Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m forty nine and a half?

Check the author here – @jonathanallsopp and thanks to @TOTW_Fanzine for sending in the article.

Scrolling through some old emails recently I found a long forgotten one that made me cringe; a missive fired off to the National Health Action Party in the spring of 2015 asking them to consider me as a possible parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming General Election. The nascent political party, campaigning for a properly funded, publicly run NHS, were standing candidates in a national election for the first time and, as a longstanding NHS worker increasingly disillusioned with the ongoing destruction of the health service, I had decided to throw my hat into the ring. Although quite why anyone would want to vote for an antisocial NHS bean counter standing for a single issue political party that no one’s even heard of is anyone’s guess.

The part of the email that made me flinch was not so much my audacity in wanting to stand for parliament in the first place, which was plainly nuts, but the final paragraph of my 500 word statement that droned on about how I was a founder member of FC United and how much the club had achieved, on and off the pitch, in barely a decade, providing proof that “a group of people with passion and commitment to a cause can” … wait for it … “change the world”.

It’s easy to forget how, by early 2015, so many of us had bought into this bullshit that trips to places like Torquay were conducted with almost evangelical “oh look, it’s the inventors of supporter-owned football coming to save you” fanaticism, whilst giddiness levels were cranked up to eleven at the prospect of our future Moston home becoming the power base for a full-on assault on western capitalism.

(I think we reached peak new world zealotry when Walsh and the Reverend Pye-in-the-sky once turned up to a London branch meeting and were preaching the benefits of establishing links with like-minded clubs in Europe when someone, with family connections to Ghana, piped up that we should do the same in Africa – he had contacts there and would pass them on. Meanwhile the rest of us just sat there lapping it up, not one of us interjecting to say “Hang on a minute mate, we’re a half-decent Northern Premier League side that’s permanently strapped for cash. How the fuck are we going to go inter-continental?”).  

Fortunately the party that no-one’s heard of said thanks but no thanks to my offer to save the world. Devoid of backing from wealthy donors, they were as skint as FC United and wisely decided to stick with the dozen candidates they already had instead of recruiting more – and thus, with no internet footage of any pompous “changing the world” nonsense on the hustings to emerge in later years, my blushes were spared.

Fast forward a few years and, although our plans for world domination have been curtailed, there is an often overlooked and important connection to be made between FC United and the health and wellbeing of the community of which we are part. And I’m not talking about the blood pressure-raising qualities of our Leeds-supporting keeper either. The health service has taken a battering in the last decade, enduring the biggest sustained squeeze on funding in its 70-year history, whilst further butchering of the wider public sector has only exacerbated the pressure on hospitals and GPs. And north Manchester has suffered more than most.

When viewed by council ward across the whole of Manchester the statistics on health for the likes of Newton Heath and Harpurhey make for grim reading, whether we’re talking about life expectancy, mortality rates, childhood obesity or the percentage of babies born to mothers under 18. But perhaps the most shocking of all the numbers is the revelation that healthy life expectancy (i.e. the number of years a person can reasonably expect to live in good health) for males raised in Newton Heath is a mere 49.6 years (the lowest of any ward in Manchester) and 50.3 in Harpurhey, compared to 58.3 for South Manchester and 63.5 across England. So men living in two of the wards on FC’s doorstep can typically expect to encounter serious health problems nearly a decade before someone living in the south of the city and a staggering 14 years earlier than the average English male.

No surprise then that the local hospital is struggling to cope. Visiting the long-neglected, ageing buildings of North Manchester General Hospital is like being whisked back half a century or more. It’s staggering that in a city where multi-million pound hotels and yuppie apartment blocks are going up all over town, one of its major hospitals has been completely starved of significant capital investment. Meanwhile, struggling to cope with rising emergency admissions, the Pennine Acute Hospitals Trust which runs it is projected to make a deficit of £69 million in the current financial year – more than a tenth of its total budget.

We might not be trying to save the world any more but much of the community work that we have done since arriving in Moston has been, directly or otherwise, about improving the health of local people – from running healthy eating workshops for local schools, to walking football sessions and the sporting memories group which aims to reduce social isolation, depression and loneliness amongst older people. A report by the Health Foundation found that older people who live alone are 50% more likely to go to A&E than those who live with someone else, and that by tackling problems such as social isolation and loneliness it is possible to significantly reduce the pressure on A&E departments and GPs. We certainly shouldn’t underestimate the value of the work that the club is already doing.

But as the biggest community organisation in the area, we could be doing more. The redevelopment of the space under the St Mary’s Road End was meant to be a game changer that would see us greatly expanding our work in these areas yet, nearly six months since Martin Buchan cut the scarlet ribbons, where are the new initiatives we were meant to
be hosting?

It is obvious that FC United can play a key part in improving the health of our local community, and far from us needing to go cap in hand to the powers that be at the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, they really ought to be banging on our door. The recently published NHS Long Term Plan refers to something called “social prescribing” to ease the pressure on hospitals and GPs. It’s a fancy term for many of the things that our football club is already doing and intends to do in future – doing our best to help people live healthier lives in an area that has borne the brunt of the post-crash cuts and where swimming pools, youth clubs, meals on wheels and libraries have either disappeared
or been left to volunteers to plug the gaps. When we finally get round to setting out the club’s long-term strategy, our contribution to the wellbeing of the local community must be a significant part of it.

Each pound invested in activities at Broadhurst Park by the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership could, in the long run, save thousands of pounds for the local health economy by promoting a fitter and healthier population across M40 and M9. It ought to be a no brainer. A “win-win”. However the NHS has traditionally been poor at looking beyond its own organisational boundaries for assistance, and here at FC United we’ve not exactly been great at attracting financial and other support from beyond our own fan base either. You only need to look at the lack of income to support our existing community work for evidence of this. Any cooperation will undoubtedly require considerable work on both sides.

But we need to get our collective act together here, because the local NHS needs us to be doing our bit for the community more than perhaps anyone at the club realises. We might not ferment the overthrow of the capitalist system, but we could help some of our local residents to live a reasonably healthy, enjoyable life well beyond their 50th birthday. And it would provide a much-needed nod to the vision, all those years ago, of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company’s board who, recognising the power of football, leased a plot of land, just down the road from here, for workers to partake in regular outdoor sporting activities in their spare time. Let’s hope our board and management team, and local health bosses, can display similar foresight.

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