Half time during a dull Manchester derby and the advert for a well-known betting company arrives like a lorry crashing through your living room.
It’s a whirling, thudding sequence of oddly hypnotic graphics, like a fruit machine after six pints of Ayingerbrau. It’s a deliberate assault on the senses; 30 seconds of clunking football-based shock-and-awe aimed squarely at puncturing your snoozy Super Sunday.
The soundtrack is the musical equivalent of mechanically recovered meat – a cauldron of heavily processed brute-force beats purposed to hammer you into submission. It’s followed by the disembodied head of Ray Winstone bellowing live odds at you like you’ve done something wrong, and you begin to realise that the famous 1984 scene in which Winston Smith is told off by a barking telescreen was remarkably prophetic, since it’s basically happening right now, to you, in your own house, on what’s supposed to be your day off. And all because you wanted to watch the football.
At moments like that, with your ears bleeding and your cat cowering under the coffee table, it becomes obvious that actual football – you know, the part where 22 men kick a ball around for a bit – has become an increasingly inconsequential part of a much bigger package designed to exhort money from your exhausted wallet. Football can no longer be enjoyed for its simple pleasures.
Their club was set up for 3pm, Saturday afternoon football, where the fan on the terrace – not the camera in the gantry, or Paddy Power’s banter – is the priority
Nope – it exists instead as a means to an end for an entire clunking industry that has grown up around it and is now squeezing the life out of it – loudly. This is football, 2015. If you’re after a backlash, the good news is that it has already started. In the 80s and 90s, fanzines articulated the frustrations of football fans marginalised first by a government who demonised the game and its followers, and then by football’s sudden addiction to television money.
Since then, resistance to football’s corporate doctrine has leapt from ink-smudge pages into something truly tangible: people are actually doing football their own way. From the disciples of STAND to the Clapton Ultras to the thousands of British fans who head to Germany’s pointless but booze-fuelled Bundesliga every week, an insurrection is slowly spreading beyond football’s traditional ground-hopping sceptics and starting to make the average fan believe football can be… well, better. At the forefront of this movement are the clubs who want to do football differently.
For some, like AFC Wimbledon, mere existence is an act of proud defiance. But for others, impudence is the order of the day. A refusal to take things lying down. And where these lead, others are inspired to follow.
Which brings us to FC United of Manchester, who visit Boston United on Saturday for the first time since their 4-1 defeat here in 2010. As a Boston fan, it’s easy to feel put out by a club that appeared from nowhere and relegated the Pilgrims down a place in the average attendance charts. And as a fan of a mostly ignored club, the disproportionate coverage they receive in the national press should be irritating (and perhaps sometimes it is).
But in truth it’s impossible not to admire FC United for what they’ve managed to achieve in the decade since they were formed. Ten years, from idea, to inception, to the physical bricks and mortar and wood of their new home at Broadhurst Park, is remarkable. Leeds United took that time to end up employing Steve Evans.
FC United was born from anger. Anger, yes, at Manchester United’s re-incarnation as an industrial-scale behemoth employing financial sorcery to service incomprehensible levels of debt, as part of an emotionally distant foreign empire. But to deride FC United as the plaything of bored Manchester United fans does them a disservice, for the anger that fuelled the club’s birth was more than just about the big club across the city.
It was also anger at football and football governance in general, anger at scandalous ticket prices and eye-popping wages. Anger at Monday night football and the fan being last on the minds of football’s money-men who would later dream up game 39. It was pointed fury at spineless football authorities, like the FA, who were entrusted to run the game, but instead handed it on a platter to people determined to fleece it.
FC United’s anger boiled over again this week. Forced by the FA to move their FA Cup fixture with Chesterfield for television, despite the long-standing objections of their owner-members, and forced to raise their ticket prices to £10 from their normal £9, FC United protested loudly, and pledged to refund all fans the £1 difference with a voucher.
Only a quid, but a quid that represents FC United’s principles more than any statement ever could. Did FC United know the rules when they entered the FA Cup? Yes. Should that stop them protesting? Of course it shouldn’t, and as non-league football fans – where volunteer supporters do so much just to keep clubs ticking over – we should be embarrassed that more of our clubs don’t make the same kind of stand.
FC United’s principles may sometimes seem at odds with their accountant’s. But that’s kind of the point. The club was set up to escape the tangled relationship football has with the money that supposedly enriches the game, but so often ruins it. Their club was set up for 3pm, Saturday afternoon football, where the fan on the terrace – not the camera in the gantry, or Paddy Power’s banter – is the priority.
Of course, the higher up the pyramid they go, the more they will be forced into fights like this. Often, they’ll lose. Their critics will attack their hypocrisy. Their fans, so united for a decade, may start to disagree over just how principled they should be. But for now, we can admire them for what they are, what they’ve done in showing us all another way is possible, and for helping to wrestle back at least part of the spirit of football from those who appropriated it to line their pockets.
And, of course, there is another reason to admire FC United. In three of the four meetings with Boston United, they’ve generously allowed the Pilgrims to beat them, which is a lovely gesture. Let’s hope they’re in a similarly kind mood on Saturday.
Might even stick a fiver on it, guv.