filmmaking done on the cheap.
At members-owned FC United, which won the UK's Cooperative Excellence Award in 2009, they call it "punk football" – "Our Club, our Rules". The famous Sex Pistols appearance at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976, was voted one of the most influential gigs of all time. Rochdale might just have been a punk breakthrough on the football pitch.
On the fifth floor of a former mill in Ancoats, deep in what was once the industrial heart of Manchester, FC's 31-year-old club secretary Lindsey Robertson is dealing with the Monday morning aftermath of the Friday night before. Specifically, she is attempting to locate the owners of four lost pairs of keys. "Rochdale contacted us today," she explains. "They found four sets on the stand where the FC fans were." Given the bouncing atmosphere at Rochdale – former Celtic player Craig Burley told ESPN it was the best he'd experienced in years – it comes as no surprise that some people lost the contents of their pockets. After the match, when the FC forward, Jerome Wright, was asked by Norwegian television reporters what he thought of the club's fans, he turned the cameras on to a mass of jubilant teenagers and gave them the microphone, saying: "Give them a song." The implication was: "This lot can speak for themselves."
Or sing for themselves. Liberated from the stifling constraints of all-seater stadiums where groups of friends can rarely watch the match together – assuming they can afford to get in – FC fans have collectively found an anarchic joie de vivre that has inspired a succession of YouTube hits.
Their songs mix the defiant, the surreal and the simply comic. Some are Manchester United classics, sung to reaffirm a connection that for 99% of FC fans will never go away. Others are new, conceived by a hardcore of fans reared on the biggest matches in the biggest stadiums in Europe, and belted out at non-league grounds around northern England.
The Sex Pistols are reworked in "I Am an FC fan" to the tune of "Anarchy in the UK", in which a political manifesto is laid out at deafening volume: "I am an FC fan/I am Mancunian/I know what I want/And I know how to get it/I want to destroy Glazer and Sky/Cos I wanna be at FC".
In honour of new rivalries and one old one, the first season saw a lively reworking of a traditional supporter's favourite to the tune of "Land and Hope and Glory": "We hate Blackpool Mechanics/We hate Cheadle Town, too/We hate Manchester City/But United we love you." The club's first goalkeeper, the supermarket checkout worker Barrie George, was offered his own hymn of solidarity after his name attracted the crowd's attention: "Free Barrie George!/He wants the world to know/He didn't kill Dando!"
The Beach Boys ("Sloop John B") and the Carpenters have been adopted for cover versions, the latter taking off during a prestige friendly last season against the German fan-owned club St Pauli. For half an hour after that game – in the by-now deserted ground – the 300 or so fans perched in the highest section of a stand sang out the chorus: "I'm on top of the world, lookin' down on creation/And the only explanation I can find/Is the love that I've found, ever since you've been around/Your love's put me at the top of the world".
The mood created is quite intoxicatingly upbeat. A few days after the famous victory, Karl Marginson, the team coach, was still struggling to come down from the high. Marginson is a former player in the lower leagues who then became a fruit and veg delivery man ("We've got Margy with his fruit and veg van," sing the fans). "There is unbelievable positivity coming off those stands," he tells me. "At other clubs, people cheer when teams win and boo when they lose. FC fans don't boo. The atmosphere reminds me of how Old Trafford was when I used to go in the 1970s. It's got that sense of togetherness that there used to be when lads used to go and stand together on the terraces."
The sense of solidarity in the stands feeds into a commitment to the wider community. All of FC's players have visited schools around Manchester, training youngsters in the poorest areas of the city. Marginson in particular, say all associated with the club, "gets" the FC message. "Kids respond if you take the time to understand them a bit," he says. "I tell them to treat each other like they're in a dressing room. They need to look after each other and stick together."
The club's wiry grey-haired general manager, Andy Walsh, laughs at the mention of the songs: "It makes me laugh when people ask me, mystified, 'What's that Carpenters song all about?' I tell them: 'Think about it. It's a love song!' It's the spirit that comes from empowerment. The bedrock of this club is the constitution that gives each member one vote. And the most important thing about Friday night [against Rochdale in the FA Cup] is not the money, although that's certainly useful. It's the message that was given out on live television: that in football it's the ordinary fans and how they want things to be that matters more than anything else."
Walsh went to his first Manchester United match at the age of five in 1967. A former IT worker, he was pivotal in the successful campaign to stop Rupert Murdoch taking over Old Trafford in 1998. But in the late summer of 2005, after the Glazer takeover, he sat in his car outside Old Trafford for what seemed like an age, turning a letter over in his hands. "It was a request to withdraw my season ticket," he said. "Even after I posted it, I didn't know whether it felt right or not."
Discontent with the way United was being run had been growing for some time. In 1995 the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA) had been formed to represent fan's views in the wake of a Tannoy announcement during a crucial game ordering fans to sit down. It was an instruction that led to the immediate birth of the chant: "Stand up for the champions!" as the majority of spectators stood in protest. Stewarding became increasingly heavy-handed. The Stretford End, the famous former terrace and locus of United's most passionate supporters, was renamed the West Stand and its first tier filled with executive seats. A generation of fans felt that the whole experience of attending football matches was being transformed, and not for the better. For a younger generation, the escalating price of tickets meant that going to the match increasingly signified going to the nearest pub that carried games on Sky television. For the rebels, FC were to be the antidote to "modern" football (ticket prices today are £8 for adults, £5 for over-60s and £2 for under-18s).
According to Walsh, the late 1990s battle against Murdoch, which led to the BSkyB bid for United being blocked by then Labour minister Stephen Byers on competition grounds, provided the future founders of FC with an invaluable political education before the big leap into the unknown. By the time the Glazers took over, a significant cadre of United supporters, the majority involved in the club's influential fanzines, Red Issue and United We Stand, were ready for what was described as "the nuclear option" – the formation of a breakaway club. FC United was the provisional name. Rejected as too generic by the Northwest Counties league, which the new club was applying to join, the membership eventually settled on FC United of Manchester. A revolution conceived in FC's "Granita" moment – a Red Issue curry night in the Barbar restaurant in Rusholme – became a reality. In three years, backed by record-breaking crowds in excess of 2,000, FC achieved three successive promotions. From their vantage points in the raucous stands in Bury, FC fans "looked down on creation".
Five years on from year ZERO, not everyone wants to sing the Carpenters with FC. At the White Lion pub on Liverpool Road, the day after the FA Cup triumph, a packed pub was watching "Big United" struggle to overcome lowly Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier league. This was the pub chosen by Ken Loach for a scene in his film Looking for Eric, the story of a down-on-his-luck postman who forms an imaginary relationship with Eric Cantona, the undisputed hero of United's recent past. In the film, as a group of United fans gather to watch an important European midweek game on the pub screens, an argument breaks out between an FC fan and his mates, who accuse him of betraying the United cause. When he storms out of the pub, they cheer a nonexistent goal, leading their victim to dash back in, shouting: "Who scored?" to general laughter.
In real life, United – like FC the night before– grab an injury-time winner against Wolves. A group of men start directing jibes at FC. The general theme is: "There's only one United, right or wrong. You have nothing to do with United." Leaving after the match, a stocky man who says he has fought for United "all over Europe" and gone to jail abroad on their account, stops for a word. Earlier he told me that his son, a marine, follows the breakaway club. Now he says matter-of-factly: "I have to tell you that I will always consider you a bunch of traitors. You split us. And I will never be able to forgive you for that. That's the truth."
Such arguments have gone on since the inception of FC, across pubs and workplaces in Manchester, when friendships were broken and brief attempts were made by a small group of United diehards to stop fans going to Gigg Lane. But according to almost everyone I speak to, the tension now is much less than it used to be. On the Manchester United supporters' websites, the tales are legion of non-FC United fans who found themselves celebrating wildly when Norton's clinching goal put FC in the second round of the Cup. "There's a groundshift in opinion," says general manager Andy Walsh. "The recent 'Rooney saga' was a tipping point for many. And after the numerous ownership sagas, at Liverpool for instance, the club's ideas are gaining traction. After Rochdale, I got a message from a Red Issue stalwart who had not previously been supportive: 'You're idealists,' it said. 'But the people who established Newton Heath in 1878 had ideals. They didn't know where it was going to go. Hats off to you.'"
It is in Newton Heath, within view of the vast Eastlands stadium where Sheikh Mansour's multimillion-pound signings play in a different world, that FC fans hope the next phase in this football insurgency will take place. On 25 November, a few days before their second-round FA Cup tie, the club hope to be given the final go-ahead by Manchester City Council to build a 5,000-capacity stadium in an area that was a hub of the Industrial Revolution, but which now ranks among the most deprived inner-city areas in the country. At present the club pay a rent of £5,000 per match to play at Gigg Lane in Bury, a 30-minute tram ride from Manchester.
The proposed move is pregnant with footballing symbolism. The Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railwaymen Football Club was formed here in 1878, moving across the city to Clayton in 1893 and renaming itself Manchester United in 1902. Untroubled by tourists, the streets of a modest council estate are named after the lost Busby Babes, the eight United greats who died in February 1958, when the team plane crashed on take-off at Munich airport. But after the songs, sentiment, colour, pride and energy of the past five years, this is where the revolution gets technical.
In negotiation with the council, the FC board of directors have agreed that through a "community share issue" (CSI) the club will raise £1.5m towards the cost of developing the crumbling Ten Acres Lane sports site, which currently boasts a dilapidated all-weather pitch and a modest sports centre. The CSI will allow fans and investors – who must become members – to buy a minimum of £200 of shares in the club and a maximum of £20,000. The money cannot be withdrawn for three years, after which it is hoped that an interest rate of 2% above the bank base rate will be paid on the investment.
An "asset lock" will ensure that the stadium and its facilities – including an artificial pitch, function rooms, a clubhouse bar and a regenerated sports centre – cannot be used for anything other than the benefit of the local community. In addition, the club have guaranteed to find £500,000 from their development fund, raised through donations collected by the 300 volunteers who keep it going. The fund total already stands at £300,000. If FC can raise the £1.5m, the council will play its part by offering a peppercorn rent and a lump sum to eventually be repaid with interest.
Nothing like this has ever been attempted by an English club. "The idea of FC United – its ideals and vision of community – needs a home," says Adam Brown, one of the club's founding board members. "We can be a catalyst here for other things to happen. We already do loads of work in communities, but it's important to have a base. What we hope is that ethical investors who like what we're doing will put the money in."
Call it punk football, DIY football or just old-fashioned community values, reasserted after a close encounter with a carpet bagger from Florida. Whatever it is, it's happening in Manchester. Inevitably there is already a song for the new ground, sung to the tune of Ewan McColl's "Dirty Old Town": "We'll build our ground at Ten Acres Lane/We'll lay the pitch by the old canal/We'll live the dream down in Newton Heath/We're gonna build our own ground/We're gonna build our own ground".
To find out more about the FCUM Community Share Scheme and to see plans for Ten Acres Lane, visit fc-utd.co.uk
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.