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Be honest, you’ve been there too. Shouting at the telly in frustration and annoyance as your favourite club flounders amidst the colour and excitement of a big match day, you swear that you could do a better job of organising the team than the manager himself.
Admittedly, sometimes there are a few jars involved but then again all the best managers have whisky noses, right?
In frustration, you turn to the virtual reality world of Football Manager, channelling your inner Jay Cartwright as you ingeniously guide Woking from the Conference to the Champions League in six seasons – because let’s face it, stuff like that doesn’t go unnoticed.
Often cooped up for days on end, players’ eyes hooded in heavy concentration, the ritualistic hibernation that accompanies the classic game has marked it out as a pursuit for a certain breed of die-hard fanatics, and one that has long had a considerable impact on the real world intricacies of the beautiful game.
It was with excitement and intrigue, then, that These Football Times went in search of an exclusive interview with Mark North the chairman of United London FC, a trailblazing club which, at its simplest, is a real-life incarnation of the famous series.
The self-styled “first managerless club in the world” is aiming to put fans in the dugout, and if you’re thinking they’ve just stolen the idea from Tim Sherwood’s tongue-in-cheek stunt to briefly plonk a Tottenham Hotspur fan in the hot-seat back in 2014, think again.
In all seriousness, it really is a lot more sophisticated than that and it’s a truly fascinating concept. I’m curious as to where the idea came from, and North duly fills me in with a short anecdote about late night inspiration.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Championship Manager and Football Manager series and would like to take the opportunity to thank Miles Jacobson for allowing me to take Canvey Island to Champions League glory.
“The eureka moment came during last year’s X-Factor. As I sat there with my wife I thought ‘why are there no voting shows for men?’ That’s when I came up with the idea of combining football with an X-Factor style voting and just developed the idea from there. I spoke to the London FA and met with some Premier League clubs who liked the idea, gave me some suggestions and then I just ran with it. Luckily things are coming along very nicely.”
Booted up overnight, ULFC’s spiritual birth was induced pretty rapidly and the club is now on the cusp of starting something very worthwhile. On the surface, it might sound like a bit of a novelty, so I want to dig a little deeper and find out what a club without a manager really entails.
“We’re manager-less in that we won’t appoint a manager in the same way other clubs do,” North explains.
“Instead we give the collective power of team selection to football fans. By giving fans the ultimate choice we put trust in their ability to pick a winning team.”
“I think we all know someone who believes they know more than the manager of their club, so this puts that to the test. During the game, the coaches will deal with tactical decisions and substitutions. We are looking at ways to incorporate in-play decision-making by the fans but do not want to over complicate things in season one. We want people to get involved and stay involved throughout season one before we add new features so simplicity is key,” he tells me.
Talk about giving football back to the fans. In a way that so many clubs could only dream of, North’s team are really going all-out to make this a genuine fan-operated outfit; they’re literally handing over the controls.
It’s very early days in the project, but one of the key initiatives ULFC will look to undertake is quite a philanthropic one because they want to become a platform for would-be professionals to earn a second life in the beautiful game. Indeed, as North himself details in the club’s explainer video, around 700 players are released from clubs each year so ULFC offers them the opportunity to level up, reach a redemptive checkpoint and take control of their careers once again.
North is cautiously optimistic and nobody is expecting miracles, but it’s the compassionate positivity which makes the ULFC venture such an easy one to get behind. Football is not an exact science, but that’s what gives it an exciting edge, and North is determined to show belief in its innate romance, as he tells me.
“With so many statistics and ways to analyse the game today football fans are more knowledgeable than ever before. This puts that knowledge to the test. I’m like most people, I don’t have a football qualification, I’ve never managed a team before, but I am passionate about the sport and think that I can spot a talented player.
“The players that our managers pick will be put in the shop window and collectively they could launch the career of some of our players. It’s a big responsibility but what a rewarding one. We’ll also be providing Premier League level statistics so that you can see how players have performed each match. We’ve even built in a point scoring system so our managers can win Manager of the Month Awards. The best performing Manager of the Year will even win a table at our end of season awards.”
There’s a great deal going on here. It’s an ambitious undertaking for sure, but it’s certainly an exciting one. So, what type of players can we expect to see grace the club in the coming months?
“We want to work with players who have the ability to play at a higher level,” North explains.
“That means attracting players who perhaps have not quite made the grade at an academy or play for a good Saturday team and want to get noticed. Our first trial will take place on 18 June where we aim to take around 60 players through to a final trial in July. We’ll need a squad of around 30 players to give managers enough choice in each position.”
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Read | The Ebbsfleet United fan ownership experiment
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A lot has been made of the rags to riches story of Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy who famously climbed his way from obscurity and rejection to become one of the best strikers in the Premier League so it’s possible that more openings are needed for players of that ilk to develop and become noticed.
Another name that often gets bandied about is Charlie Austin. After netting 46 goals in 46 matches for Poole Town while moonlighting as a bricklayer, he was scouted by AFC Bournemouth’s Steve Cuss before eventually managing to make it with Queens Park Rangers. It took a monumental effort, but these guys made it to the pinnacle of the sport and have even eked out spots in the national team set-up. Alas, there are so many others just like them who pour everything into making it but never get the chance to showcase their skills, and ULFC will be music to their ears.
So, what chance is there that we’ll see the next underdog success story come through the Hackney Marshes?
“Can we unearth a future England International? It’s true that this is an exception but there are lots of examples of top clubs signing people from non-league. Joe Hart debuted in the Conference, Chris Smalling, Yannick Bolasie, Michail Antonio, Dwight Gayle, Danny Ings to name a few, so who knows.”
The roll call North wheels off is impressive and it’s difficult to not feel excited about the possibilities, but while uncovering a future star is impossible to guarantee, bridging the gap between fans and clubs is something he feels can certainly be achieved.
Bringing control to the stands in a real way is somewhat of a rarity in today’s game where the exorbitant money of big-spending clubs has annexed the essence of the beautiful game from those who pay to see their clubs week-in, week-out.
The gulf between supporters and the players on the pitch might not seem as deeply entrenched with the widespread presence of social media which allows access to the personal thoughts and intimate moments of the sport’s most well-known names, but it’s pretty clear that there is actually quite a notable disconnect permeating the game.
North feels similarly about it all but is also of the opinion that it provides a window of opportunity.
“With the money in football today there is a growing gap which brings pressure for clubs at the top to keep pushing. They are run much more commercially as you can see from the likes of Manchester City who have a global strategy for their brand. This naturally means fans are less connected and in some ways this is good for non-league as clubs likes AFC Wimbledon appear, Salford City get investment and ideas such as ULFC are born.
“I know that big clubs are trying to address this and create more engaging content so that fans can see more of the inner workings, but I don’t think there could be anything but a divide between your average supporter and a billionaire owner. The Premier League and non-league gap is widening and if you want to feel part of a club and get really close to the players I would urge anyone to go and see their local non-league club.”
They’re championing a level of football that is often neglected because the fact is that lower league football is often the starting point for so many of today’s world-class stars. Instead of getting bogged down in the aloof nature of some giant clubs, ULFC are doing their bit to inject some fresh intimacy and support into the game.
Of course, it’s a risky business because there are no guarantees of success whatsoever. Anyone familiar with the ambitious Ebbsfleet United project will know all too well that fan involvement doesn’t always work out the ideal way – so what can North’s club do to ensure they don’t wind up making the same errors and to get as close as possible to the vision they want?
“I wouldn’t want to comment on the failings of the project but we did a lot of research into Ebbsfleet and have learned some valuable lessons,” North informs me.
“The key difference with us and Ebbsfleet is that their supporters never actually got to choose the team. Liam Daish was the Manager in charge and he took control of on-the-field-matters.
“ULFC puts in place a very simple mechanism for team selection which they didn’t have at the time. I personally think that this is the most fun thing to be part of. With 30 players to choose from there will be lots of talking points throughout the season as one manager’s favourite players will be different from the next. This is the same in clubs up and down the country and why football is such a good talking point.”
It’s clear from our discussion that North has done his homework and that will mean a lot in helping the club plough through the rough and tumble of the first few months in the Essex Alliance Premier League.
It would be easy to fob this idea off as gimmick borne out of an infatuation with a computer game, but that’s far too harsh a sweeping preconception. After all, while Football Manager is, at its heart, deeply rooted in the exciting adventure of escapism, United London FC is all about getting back to the roots of the beautiful game – it’s raw, it’s real and it’s unique.
Combining the daring adventure of a simulated environment with the reality of important high-stakes managerial decisions, this could be one hell of a memorable football combo.
Dramatically changing the landscape of how clubs are run, managed and perceived will not happen over-night but if they can go some way to successfully creating an authentic, all-encompassing connection between players, fans and management, it has the potential to become a trend-setter; a genuine game-changer.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90