Meat Pies and freshly cut grass fill the air at Broadhurst Park as FC United of Manchester prepare to take on Benfica. It’s the first official friendly match at their new ground 10 years after forming a break-away club following the Glazers’ take over of Manchester United. On the same day that the football world bowed its head in shame at the FIFA scandals and Sepp Blatter's re-election, there is a small glimmer of hope just north of downtown Manchester.
Tales of George Best and other Manchester United greats fill the walls of the clubhouse that looks over the pristine, timber cladded stadium. Flags and banners of camaraderie from Manchester to Buenos Aires all the way to Shanghai are draped along every wall and stand in sight. Parents sharing a pint as their kids run around the ground, teenagers chanting in the standing sections, and the occasional tinge of a foreign language or accent that serves as a constant reminder of just how many people identify with this club. The DIY, grass-roots culture behind FC United of Manchester makes them impeccably cool.
Being here, it is easy to forget about the cold environment typically seen in Premier League grounds. From one of the biggest terraces in non-league football, to providing a community classroom, cultivating wildlife, and harbouring ambitions of a microbrewery as well as an NHS medical centre, Moston’s Broadhurst Park is cut from a very different fabric than Old Trafford.
As the teams lined up on the pitch, the Benfica players looked surprised at the atmosphere in the ground. The East stand was on its feet in ovation singing the fan owned supporters anthem to the tune of Dirty Old Town. On the opposite end, a small contingent of about 30 Benfica fans lit off flares and smoke, adding an element of colour to the festivities. Many in the main stand struggled to hold back tears as a decade of fund raising and community building finally bore its fruit.
The fixture was a re-match of the 1968 European Cup Final in which United won 4-1 in front of 90,000 people at Wembley. In a reversal of the script Benfica won 0-1, but this time, the result was of little importance. The representative squad of Benfica B and youth players “have never seen anything like this,” said manager and former Benfica defender Helder Cristovao.
After the match the players from both teams ate in the clubhouse amongst all the supporters. Benfica were welcomed to a variety of meat pies and cheerful Mancunian banter as Andy Walsh, the club’s chief executive, stood up their table and gave a rousing speech to the nearly 400 people present. “We told them about the club before we left, but not even I could have imagined something like this.” Helder continued, “This feels like one big family has welcomed us. It is really important especially for the young players to see this because it is hard to find these moments at big clubs.”
As he responded, one gentleman approached the table to ask about the score of Benfica’s cup final match back in Portugal. The players and technical staff all looked at each other nervously, realising that no one had bothered to check. But yet, this is the nature of things at FC United of Manchester. When you’re here, you can truly forget about everything else.
Maybe it was the warmth and pride of a community that had built their own ground and hosted the mighty Benfica, or maybe the players just didn’t have any cell phone coverage. Either way, as the FCUM keeper approached the table with the good news of a 2-1 for Benfica, the entire room let out a cheer. The Benfica players grinned at each other, realising that they were a part of something more important. After all, a cup final can happen every year. This was history!