The disastrous season Manchester United have had has left me in the highly unusual situation of having nothing to care about at the end of the season. The last time this happened was the nearly-forgotten season of 1990/91, the penultimate season of the old Football League, when United, despite improving dramatically from the year before’s 13th place and the threat of relegation for most of the season – and you call 7th a disaster? – only finished 6th, a place behind the Bitter Blues for the first time in over a decade, and the last time until their last lick goal-difference miracle in 2012.
Of course, it wasn’t a truly bleak season, since the Reds were heading off to Rotterdam, and a rendezvous with Barcelona in the European Cup-Winners Cup Final, and Sparky’s two goals, and Sunbed’s goal-line clearance in the 89th minute.
This year though, there’s nowt to look forward to except my fervent prayer that anyone – and I even include the Bitters in this – win the Premiership except Liverpool.
But let’s leave that contentious, and potentially highly painful, topic and remind ourselves that football goes on in other realms than the artificial world of the Premiership.
Every now and then I’ve been bringing you bulletins about life at the bottom of the Evo Stik Northern Premier League Premier Division and the embarrassing/horrifying/amusing (delete to taste) experiences of Droylsden FC, long since condemned to relegation to First Division North (level 8 of the Pyramid, and the lowest level at which the club has played in its existence). It’s been car crash fascination with the Bloods, who are firmly in the Bust cycle of the Boom that peaked with their solitary year in the Conference Premier Division.
But most of the time my eyes have been directed much further up the table, of FC United of Manchester, the team formed by and for fans of Manchester United who found the 2005 takeover of the Old Trafford club one piece of commercialisation too far. FC was created as a Friendly Society, a members club that cannot be sold, and which exists to remind us of the old values of football, the joy of backing your own, and the true place of football at the heart of a community.
Needless to say, FC’s existence has always been controversial, but the comparatively massive level of its support enabled the club to get off to a flying start, with three years of unrelieved promotion getting them into the Northern Premier League Premier Division as early as 2008/9. The club has always been competitive at this level, and indeed has been the losing Play-Off Finalist in each of the last three seasons (the cruellest blow coming in 2012, when the Club lost 1-0 to Bradford Park Avenue, the goal coming in the last minute of extra-time).
This year, the club has spent virtually all its ime in the top half of the 24 tean Division, flirting with the fringe of the Play-Off places, until the beginning of February, when FC started a run of 12 consecutive League victories, that took them to the top of the table, in direct competition with Chorley for the League title, and automatic promotion.
Throughout this period, FC had the advantage both of games in hand on Chorley, and a superior goal-difference. And beating Chorley 1-0 away was a massive boost to FC’s ambitions. That is, until Droylsden took an unexpected hand in the destination of the title. Their 13-1 crash at Chorley reversed the goal-difference advantage, giving Chorkey a lead that, in practical terms, was unassailable. It was like their having an extra point: even if FC won their remaining game in hand, and drew level on points, Chorley’s goal difference would keep them ahead.
Unfortunately, FC’s streak ran out. The return game at Gigg Lane was almost a disaster, with Chorley taking a 2-0 lead, until a dramatic two goals in three minutes, very late on, brought FC back to claim a point. Then FC were beaten at home last Saturday by perennial bogies, Buxton, though they bounced back to win their game in hand, trouncing Grantham 3-0.
So: it’s Easter weekend. ThePemiership may have forgotten old traditions that favoured the fans, but they’re alive in the Evo-Stik League: there are full programmes on Easter Saturday and Easter Monday, and the final round of games is six days later, Saturday 16 April. It’ll all be known then: who goes up, who goes into the Play-Offs. It might well be over for FC United by theend of Monday.
Currently, Chorley top the table with 90 points and a G-D of 62. FC are second, on 87 points and a G-D of 51. AFCFylde are also still contenders, also on 87 points with a G-D of 51, but FC are placed above them having scored 9 goals to Fylde’s 90. Technically, the title is not beyond fourth place Witton Albion (84 points, G-D 34, and the League’s highest tally of goals, 116) but realistically, they should be looked on as a threat to second place.
Tomorrow, Chorley are away to 12th place Whitby Town, and on Monday at home to 20th place Marine, still in danger of filling the last relegation place. FC are at 15th place Stamford tomorrow, and entertain 5th place Ashton United on Monday. Fylde host 16th place Grantham Town on Saturday and visit 6th place Skelmersdale United on Monday, whilst Witton go to 14th place Barwell tomorrow and face 7th place Rushall Olympic at home on Monday.
To be honest, short of miracles, I can’t see Chorley dropping points in either of their games, especially not on Easter Monday, which puts the onus on FC to win both games. I mean, they know that anyway, it’s got to be three-out-of-three, whatever Chorley do, but if FC drop a point this weekend – and the Ashton game is going to be tough, since they’ll be desperate to maintain their Play-Off place – then the title is gone.
Fylde also have one ‘easy’ and one ‘hard’ game this weekend, but Skelmersdae are a different propisition to Ashton: they were contesting the title themselves until about six weeks ago, since when a results freefall has left them at risk of missing even the Play-Offs: anything less than matching Fylde’s record sees FC drop to third.
And the consequences of dropping out of second are serious. FC are guaranteed a Play-Off place already, but second is imperative as this will ensure home advantage in both semi-final and final, which FC have never had before, usually creeping in in 5th.
I haven’t minded FC’s years in the Evo-Stik Premier. The club needed to consolidate, to establish itself, rather than skyrocket too far too fast. But three years of PlayOff Final disappointment is at least one too many, and the time is ready to take that next step up in level, especially with FC United on course to start the 2014/15 season in their own grouns, the under-construction Broadhurst Park, in Moston, closer to Manchester United’s roots as Newton Heath.
It’s squeaky bum time, as a former Manchester United manager once put it. This may all seem remote to you, and of no imprtance whatsoever, but having had years of experience in Non-League football, I can assure you that the passions are the same, the stakes as important, and the disappointments as crushing. Manchester United have nothing left to play for, but FC United of Manchester have everything to play for, even if the reward is ‘only’ to move to within two levels of the Football League.
‘I don’t care about Rio/he don’t care about me/all we care about/is watching FC’.