The 2012/13 season has been both the best and the worst season of my life, starting with having my beloved local club torn away from me by a Malaysian marketing exercise, but opening the door for me to have some of the very best experiences it is possible to have in this wonderful sport of ours. From the mayhem of the Milan derby to the beauty of the Sudtribune at Dortmund, it’s been an incredible personal journey for me. My disillusionment with British football meant that I hadn’t been to an English game in 2013 before this Northern Premier League playoff final between Hednesford and FC United of Manchester, but this was no ordinary game.
FC United are the embodiment of the ‘Supporters Not Customers’ idea, founding their own club in protest at the Glazer family, Sky Sports and the general state of the game. I can think of nothing worse than attending a game at Old Trafford, but I had been toying with the idea of an FCUM game for some time. I had been hoping to attend the Italian cup final between Roma and Lazio for my last game of the season, but the trip fell through, meaning my 2012/13 was to end at Keys Park instead of the Stadio Olympico.
So on the day half of Manchester headed to Wembley for a cup final, I was heading to a final of my own, with a place in the Conference North on the line. Any fears I had about the game being boring compared to my European adventures were quickly dispelled, the first two people I saw were a drunk man waving a pirate flag and a pensioner wearing a cowboy hat.
Despite Hednesford having home advantage for this season deciding game, the ground was divided equally, with a large terrace running along the side of the pitch attracting the most vocal of the visiting fans.
The home of the most vocal FCUM fans, not to be empty for long…
I was surprised how empty the stands were when I arrived, before realising that there were about a thousand people in the queue for the bar. The Manchester side had lost the playoff final for the past two seasons, and it was quickly apparent that the prospect of losing yet another final had turned the travelling fans to drink some time ago.
The stands began to fill up with around 40 minutes to go before kickoff, and just as I have witnessed in Germany and Italy, the songs of support for the team began long before the players had even appeared on the pitch. It soon became clear that despite the fact FC United had around 50 per cent of the ground, it was not going to be enough. A lone Hednesford steward did his best to close the terrace, but he was fighting a losing battle. Fans walked across the pitch to join the extremely loud singing section, and I saw at least three fans climbing over a wall, clearly either locked out of the ground or they didn’t fancy paying the £9 for entry.
Fans on the pitch before the game
We can see you sneaking in…
Eventually the orange segregation netting pictured earlier was torn down, and the travelling masses were able to fit in the stand comfortably enough. The Hednesford Town fans behind the goal at the other side of the ground had also packed out the stand, and there was an incredible atmosphere, especially for a match so far down the football pyramid. The official attendance was given as around 4,500, but it certainly looked as if there were considerably more than that present.
The Hednesford Town players were out on the pitch early, around ten minutes before kick off. While they waited for their team to join them and the action to get underway, the FC United fans put on a hugely impressive show of support, singing “BRING ON UNITED” without stopping, with flags waving and red smokebombs both in the stands and finding their way on to the pitch. The noise levels rose yet further as the team made their way out, with scarves waving and yet more pyro being set off both from the away end and the home sections. Aside from Inter vs. Milan, it was the largest use of smoke I have seen this season, with the driving Birmingham rain doing nothing to take away from the impressive visual spectacle.
As the game kicked off, FC United immediately gave the ball away to a Hednesford midfielder, causing the FCUM next to me to scream “COME ON REDS, WE NEED A GOOD START HERE!”. Ten seconds after these words had left his mouth, Hednesford had scored. A mistake from Lee Neville allowed the Pitmen to get the perfect start to the game, scoring in just over a minute. The defending for the goal was so poor it would have provided Gary Neville with months worth of analysis for Sky Sports, with two disastrous errors allowing the ball to be swept in from close range with little opposition.
Hednesford did not sit back after making this superb start, and it looked as if the red rebels could be out of the game within the first couple of minutes. The home side could best be described as being similar to a Daft Punk song, better, faster and stronger than Utd. Despite their side taking a bit of a battering on the field in these early stages, the fans continued to make a remarkable amount of noise. The songs were largely original, with very few directly copied from the Glazer owned version of the club. Instead of singing about Manchester City or Leeds, songs were directed at Flixton and Maine Road.
With the fans right behind them, you felt as though FC United would surely get a grip of the game at some point. However, the Hednesford players were not intimidated by the huge crowd, and would add to their lead on the 30 minute mark. Slack defending once again from the reds saw the ball fail to be cleared, with the Hednesford player able to slide tackle the ball past the keeper. 2 – 0 to the Pitmen, and things were looking bleak for FC United. Not that you would have known it from the supporters, who simply raised their level of noise once more in an attempt to inspire their side to finally do something.
FCUM fans get behind their team at 2 – 0 down
The men from Manchester did improve slightly for the last part of the first half, getting the ball forward and putting pressure on the Pitmen goal at last. They should have had a goal back, with a glorious chance put over the bar and some reluctance to shoot when in a good position. Hednesford certainly deserved their lead at the break, but 2 – 1 would perhaps have been a fairer reflection of the game. Still, the home side had clearly been the better team and it would be a long road for FCUM to avoid triple playoff despair.
Half time – Hednesford Town 2 – FC United of Manchester 0
A double substitution for FC United saw the visitors adopt a more attacking strategy, and it paid off within a couple of minutes of the restart. The reds forced a string of corners and for the first time they were really on top of the game. A couple of chances came to nothing, but they were not to be denied for long. With 55 minutes on the clock, Mike Norton (who is probably the only footballer ever to have a chant about not being from Gorton) powered a header into the goal virtually unchallenged. The travelling fans went absolutely wild, with the terrace transforming into a mosh pit and people falling all over the place. It was so packed that people were falling over with nowhere to go, leading to the sight of a pair of legs stuck up in the air waving about with glee. The smokebombs were also brought back out, with a flare also on show this time.
A flare greets the FCUM goal
The goal totally changed the game, and now the comeback which looked impossible after 30 minutes was on the cards. Within the next ten minutes they had two glorious chances to score an equaliser, first hitting the post and then driving another shot just wide from a free kick, when the ball appeared to be sneaking in. The supporters really believed for the first time that they could at least take the game to extra time, and the pressure at this stage was unrelenting. United were on top, but the clock was against them and time was rapidly running out.
With 15 minutes to go, it appeared as if United would have the perfect chance to draw level. Goalscorer Norton was about to unleash a shot in the area, when he was clearly pushed in the back. One of the enjoyable things about non-league football is the increased physicality, but this looked more like a wrestling move than something which belonged on a football pitch. I haven’t seen a replay, but it was either an assault or a contender for the most realistic dive in history. With the United players still complaining about their perceived injustice, Hednesford broke away and almost ended the game with a third goal, the ball crashing off the post instead.
A couple of minutes later the away fans were again appealing for a penalty, shouting for handball after a shot was blocked in the area. This one appeared less clear, but to quote many a television pundit – “you’ve seen them given.” Having put so much pressure on Hednesford for a long spell of the second half, I really expected to see the men from Manchester push on again as the match reached the closing stages. The home fans clearly did not feel the same way, with a full blown party behind the goal from around the 85th minute onwards, with the Pitmen preparing for a pitch invasion and setting off smokebombs.
The game is briefly delayed by Hednesford pyro
The expected FCUM surge never came however, with Hednesford remembering what got them into a winning position and using their physical advantage to keep hold of the ball and retain possession deep into Utd territory. FC United were formed by fans willing to fight against impossible odds, but on this occasion the team did not quite have enough fight in them to match their superb fans. Manchester United may have 20 titles and enough fans to fill their own continent, but why would you ever support them when you can have a team like this? A club for the fans, by the fans with affordable tickets, terracing and kickoff times at 3pm on a Saturday. With the Hednesford fans flooding on to the pitch to celebrate their promotion to the Conference North, the FCUM fans also jumped the fence on to the pitch to salute their players.
After Cardiff lost the playoff final to Blackpool I was gutted for weeks, but look around the faces of the United fans at full time and you wouldn’t know that they had just been beaten. They have a club to be proud of, fighting back against the money obsessed culture of modern football and choosing passion over glory. When you can look at your club and be truly proud of who you support and feel as if you are truly an important part of the club, does the score really matter? FC United of Manchester clearly don’t think so.
FCUM fans celebrate their club at full time after a 2 – 1 defeat
One day, the Sky Sports and Premier League money train will derail, leaving many clubs to be reformed and built from the ground up. When this happens, the likes of FC United of Manchester, Chester, Darlington, Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon will pave the way. The future of football is fan owned, and England is starting to realise it.