JUST about any other non-league club in the FA Cup first round would have been thrilled by an offer to have their tie shown live on television. For the board of FC United, though, such an offer represented a dilemma – one big enough to justify a 700-word statement on their website this week after they agreed to an ESPN request to move their tie at Rochdale to a Friday night.
FC United, formed by disenchanted Manchester United fans in the wake of Malcolm Glazer’s debt-heavy 2005 Old Trafford takeover, have progressed steadily up the non-league pyramid, reaching the Evo-Stik (formerly UniBond) Premier Division, one rung below the Blue Square North, three below League Two.
On Sunday, they made a piece of history. Carlos Roca’s winning goal against Blue Square Premier side Barrow at Gigg Lane took FC United through to the FA Cup first round for the first time, bringing with it a short trip to Spotland on the opening weekend in November.
Keith Hill, Rochdale’s manager, immediately warned of the potential for an upset if his League One side were not on the ball. ESPN saw it as one of the round’s most intriguing ties too, and asked to move it forward to Friday, November 6 to show it live. Dale indicated that they had no problems with moving the tie, and passed on the request to FC United.
With both clubs due to receive £67,500 for appearing live on ESPN, FC United’s board had a decision make – not necessarily a straight-forward one, given the club’s history with live TV.
On Saturday, December 29, 2007, all but a handful of FC fans boycotted their side’s 2-0 UniBond League First Division North victory at Curzon Ashton in protest at a decision to move the kick-off time so that the game could be streamed live on the internet. The attendance of 297 that day remains the lowest for a competitive fixture in FC’s history.
At that time, the UniBond League had just signed a six-figure, three-year internet TV deal with west London-based company Invision, which included scope to show live matches. For weekend games, that meant shifting kick-off times, as UEFA article 48 prevents Saturday 3pm matches from being televised live in England throughout most of the domestic season.
One of the attractions of following FC United for some supporters was the fact that they were free of being inconvenienced by Premier League TV demands which saw Manchester United’s kick-off times shifted all over the shop.
So when the UniBond League switched the Curzon Ashton kick-off time from 3pm to 12.45pm at Invision’s request, without FC United’s approval, there was uproar. This decision was within the league’s rules, and when FC raised an objection, it was dismissed. An almighty public row between the club and the league ensued, which got so heated at one point that Invision offered to pull out of showing the game. In the end, the broadcast went ahead.
At the time, FC United’s board made it clear that they were not trying to fight live television coverage altogether, nor did they object to the kick-off time at Curzon Ashton being moved. What annoyed them was that the game was shifted without their agreement.
It was an important and sensible distinction to make. Even at that stage, those running the club knew it was an issue they may have to deal with again at some point. That’s why ESPN’s request to show the game at Rochdale has created far less controversy.
For the key difference this time, as pointed out at the top of the club’s 700-word statement released on Tuesday, was that they were given the option to reject live TV coverage of the Rochdale game.
So why accept it, as FC United did? Two reasons, according to the club statement: Publicity and finance. The £67,500 from ESPN will be invaluable to a club who have to find the cash to rent Gigg Lane from Bury for their home matches. And worldwide TV exposure – the game will be shown live abroad too – will help the club in their long-term plan to build a ground of their own in Newton Heath, the birthplace of Manchester United.
The board – who are elected by the supporters – do not see the move as a shift in the club’s principles, pointing out that they accepted the possibility of live television appearances when they decided to enter the FA Cup, and adding that the policy can be reconsidered and voted on if members object to it.
This is, perhaps, a sign of FC United’s growing maturity as a club, as they attempt to deal with the consequences of their success while maintaining the democratic one-member-one-vote principles that brought them into existence. That balancing act isn’t going to get any easier. But they seem to be managing pretty well.