Tag Archives: Non-league

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Worksop Town 2-3 FC United of Manchester. Sandy Lane, Worksop, Nottinghamshire.

Away Days: FC United of Manchester

In 2005, FC United of Manchester was founded by disaffected fans of Manchester United. They created their own club, one that will forever be fan-owned, and began playing at the bottom of the English football pyramid, about as far from the bright lights of Old Trafford as one can go. From the beginning, FCUM fan Matthew Wilkinson has been traveling far and wide in support of the club and photographing much of their adventure as it has gone on. With the kind permission of Matthew, we present here a selection of his photos chronicling FC United of Manchester’s away days since 2005.

2005-2006

Stainton Park, Radcliffe. The home of Radcliffe Borough FC. Pictured at Castleton Gabriels v FC United of Manchester.

Stainton Park, Radcliffe. The home of Radcliffe Borough FC. Pictured at Castleton Gabriels v FC United of Manchester.

North West Counties Football League Division Two. New Mills 0-2 FC United of Manchester. Ewen Fields, Hyde, Greater Manchester.

North West Counties Football League Division Two. New Mills 0-2 FC United of Manchester. Ewen Fields, Hyde, Greater Manchester.

2006-2007

North West Counties Football League Division One. Abbey Hey 1-5 FC United of Manchester. Ewen Fields, Hyde, Greater Manchester.

North West Counties Football League Division One. Abbey Hey 1-5 FC United of Manchester. Ewen Fields, Hyde, Greater Manchester.

North West Counties Football League Challenge Cup Final. Curzon Ashton 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Tameside Stadium, Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester.

At Shambles Square on the day of the North West Counties Football League Challenge Cup Final. Curzon Ashton 1-2 FC United of Manchester.

2007-2008

Northern Premier League Division One North. Bridlington Town 0-3 FC United of Manchester. Queensgate, Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire.

Northern Premier League Division One North. Bridlington Town 0-3 FC United of Manchester. Queensgate, Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire.

Pictured at Fleetwood Town v FC United of Manchester.

Pictured at Fleetwood Town v FC United of Manchester.

2008-2009

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Kendal Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Lakeland Radio Stadium, Kendal, Cumbria.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Kendal Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Lakeland Radio Stadium, Kendal, Cumbria.

ome of Djurgårdens IF Fotboll. Pictured at Djurgårdens IF Fotboll v FC United of Manchester

Home of Djurgårdens IF Fotboll, Sweden. Pictured at Djurgårdens IF Fotboll v FC United of Manchester

2009-2010

FC Sankt-Pauli 3- 3 FC United of Manchester. Friendly. Millerntor-Stadion, Hamburg, Germany.

FC Sankt-Pauli 3- 3 FC United of Manchester. Friendly. Millerntor-Stadion, Hamburg, Germany.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Ossett Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Ingfield, Ossett, West Yorkshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Ossett Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Ingfield, Ossett, West Yorkshire.

FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round. North Ferriby United 0-1 FC United of Manchester. Grange Lane, North Ferriby, East Riding of Yorkshire.

FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round. North Ferriby United 0-1 FC United of Manchester. Grange Lane, North Ferriby, East Riding of Yorkshire.

FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round. North Ferriby United 0-1 FC United of Manchester. Grange Lane, North Ferriby, East Riding of Yorkshire.

FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round. North Ferriby United 0-1 FC United of Manchester. Grange Lane, North Ferriby, East Riding of Yorkshire.

FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round. Sheffield FC 1-3 FC United of Manchester. Coach and Horses Ground, Dronfield, Derbyshire.

FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round. Sheffield FC 1-3 FC United of Manchester. Coach and Horses Ground, Dronfield, Derbyshire.

FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round. Sheffield FC 1-3 FC United of Manchester. Coach and Horses Ground, Dronfield, Derbyshire.

FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round. Sheffield FC 1-3 FC United of Manchester. Coach and Horses Ground, Dronfield, Derbyshire.

FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round. Sheffield FC 1-3 FC United of Manchester. Coach and Horses Ground, Dronfield, Derbyshire.

FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round. Sheffield FC 1-3 FC United of Manchester. Coach and Horses Ground, Dronfield, Derbyshire.

2010-2011

Friendly. Bala Town 1-6 FC United of Manchester. Maes Tegid, Bala, Gwynedd, Wales

Friendly. Bala Town 1-6 FC United of Manchester. Maes Tegid, Bala, Gwynedd, Wales

FA Cup Second Round. Brighton and Hove Albion 1-1 FC United of Manchester. Withdean Stadium, Brighton, East Sussex.

FA Cup Second Round. Brighton and Hove Albion 1-1 FC United of Manchester. Withdean Stadium, Brighton, East Sussex.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Causeway Lane, Matlock, Derbyshire

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Causeway Lane, Matlock, Derbyshire.

FA Cup First Round. Rochdale 2-3 FC United of Manchester. Spotland, Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

FA Cup First Round. Rochdale 2-3 FC United of Manchester. Spotland, Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

Friendly. Oldham Borough FC 0-0 FC United of Manchester. Whitebank Stadium, Oldham, Greater Manchester.

Friendly. Oldham Borough FC 0-0 FC United of Manchester. Whitebank Stadium, Oldham, Greater Manchester.

Northern Premier League. Mickleover Sports 2-0 FC United of Manchester. Mickleover Sports Ground, Mickleover, Derbyshire.

Northern Premier League. Mickleover Sports 2-0 FC United of Manchester. Mickleover Sports Ground, Mickleover, Derbyshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Causeway Lane, Matlock, Derbyshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Causeway Lane, Matlock, Derbyshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Causeway Lane, Matlock, Derbyshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Causeway Lane, Matlock, Derbyshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Chasetown 2-0 FC United of Manchester. The Scholars Ground, Chasetown, Staffordshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Chasetown 2-0 FC United of Manchester. The Scholars Ground, Chasetown, Staffordshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Causeway Lane, Matlock, Derbyshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock Town 1-2 FC United of Manchester. Causeway Lane, Matlock, Derbyshire.

Northern Premier League. FC Halifax Town 4-1 FC United of Manchester. The Shay, Halifax, West Yorkshire.

Northern Premier League. FC Halifax Town 4-1 FC United of Manchester. The Shay, Halifax, West Yorkshire.

2011-2012

Pre match gossip. Bradford Park Avenue 2-5 FC United of Manchester. Horsfall Stadium, Bradford, West Yorkshire.

Pre match gossip. Bradford Park Avenue 2-5 FC United of Manchester. Horsfall Stadium, Bradford, West Yorkshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Burscough 3-5 FC United of Manchester. Skelmersdale & Ormskirk College Stadium, Skelmersdale, Lancashire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Burscough 3-5 FC United of Manchester. Skelmersdale & Ormskirk College Stadium, Skelmersdale, Lancashire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Chorley FC 2-0 FC United of Manchester. Victory Park, Chorley, Lancashire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Chorley FC 2-0 FC United of Manchester. Victory Park, Chorley, Lancashire.

FA Trophy Second Round Qualifying. Durham City FC 1-1 FC United of Manchester. Arnott Stadium, Durham, County Durham.

FA Trophy Second Round Qualifying. Durham City FC 1-1 FC United of Manchester. Arnott Stadium, Durham, County Durham.

Friendly. Leek Town 0-2 FC United of Manchester. Harrison Park, Leek, Staffordshire.

Friendly. Leek Town 0-2 FC United of Manchester. Harrison Park, Leek, Staffordshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. FC United of Manchester 1-1 Marine AFC. Bower Fold, Stalybridge, Greater Manchester.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. FC United of Manchester 1-1 Marine AFC. Bower Fold, Stalybridge, Greater Manchester.

Northern Premier League Premier Division, Stocksbridge Park Steels FC 2-2 FC United of Manchester. Bracken Moor, Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire.

Friendly. Winsford United 1-0 FC United of Manchester. Barton Stadium, Winsford, Cheshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Worksop Town 2-3 FC United of Manchester. Sandy Lane, Worksop, Nottinghamshire.

Northern Premier League Premier Division. Worksop Town 2-3 FC United of Manchester. Sandy Lane, Worksop, Nottinghamshire.

See more photos by Matthew Wilkinson on his Flickr page

Lost Glory: Oxford United, from Headington to Wembley to Non-League

Oxford United

A new series looking at clubs whose glory years are some time past.  We start with perhaps the biggest club currently in England’s non-league pyramid, Oxford United, relegated from the Football League in 2006, just two decades after winning a major trophy at Wembley Stadium.

Headington United

Oxford United have a long and interesting history. They were founded in 1893 by a vicar and doctor in Headington, a village just outside the city of Oxford. Headington is perhaps best known as the homes of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, who both taught at Oxford University, and rather more recently, for the Headington Shark.

Revd John Scott-Tucker ran a cricket club in the summers in the late nineteenth century, and as the Headington Parish Magazine reported in November of 1893, “The cricket season being over, Mr Hitchings, with his customary energy and zeal for the young men of the parish, has inaugurated a football club.” It would be called Headington Football Club, though quickly became known as Headington United.

They began well, playing 25 matches in their first six years, winning 14, drawing 8 and losing only 3, playing on the Headington Cricket Club grounds. The sports club only found a permanent home in 1926, when a group of civic-minded locals formed Headington Sports Ground Ltd and purchased the site of what became The Manor Ground, at first more known for cricket than football.

The cricket team moved to new pastures in the early 1940s, leaving Headington United as the main occupants, the football club making rapid progress on and off the field.

Headington turned professional in 1949 as they joined the Southern League, which they won in 1953. An impressive run to the FA Cup Fourth Round the next year saw them take on Bolton Wanderers in front of 16,000 at the Manor Ground. Headington lost 3-0, but the excitement whetted the appetite of the area for more.

Oxford United

Attempting to build on this foundation, in 1960 the club made the controversial decision to try and woo the larger metropolitan area of Oxford to the club by changing their name to Oxford United. One local lamented at the time: “It was their club; Oxford had never raised a finger to help them. Why should it pinch their glory now?”  The Manor Ground was also sold to the club. This would be the beginning of the end for Headington’s direct connection with the club.  The Oxford United club crest features an ox, representing the cattle Oxford was originally known for.

When Accrington Stanley went out of business in 1962, Oxford United were elected to the Football League as their replacements in the fourth division. Another strong FA Cup run in 1964 saw 22,750 pack The Manor for a sixth round tie against league giants Preston North End.

Programme for Oxford United vs. Preston North End, 1964

Centre-pages in the programme for Oxford United vs. Preston North End, 1964 (quisnovus on Flickr).

Oxford lost 1-0 to Preston, but the large crowd was another sign the city was ready for big-time football.

The next year, the club were promoted to the third division, and they established themselves firmly in the Football League, moving up to the second division before relegation in 1976 set-off a chain of events that would see them go on a rollercoaster ride up and down the leagues in the next four decades.

robert-maxwell

Thames Valley Royals

In January 1982, after five years of financial struggle and the club facing bankruptcy, they were purchased by media tycoon Robert Maxwell. He saved the club; but his grander ambitions took a nasty twist for Oxford fans in March 1983 when he suddenly announced he was also to purchase Reading Football Club, merge the two teams and create the Thames Valley Royals. As Rage Online remembers, fans, the football community and even members of the Oxford United board did not take well to the news.

Initial reaction of the fans of both clubs was hostile. Mike Habbits, chairman of the Reading Supporters Club, said: ‘Our fans can’t stand Oxford fans and I can’t see them travelling to Oxford to watch the new team’. Former Reading player Roger Smee, who had unsuccessfully bid for the club the previous autumn, was quick to announce he was considering a fresh offer. Another Reading fan asked ‘How can people identify themselves with a side that does not represent a town but an area? Football has always been between us and them’. A spokesman from Oxford United Supporters Club described the scheme as ‘crazy and unworkable’. Former United captain and then Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson commented: ‘Mr. Maxwell obviously believes that if you add 6,000 United fans to 6,000 Reading fans you’ll get 12,000 supporters for the new club. You won’t’. Peter Marsh quit the United board three weeks after Maxwell took over. He called the plan ‘the end of Oxford United’. ‘The way this merger has been done is arrogant and autocratic’.

Supporters organised against the move, with the Save Oxford Soccer (SOS) campaign set-up, and a sit-in demonstration held at the Manor Ground in a match against Wigan. Meanwhile, Maxwell’s attempt to takeover Reading hit a serious snag as he lost the support of the board there. The idea had an inglorious death.

Yet ironically, Maxwell’s investment in the club would soon see it reach the greatest heights in its history in the mid-1980s.  After successive promotions in 1984 and 1985, Oxford United reached the top flight for the first time. They survived their first season there by the skin of their teeth, avoiding relegation on the last day of the season, but most famously won the Football League Cup (then the Milk Cup, now the Carling Cup), beating QPR at Wembley in the final, with 90,396 in attendance.

The next year, though, would be the start of Oxford’s slide to non-league football. Robert Maxwell purchased Derby County, and it being sensibly against league rules for anyone to own two clubs, he ended his ownership of Oxford…..But his replacement was his son, Kevin Maxwell. The club were relegated in 1988, and controversy followed as Oxford striker Dean Saunders was sold to none other than, you guessed it, Derby County.

There was one last twist in the Maxwell saga. His sudden and mysterious yachting death in 1991 was the catalyst for his financial estate collapsing, and Oxford ended up out of money and looking for a bail-out again. That came from a rich fan, Robin Herd, who bought the club and tried to lead the construction of a new stadium for the club that would fit the post-Hillsborough stadium development of English football in the 1990s.

But growing debt and problems with the local council stalled the project. Oxford passed into new hands again at the end of the decade as they yo-yoed up and down the Football League, bought by Firoz Kassam in 1999. Gary Andrews at Soccerlens has an excellent synopsis of Kassam’s own controversial ownership:

Kassam, by his own admission, was not a football man. What he was good at, though, was business, having made his fortune through hotels in the 80s. He was quick to enter the crippled club into a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) in order to reduce the debts, with all unsecured creditors over £1,000 paid 10p in the pound. In this case, the £9million owed to such creditors ended up costing Kassam £900,000.

Meanwhile Kassam also moved to resolve Oxford’s other problem: the unfinished stadium. This was still bogged down in appeals on the surrounding land but a resolution was somehow found, which saw Kassam pay £1.3million for the land and planning permission for a large leisure complex, including a hotel, restaurant, cinema, and bowling alley. The £15million modestly-named Kassam Stadium plan was ready to proceed.

But Oxford’s chairman hadn’t just been working on securing land around the new ground. While the legal battles over the out-of-town site were ongoing, Kassam had sold the Manor Ground stadium to Firoka, a holding company registered in Jersey and owned by Kassam, for £6million. This money was used to pay off secured creditors while the Manor Ground and the surrounding land was sold, complete with planning permission, to the Nuffield Hospital Group for £12million. The profits on the sale went to Kassam.

Kassam’s business acumen had paid off nicely for himself and there was an extra sweetener on top. When Oxford moved into their new stadium in 2001, Kassam kept ownership of the ground and the surrounding commercial development. The terms of the lease means Oxford United are still paying rent and overheads to Kassam, despite the millionaire no longer owning the club.

Kassam has frequently defended his role in Oxford’s history, pointing out his money saved the club and that he took a huge risk when building the new stadium. That risk did not extend to putting cash into the playing side and all cash put in to cover operating losses was done so as loans. Oxford are still paying these back.

Unsurprisingly, the club struggled on the field as well, falling down to the bottom division of the Football League by the time Kassam sold the club in 2006 (though notably, he kept ownership of the stadium, which Oxford rented out).

A 3-2 defeat to Leyton Orient on the last day of the 2005-06 season saw Oxford United drop out of the Football League and into the non-league Football Conference.

After Oxford United's last Football League match.

After Oxford United's last Football League match. (quisnovus on Flickr)

Under the promising new ownership of a former Oxford player and US-based businessman Nick Merry, Oxford’s first season in the Conference saw them reach the playoffs, losing on penalties to Exeter in the semi-finals.

As the Kassam Stadium crowd shown below at the last game of the 2008-9 season demonstrates, support for the club remains strong, and Oxford have topped the attendance chart in the Conference three years running, despite missing the playoffs in the last two seasons (though only because of a controversial points deduction in 2008-9).

Oxford fans on the last day of the 2009 season. (quisnovus on Flickr)

Oxford fans on the last day of the 2009 season. (quisnovus on Flickr)

Despite a very robust average attendance this year approaching 7,000, renting the stadium for £480,000 annually from Kassam is described as crippling the club by present club chairman Kelvin Thomas: the club has £4m of debt. Smart initiatives such as a new club membership scheme and a 12th man fund-raising effort have helped, but a long-term stadium solution is still needed.  On the field, things are rosy: as of today, they sit in second place in the Conference, one point behind Stevenage with three games in hand: it seems likely they will not be a non-league club for much longer. Off the field, Oxford’s financial future remains — seemingly as ever — unclear.

Credits: All photos used with permission of Pat Baker (quisnovus) on Flickr.

The Anorak World of the Unibond Northern Premier League

So the football season is here at last, and the whole nation is running around like a kid who’s eaten a whole bag of Haribo in one sitting. Football is falling out of our every orifice. DVDs, Sky, Setanta, the BBC, the internet, sopcast, blogs, newspapers, sticker albums; we’re cramming as much football in to our chunky, visually repulsive little bodies as we can. But like that same kid, it’s only a matter of time before we fall in to a deep sugar slump, unable to move, with vomit caked hair stuck to our face.

chorley

The realisation kicks in that no matter how loudly or often we try and convince ourselves and everyone else that we give a shit, by shouting “YEAH! FOOTBALL! WOOHOOO! YEAH!” the season will be exactly the same as it was last year, and the year before that. OK, everything might be won by PetroDollar FC, rather than Hedge Fund United, but the top three or four are pretty much interchangeable beasts anyway.

Meanwhile the mid table will be filled up with non-descript teams, playing God awful football, as uninterested millionaires take it in turns to hoof the latest Nike football made from the cheeks of real babies to ensure a perfect spherical shape.

Of course there’s more to football than the Premier League. Thank God. But such is the blanket media coverage of Sky’s favourite product, you have to go to so much trouble to find it it’s barely worth it. It’s no wonder that as top flight attendances fall, the viewing figures for Coronation Street increase (I’ve not checked if this is the case at all, actually. But it certainly should be). It’s top quality entertainment on tap, four times a week. Unpredictable, passionate, well thought out, and so as not to upset the equilibrium, half the country can watch overpaid celebrities in Manchester strut their stuff from the comfort of their armchair.

Or, of course, you can delve in to the murky, anorak wearing world of the non-leagues. The Unibond Northern Premier League kicked off this weekend, and it’s set to be as unpredictable and exciting as any league in Europe. Fair doos: the quality of the football might not be up to scratch, and you won’t have heard of any of the players, but there are as many billionaires, crooks, chancers, charlatans and oddballs as the Premier League. Buy you won’t be as familiar with their shtick.

(Look, this isn’t another of those ball-achingly tedious ‘modern football is shit’ whinges from a reformed Football evangelical. Far from it. The only purpose I purport to serve is to highlight that something different you may be looking for. It has all the thrills of Corrie, without the disadvantage of having to sit through another tedious Ken and Deirdre storyline)

The NPL is one of the regional leagues that sits directly underneath the Football Conference. This season threatens to be one of the best ever, with at least half a dozen teams having the potential to win the title. According to the bookies, the joint favourites are our old friends Leigh Genesis, now a full-time, professional club, and Bradford Park Avenue.

Park Avenue are an interesting (in the ‘bat-shit crazy’ sense of the word) case. They were bought by a local businessman and millionaire, Bob Blackburn, just over a year ago. His arrival was trumpeted from the grimy, terraced rooftops, and he claimed he was more excited when he bought BPA than he was when he bought his luxury Spanish villa and his yacht. He also kindly provided the usual rhetoric surrounding league football, five year plans, and new stadiums. This, according to Blackburn, has to have a 20,000 capacity. So that’ll be nice and roomy for their 500 fans.

To be fair to Blackburn, he has delivered on most of his promises so far. BPA manager David Cameron (no, not that one, that’d be a step too far) has assembled a very handy looking squad indeed, including Rory Patterson, signed from rivals FC United. And while throwing money at players until they agree to join you (Patterson signed a part-time contract for £450 a week) lacks subtlety, it delivers results. Former Oldham striker Chris Hall, who quit football two years ago to become an actor, and appeared in a BBC3 drama playing ‘man in gimp mask’, also signed up, and scored two of BPA’s four goals on the opening day of the season.

Optimism is high, then, on the field. But question marks surround the running of the club off the pitch following a bizarre and embarrassing story from this summer.

As a reward for winning the NPL div 1 North title last season, Bob Blackburn promised the fans a players a preseason tour of Spain. And sure enough, Bob ‘I always get my man’ Blackburn claimed to have sorted it. Reports appeared in the local paper, and on the official BPA website, heralding a successful tour, in which Rory Patterson scored a hat-trick on his debut. Except he didn’t. He wasn’t there. And nor were most of the BPA team. Bob Blackburn made the whole story up, even going so far as to completely fabricate the three teams they played against. What was no more than a lads’ holiday for a handful of the players had been sold to the fans as a prestigious preseason tour.

When the story finally broke, thanks largely to me and my blog, the BPA fans were up in arms. Bob Blackburn described the story not as a lie, but as a ‘grey area’ of the truth, which is an interesting take on things. As I write no public apology has been made, and the match reports remain on the official website. As I said, bat-shit crazy.

One of the only teams that can match BPA’s spending power is Ilkeston Town, but apparently trying to restore the balance of good and evil, they seem only to want to spend their money to help the local community.

The owner of Ilkeston is Chek Whyte, one of Britains wealthiest men. He appeared recently on Channel 4’s ‘patronise the poor’ programme, Secret Millionaire, where he went undercover in Salford to see how the other half lived. And, having been made to feel suitably guilty, ended up signing cheque after cheque to help local community initiatives.

I’m possibly being a little hard on Mr Whyte here. He’s the son of a lorry driver and grew up on one of the poorest estates in the country. In his teens he fell in with ‘the wrong crowd’ and ended up serving time in jail. It was only after this he got his act together and became one of the most successful property developers in the country.

Rather than throw his money at Ilkeston Town to create a super team to get in to the league, Chek Whyte has different plans.

“There are massive problems and we need to do something here. It will take time, you have got to help me and I will chuck money in,” he told a meeting where he outlined his vision. “I was in foster homes and was dragged up but I am a role model now and want to put something back.”

His vision includes running a true community club in an attempt to keep teenagers away from crime and drugs, as well as running courses and training opportunities. The executive development manager of the scheme added, “This is not the whim of a rich man who wants to build a white elephant which will get him into heaven. This is someone genuine who wants to make a social impact who knows what is happening in the community and wants to make it better.”

This is highly laudable, even to a stone-hearted cynic like me. Football shouldn’t just be about what happens on the field, and success shouldn’t necessarily be measured in terms of number of cups won.

But, perhaps sadly, that is how success is measured, and come the end of the season it won’t be the club who helped the community the most who gets promoted. It’ll be Boston United. At least that’s who I’m tipping. Though if my efforts at horse betting is anything to go by, a curtain will be drawn around Boston mid-March and a bolt will be shot through their skull. Still, never mind, eh?

Last season Boston United finished mid-table in the Conference North. They were only relegated due to league rules governing finances. The club had to exit administration by May 10, they didn’t, they were relegated. Which is a bit of a kick in the plums for the fans, who are still paying the price for the criminal (literally?) way the club was run by former manager Steve Evans (currently serving a twelve match touchline ban at Crawley Town).

Boston Manager Tommy Taylor has managed to keep the vast majority of his squad together and this alone should ensure the club will be there or thereabouts at the end of the season. And when the only other viable options for promotion are the loathsome Bradford Park Avenue and the loathsomer Leigh Genesis, every neutral will be hoping, praying that it’s Boston who go up at the end of the season.

Unless of course my lot, FC United, can prove themselves up to the task of winning a fourth successive promotion. The bookies, or betties as my Mum hilariously calls them, seem to think we’re up to it. As does our hopelessly optimistic and romantic manager, Karl Marginson. We may have lost three of our best players over summer, but we’ve managed to bring in players of proven non league quality to replace them. And, according to Margy, they’re not here for the money, but for the thrill of playing for FC United.

Which is just as well. We’re broke and barely turning an annual profit. We still average about two and a half thousand a game, so this seems mystifying to many. But the rent at Gigg Lane is crippling us, it’s said to be in the region of £100,000 a season, and until we can build and move in to our own ground we’ll struggle to compete financially with teams even two divisions below us (hello New Mills Athletic!).

The club also appears to be suffering something of an identity crisis. Fans are leaving, fleeing back to Old Trafford, whinging about club politics, changing priorities, and denying vehemently that Manchester United’s European Cup win has anything to do with it at all. This sort of conflict between the fans is all very 2005, and all very boring. Maybe some of Margy’s romanticism is rubbing off on me, but I firmly believe that ‘United’ aspect of FC United has played a huge part in our successes to date.

But not to worry. As I intimated above, I believe football isn’t just about winning (it’s easy to say that after three years of pretty much unrivalled success: ask me again if we’re winless in February) and the fact we’re still here is success enough for me for now. Besides, I’m not sure we can afford to get promoted just yet. It could cripple us.

So that’s about it. The four teams the media and the experts seem to be concentrating on as favourites for the league title. Witton Albion fans may feel hard done by not to be included. Eastwood Town fans even more so. And Marine won their first game 6-2, so who’s to say they won’t be there at the end of the year? I genuinely don’t know who will win the league, and nor can anyone else say with any certainty. Ignorance really does appear to be bliss.

Photo via cn174 from Flickr

What Needs to Change in Non-League Football

We’ve been looking at English non-league football all week, and in something of a call-to-arms, Dave Boyle suggests that more supporters of non-league clubs need to take charge of their own destinies.

The last five years as an AFC Wimbledon fan have immersed me in non-League football. Up to then, I thought of non-League in much the same way as many who have not fully experienced it. Corinthian amateurs playing for the love of it, fans united in pursuit of survival rather than unrealistic dreams of global domination, officials motivated by simple service rather than power-brokering and politicking.

There is much of the non-League story about which English football can be justly proud. The depth of competitive football across the country is something that truly marks it out from many, many other countries and that is in no small part thanks to the unpaid hours put in by supporters all over the country. The culture of personal sacrifice, or pitching in for the greater good with no reward other than just making sure a team can take the park and the punters can pay over the turnstile.

But there is another side to the game which is less than admirable. I consider myself a friend of non-League football, and occasionally, friends have to tell people some home truths that might seem harsh. Like friends in our personal lives, I hope that people understand they are motivated by a desire to see the game improve and become what it could so easily be.

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