Gary James on Manchester’s football demonstrations

I’ve been asked to contribute a monthly column focusing on the clubs in the Manchester region. The idea is to discuss each club’s modern day activities while bringing in a bit of historical context. Today’s feature is on Manchester’s football demonstrations.

Events of recent months have focused my mind on football ownership and the rights of fans to have their voices heard. The deaths of two legendary Manchester-based England legends, Bobby Charlton and Francis Lee, are a reminder of a different time. A time when our heroes wore shirts without sponsors and when we idolised them for their football and not for their appearances in the latest fashion magazine.

Back when Bobby and Franny were playing fans didn’t really have much of a voice. We could write to the local paper or the Pink. We may even get a letter published in the club match programme but if we were dissatisfied with the way our clubs were run the best we could do would be to chant or demonstrate at the ground. We could also boycott our clubs – something United fans tried in the 1930s when, ironically, an attendance larger than previous games turned up at Old Trafford.

Both men are sadly no longer with us but I hope their memories and achievements live on and are discussed for as long as football continues to be played in our city.

When Bobby and Franny were in their pomp we had no need to complain about how our clubs were being run as they tended to be trophy winners – look at 1968: United European Champions and City League Champions! In the years after their playing days things changed. United were relegated in 1974 but soon came back and then City were relegated in 1983 but mismanagement by Peter Swales and his supporting directors caused the Blues’ to lose pace with their traditional rivals.

Which brings me back to Bobby and Franny. By the time City were struggling in the 1980s Bobby was a United director, caring passionately about making the Reds a title winner once more. Franny was a successful businessman who was frequently asked to come back to Maine Road and help the Blues return to prominence. Year after year Franny held back but then in 1993, after around 14 years of demonstrations against Swales and his supporting directors, Lee announced his intention to take over the Blues.

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Is there the same passionate care of the club that was showed by Charlton? Image: Confidentials

This is relevant to today. City fans then, like United fans today, had held many, many days and nights of demonstrations and protests over how the club was run but it was only until a credible alternative came forward that things could actually change. Years of ‘Swales Out’ and similar meant little while the chairman refused to stand down or sell, but once Franny came forward the momentum was unstoppable. Previously Swales had commented how fan protests would die down if victories occurred – not strictly true but he knew things would quieten – but once Franny announced his intention everything changed.

Of course, once Lee took over City things on the pitch didn’t really improve. In fact the Blues dropped to their lowest ever position within 5 years of Franny’s takeover (although off the pitch income and other activities had improved markedly).

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Old Trafford. Still somewhere for fans to be proud of? Image: Confidentials

Can City’s history teach United anything? Maybe. Maybe not. Every club is different but peaceful demonstrations by fans today should be listened to and supporter voices should be heard. Franny’s intention to buy City in 1993 would be like Eric Cantona announcing a similar intention to buy the Reds today. Imagine the support and the popularity of a move like that! However, fans should remember that even if a truly great hero comes forward (and make no mistake about it Franny was a legendary figure of the highest order to Blues) it does not mean that all issues and grievances are over. Clubs can fail even with the most dedicated former hero at the helm.

Franny and Bobby were different types of people but both loved their clubs and they took time to understand fans over the decades. They would both want Manchester to always be at the peak of European football and for us all to enjoy every day, supporting our clubs. Both men are sadly no longer with us but I hope their memories and achievements live on and are discussed for as long as football continues to be played in our city.

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