Category C, You're Havin' a Laugh
Brighton 1-1 FC United of Manchester (27:11:10)
Brighton and Hove Albion have three options when it comes to attracting the eye of the national press; Flirt with extinction - and be rescued by tireless efforts of its supporters, race clear at the top of League One with a colourful boss at the helm - and a shiny new stadium to move into, or draw FC United of Manchester in the FA Cup.
One argument levelled against FC United is that they get a disproportionate amount of press coverage considering they ply their trade in the Northern Premier Division. This is undoubtedly true, but it's because they're so newsworthy. And their fans have certainly struck a chord with us here at European Football Weekends.
Unfortunately, the hype and hoopla of this match got the better of the Safety Advisory Group (SAG) who - in their infinite wisdom - decided to grade this a Category C match, meaning that, in their view, it carried the highest risk of disorder. This was the first time this had occurred in five years, since Crystal Palace rocked up to Withdean. That I could understand. This, less so.
Initially, on internet forums (I know), both fans went in swinging virtual windmills and accusing each other of all sorts of nonsense. A resemblance of calm was eventually restored when those fans took a step back and realised they had a lot of common ground; neither of these two clubs would exist if it wasn't their supporters - two of the best sets of fans in the country when it comes to campaigning and tackling the issues of mod£rn football.
The FC United fans arrive. Did they rampage through the streets of Brighton beforehand? Did they 'eck as like.
Up for the cup.
When the seagull follows the trawler......
Ultimately, this fixture was drawn out of the hat a year early. Had it arrived 12 months later, then FC United would have been afforded the luxury of a 3,500 away allocation - instead of the derisory 845 - and we'd have all been moaning about ticket prices instead. £10-12 for this game by the way - no own goal there. Incidentally, a ticket to football in 2010 shouldn't cost more than £15. If you think that's bonkers, then tap 'Germany + football + supporters not customers' into Google.
So, what should have been a football fiesta celebrating FCUM's biggest game in their short history had kicked off on a sour note. In my view, what puts the magic in the FA Cup is the fact that grounds can teem with away fans on days like these. Football without fans is well worn cliche, and with good reason. Those empty seats at Withdean on Saturday should have been filled with the FC United fans whom had to be content with a seat back at the Flixton Cricket Club, where the game was beamed back to.
There is some good news though; FCUM can rejoice in one decision this week, that of Manchester Council City's Council Committee (MCCCC!) whom approved planning permission for the club to build a new 5,000 ground and community sports complex at Ten Acres Lane, Newton Heath (Newton Heath!). Brighton fans, for their part, have enjoyed a season in which the Gus Bus has chugged through the gears nicely, and arrived at the top of League One. Thousands of Seagulls have flocked to recent away games; 3,394 at Charlton, 2,519 at Peterborough and 3,105 at Southampton. Woof!
Time for a beer I think don't you? I met up with a few old faces in the pubs of Brighton prior to the match. A few pangs of guilt about not attending Withdean for a while were dispatched with every passing pint of Harvey's, and anecdotes of following the blue and white wizards home and away for over 20 years: we were up for the cup - and ready to witness some tippy-tappy football in the Albion's (not quite) Olympic stadium. £10 for a waft of magic from Elliot 'Benno' Bennett's boot anyone? - rather.
Cries of "Bring on United" rang out across the ground for five minutes or more before the match kicked off. Part of the appeal of FCUM is their vociferous supporters. Karl Marginson - the clubs one, and only manager - described FC United as a 90/90 club, where 90% of fans sing for 90 minutes. Today, they were a 100/96 club. To the tune of Anarchy in the UK then: I am an FC fan, I am mancunian, I know what I want, And I know how to get it, I wanna destroy Glazer and Sky, Cos I wanna be at FC. The songs came thick, fast and loud. The only ditties I didn't quite get were ones related to Eric Cantona. Yes, he endorsed the club, but why not sing about the players in your own team now?
The Theatre of Trees.
The ultra club.
Keep of the pitch IN THOSE TRAINERS.
Sorry, I couldn't resist this snap.
For new readers: this isn't really the site to head to for an actual match report. Others do that much better than I ever could. I will say that FCUM stopper Sam Ashton chose arguably the biggest day in the clubs history to play an absolute blinder between the sticks. A performance in which he added the icing to his cake by saving a last minute penalty, thus securing an unlikely draw for the away team - who were positioned 120 places further down the football pyramid than their table-topping opponents.
It was also so cold that the Albion substitute, Spaniard Franciso Sandaza, took to the field of play sporting a pair of black tights. That wasn't the worst fashion faux pas though; one of the linesmen had a pair of trainers (trainers!) on. Letter of complaint to the FA on it's way as I type, obviously.
At half time I met with Andy Walsh, FC United Chief Executive. Earlier in the week, he was afforded just four minutes to put forward the club's case for that new stadium in Newton Heath. "Everybody took the piss" he said "It normally takes me four minutes to say my name." We all laughed. I was particularly interested to talk to Walsh, because he'd helped sell the notion of a community club - and gave a morale boosting leg up in the process - to Lewes FC. This community, co-operative club football lark could well catch on you know.
I ended up tapping my foot to the ground, not only to keep warm, but - along with a bit of hum - also to join in with the songs of the travelling support. "I wish I was in their end" said my good friend Mr Cherry. We're both Brighton fans, but it was hard not to get swept up in the mood emanating from the away seats - seemingly several hundred yards behind one of the goals. Best and loudest song of the day (to the tune of the Beach Boys, Sloop John B): Hoist up the John B sail, see how the mainsail sets, call for the captain ashore, Let me go home, I wanna go home, I wanna go hooo-oo-ome, this is the worst trip I've ever been on, Doo doo doo dooo (repeat to fade).
So, the mockery of the Category C grading had been turned on its head. Best away fans we've had at the Withdean? Probably. Certainly, they were the loudest since Stoke City came to town around six years or so ago. There will be better days for the Albion. Promotion would be rich reward for the Brighton fans whom have fought tooth and nail to keep their club afloat in more trying circumstances. A final thought to the Safety Advisory Committee: Football is nothing without fans.
Cat C - unfair. Tick.
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