In recent years there’s been a widespread view that non-league football provides the perfect antidote to the big business of Premier league, a refuge for those either thoroughly disillusioned, priced out of grounds, or both. Countless books and articles have been published detailing the author’s quest for the ‘soul of football’ at various one-man-and-is-dog venues.
In these accounts the non-league game tends to be characterised as friendly and as warm as a toasted teacake; It is there that we can find lifelong fans sporting scarves not purchased from a club superstore but knitted by their mums, turnstile operators who regale you with stories of the glory days of the past, chatty tea ladies who call everyone ‘love’ or ‘duck’ and where, win or lose, everyone gathers in the bar afterwards for a nice pint.
The events at FC United of Manchester bring into focus how the myth of non-league as a warm and friendly world and the more messy reality collide. To sketch out the story FC United was formed in 2005 by Manchester United fans disillusioned by the Glazier takeover. Broadly, its aim was to be the very antithesis of the corporate behemoth Manchester United had become; FC United would be fan run, democratic and above all focused on serving the community. The enterprise has, in many ways been a success and the club has found itself in the Conference North with a brand new £6.3 million ground. A recent article by Daniel Taylor in The Guardian however, suggests that there is now an element of disharmony at the club which is “part of a story featuring legal action, resignations, protests, gagging orders and the overall feeling that FC are locked in an identity crisis.”
Following non-league over a few years I’ve noticed there is another side to the non-league game which is rarely, if ever, remarked upon. Visit some online message boards connected to a club and an underbelly of trolling, bullying and bickering can come into view. At one local non-league club I’ve seen a manager in a state of despair following a campaign from an individual launching a series of personal attacks – in the managers words “throwing hand-grenades” – via the clubs message board, behind the cover of a pseudonym. The manager himself only read posts, but the Director of Football was an active forum member and made a habit of becoming involved in online altercations with fans. Elsewhere at another local side any stories about them on the website of the local paper are almost always accompanied by a sniping comment from someone who appears to be nursing some kind of vendetta against the clubs management. Journalist Ian Ridley’s Floodlit Dreams, a memoir of his brief reign as Chairman of Weymouth, also describes how the atmosphere around a club can turn toxic.
In part such acrimony can arise because people care, they want their club to be successful and they have opinions about how best to achieve that – which in some cases may be more realistic than others. Another factor is that the distance between fans and the players and management is much smaller at non-league; The manager of a Premier League team is unlikely to heed one voice from the stand, or to spend much time sifting through message boards, but at non-league fans opinions are more likely to be heard and to have an impact. On one hand this is good, but on another it can mean that those running, or helping out at clubs doing so as a labour of love question why they bothered in the first place when those offering criticism do so in a less than constructive manner. Equally in the non-league game you will find plenty of egos who don’t always take even well meant criticism particularly well and who seek to run clubs as mini fiefdoms.
This is not to say that the non-league game is a state of perpetual strife and continual Game of Thrones style power struggles; It is not, but neither is it always the warm, friendly place it is made out to be. As FC United shows even high ideals and a democratic structure do not prevent conflict, although the ideals of community and participation may yet provide a pathway out of it.