I wrote this article a couple of years back when FC United of Manchester began work on their new stadium in 2013, funded by community shares. The ground is formally opened next week in a game against Benfica.
FC United of Manchester cut the first sod at their new ground on Sunday. This is really, really important for three reasons.
Attending meetings around the country when I was at Supporters Direct, you’d occasionally hear people talk about reclaiming the game. In truth, we never had it.
Clubs began life, like cricket and rugby clubs, as members’ associations, but the rapid growth of the game from pastime to spectator sport in a couple of years meant that the newly-popular clubs needed to build stadia fast.
As a result, clubs structured as members’ run organisations quickly passed through that stage and demutualised (some were formed from the outset as companies) into the privately-owned companies we now have – all to raise the capital to build a new stadium.
Slowly, those shares coagulate and form blocks, then get hoovered up by people who sell contaminated meat to schools to feed the kids, then eventually come to be owned by US-based rentier capitalists who offer nothing but cash extraction to the enterprise.
So, for a club formed against the backdrop of a hedge-fund backed takeover, it’s fitting they looked to do it another way, using Community Shares, raising £2m from their fans (in the middle of a recession biting much more in the North, it should be remembered).
One reason why clubs were forced down this route in the late 1800s was the capital problem. Needing money quickly has always been a strategic problem of co-operatives and mutuals, and forces those businesses to prioritise organic growth based on retained profits as raising capital from external investors isn’t an option, as you can’t give them the ownership rights that go with such investment.
At a time when the Co-operative Bank’s problems causes some journalists to question the resilience of the model, an enterprise rising capital from its members (like many other who’ve used Community Shares) is a very welcome reminder of the virtues of community enterprise.
And finally, whilst the self-same Bank forewent organic growth for a catastrophic merger and acquisitions strategy which has holed it beneath the waterline, some are questioning whether co-operative enterprises can survive with ‘ordinary people’ at their helm, elected by their fellow members.
FC United have pulled off something revolutionary by keeping their members close, by having superb political skills to manage the various stakeholders also funding the deal and the ability to keep the deal alive when it has been at times seriously threatened. They’ve done this whilst continuing to run the club on sound lines. Not a superstar businessman or banker in sight, but people respected by their peers, and doing their bit, all accountable for their actions to the owners.
Far from being the backward looking nostalgics they’re sometimes painted as, FC United are actually the most forward-looking team in Britain. Like all explorers, they’ve a keen understanding of how people came a cropper last time to better make sure they don’t fall victim the same way.
What continues to be so impressive about the club – and at the heart of their ability to raise £2M – is their relentless commitment to their members. For example, the first sod of earth wasn’t cut by a local worthy, or a member of the Board, but a fan, who won a raffle.
They’ve been posting weekly updates on youtube about the progress of the build, as they take seriously the fact that this is their members’ money they’re spending.
Community shares have made all this possible, but they are just the software. The hardware is the club itself and its members and supporters, and – to stretch the analogy – the values to which they work are the firmware.
They’re an inspiring story for anyone interested in community enterprise – for more about them, have a look at these two videos on youtube – the first is a 3min feature from BT Sport, the second a 30 minute film made about the club and its formation and culture.