Sports

The non-league Champions League: How FC United conquered Europe again

DESENZANO DEL GARDA, Italy — You might think that this has been a terrible season for English clubs in Europe. The Premier League had no side in the final of the UEFA Champions League, Europa League or Europa Conference League, and it also lost out to the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A in the race to claim a fifth league place in next season’s elite club competition. But there is one team from England that can proudly call themselves champions of Europe.

On the shores of the picturesque Lake Garda in northern Italy, FC United of Manchester, founded in 2005 in protest at the Glazer family’s takeover of Manchester United, have just won the Fenix Trophy again after beating Czech side Prague Raptors. On the Stadio Tre Stelle pitch, joyous manager Neil Reynolds, a former school headmaster, told ESPN (with tongue in cheek): “Someone just said that I’ve equalled Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson with two European Cups!”

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Many of the 500 or so fans from the breakaway club who made the trip to see their team crowned Europe’s best non-league side even got their hands on the cup in the aftermath. Which is just as well; a few hours later, the trophy will be accidentally dropped on the floor, breaking the plastic base, while everyone celebrates in the pub.

“Fenix” is an acronym for “friendly, European, non-professional, innovation and xenial (a word to describe the relationship between host and guest).” What makes the tournament so unique is that all 12 clubs from 10 different countries who entered this season’s group stage are in the semi-professional ranks of their own domestic leagues, and are either fan-owned or have a strong community ethos. The players may be the ones on the field, but the fans have a real stake in their success.

FC United qualified for the final four mini-tournament in Desenzano as one of four table-toppers from the group stage, which began in October. They are joined by fellow English sides Enfield Town and Lewes, who are also owned by their supporters, while Prague Raptors were founded as a non-profit amateur club that is home to players of more than 50 different nationalities who live in the Czech capital.

The English clubs operate in a very different world to their more illustrious neighbours: Manchester United reported revenues of £648.4 million ($783.5m) last year but, at exactly the same time as FC United played in the Fenix final, fans positioned under the leaky Old Trafford roof got soaked while watching their team lose to Arsenal; fans of Tottenham Hotspur, based in the London borough next to Enfield, have said they are “dismayed” by the 6% rise in season-ticket prices; while at the Amex Stadium, five miles down the A27 from Lewes, Brighton & Hove Albion recently registered a record Premier League profit of £122.8m ($154.4m). And yet these teams can still fulfil their dream of competing for European glory.

Tournament organiser Leo Aleotti told ESPN: “There is something more. This is actually why we did this tournament; to give an experience that was so special and unique, that was unparalleled. It could not compare with anything else you are experiencing in the domestic league.”

Creating a new European Cup

Like so many bold ventures aimed at bringing people together, the Fenix Trophy was founded during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. But while most well-intentioned projects fell by the wayside once people were allowed out of their homes, the “non-league Champions League” has become bigger and better. The idea was conceived by Aleotti and his father, Alessandro, who run Milan-based non-league side Brera Calcio.

“We always felt this sort of estrangement from the rest of non-professional football because we always felt like other clubs [in Italy] were behaving as if they were a professional clubs,” Leo says. “So we thought let’s find other clubs around Europe, to form a network of those that are creating a different experience in non-professional football that makes sense, that is not just a mini-version of professional football and also creates something in the community.”

But establishing a new European competition without the governance of UEFA or the resources of professional clubs required all eight teams who were invited to pull together.

“The first year we started from scratch, we had nothing in place,” former FC United chairman Adrian Seddon says. “We’d never done anything like this before and the first year was very much a cooperative. We had endless Zoom meetings. I mean it was fine; it was during COVID and a lot of us weren’t allowed out of the house, so it passed the time to be honest.”

That blank slate meant there were plenty of possibilities for how things could take shape, and just as many pitfalls. Issues like how to schedule fixtures when not all European seasons fully overlap and how certain players could obtain visas, a problem exacerbated by Brexit, were to be expected. But there was much discussion over whether teams should wear special kits for Fenix matches (they did not) and how clubs who had never streamed their matches on the internet before could make it happen (with difficulty).

“We were thrashing stuff out, there were a lot of differences of opinion,” Seddon says. “There were never any arguments, but sometimes you got stuck on what seemed like a very minor point which took two-and-a-half hours to debate.”

All those Zoom calls bore fruit when Prague Raptors beat HFC Falke 2-0 in Hamburg to kick off the 2021-22 Fenix Trophy. That first campaign featured two groups of four teams, with all eight then decamping to Rimini, Italy to play one last match each. Group winners Prague Raptors and FC United faced off to determine the first champion, with the English side running out 2-0 winners.

The following season, the three winners of three-team groups and the best runner-up qualified for the final four in Milan. The semifinals were hosted by Brera at their Arena Civica, a neoclassical amphitheatre built during the Napoleonic occupation in 1806, and the next day the third-place match (FC United 1-0 Brera) and final (BK Skjold 3-0 Prague Raptors) were played three miles to the west of the city at San Siro. While playing at the iconic home of Milan and Inter was a dream come true for all involved, the reality was somewhat different; the attendance was a fraction of the stadium’s 80,000-capacity, and some of the teams had to get changed on the concourse outside the ground while issues with stadium security were resolved.

In a change of tack, this year’s finals are staged in Desenzano. The sleepy resort town may only have a population of around 30,000, but it has elite sporting pedigree. It is where Italy’s reigning Olympic men’s 100-metre champion Marcell Jacobs grew up and continues to train, while Stage 14 of the Giro d’Italia cycling race finished there a few days after the Fenix road show.

For 2023-24, the tournament expanded again to a dozen clubs across four groups, with FC United and Prague Raptors cruising into the finals by winning all four of their matches. But despite being the two most successful clubs in the competition’s short history, they were founded in very different circumstances.

‘This badge is our badge’

When the Glazer family’s leveraged buyout at Old Trafford in 2005 plunged the club into more than £500m ($635.8m) of debt overnight, a group of “disaffected and disenfranchised” Manchester United supporters walked away and founded their own team.

“I wasn’t here from the beginning in 2005, but to break away must’ve just been a kind of monumental decision, to walk away from the biggest club in the world at the time to say we’re going to set up our own football team,” says Reynolds, who took over as manager in 2019. “Looking back, people said it wouldn’t last ’til Christmas, and they’re 20 years in now.”

The new club had the big advantage of an instant, passionate fanbase. That catapulted them to three consecutive promotions in their first three years and as high as the sixth-tier National League North in 2015, the same year they stopped ground-sharing at Bury’s Gigg Lane and opened their own Broadhurst Park stadium.

“I remember playing against them for Stalybridge in an FA Cup game [in 2009],” says FC United captain Paul ‘Charlie’ Ennis, who runs a double-glazing repair firm and a building maintenance company. “And I remember just thinking, ‘oh, you’ll only get 500, 600 people maximum.’ They were actually in the league below us at the time. We played at Gigg Lane [in front of almost 3,000 fans], and it was just like, absolute madness.”

Kamil Wilkowski has come to Desenzano from Germany to watch the club, who he has followed from afar since they were founded: “I supported Man United — [David] Beckham, [Paul] Scholes, etc.,” he says. “Then when they set up this club because of the Glazers I started following them. I got to go to a game a couple of years ago and had a great time with the fans. I came to see them in the Fenix Trophy before, too. I still support Man United, but they are so s— right now.”

Two decades on, FC United still regard themselves as “the longest-running and most visible protest against the faltering Glazer ownership,” and that is encapsulated by one of the most popular chants among their fans:

This badge is our badge, this badge is my badge
Three stripes and three sails, oh what a fine badge
They tried to take it, but we replaced it, on the shirt of United FC

However, almost a generation has passed since the split. FC United women’s assistant manager Elsie Baxter was seven years old when she and her father gave up their Old Trafford season tickets to follow the new club. Academy graduate Eliot Wilkinson, who is part of the squad in Italy and turns 18 on the day of the final, wasn’t even born when the club was founded. Now, Reynolds hopes, FC United can forge their own identity.

“Even though pretty much 90% of our fans wouldn’t go back to Old Trafford for political reasons, it’s still their team and they still do what they do, but they just support the red shirt in a different way now,” he says. “I believe that this club’s firmly established itself, that people wouldn’t return to Man United [if the Glazers left].”

Given their Fenix Trophy record, their £6.5m ground that holds 4,400 fans, almost 2,500 owners and a football budget of £220,000 a year, FC United could be regarded as the Manchester United of this competition. But despite having none of that, Czechia‘s Prague Raptors have an even more impressive history in non-league European football, reaching the final of every Fenix tournament.

“In terms of size of the club’s fan base, we’re tiny compared to the other teams,” Darren Moss, founder and club president, says. “Most games we probably get around 50, 60 if we’re lucky. And quite often that will include other people in the club.”

Moss relocated to Prague to settle with his Czech wife and their children. He only set up the club in 2017 because his son Lukas, a big “Jurassic Park” fan, suggested they start a team and call them the Raptors.

“In March 2018, we held the first trials and we had I think 72 guys turn up,” Moss says. “Things kind of just exploded really quickly because we contacted the FA here and said, ‘hey, we have this plan in the next couple of years, we want to join the league.’ And they just said, ‘you can just join now.'”

The club provides a valuable home for those trying to build a new life in the city. “I had just moved to Prague before my 30th birthday, and I celebrated with my new work colleagues,” says club captain George Paling. “To be honest, it didn’t really feel that great. But then I joined the Raptors, and my next birthday was spent partying with them and it was very special. I met my wife through the club.”

But recruiting from the large pool of ex-patriot players in Prague was never the intention, and it has been a blessing and a curse. Non-Czech footballers will naturally gravitate to the club, but often they soon leave, leading to a huge turnover of players. Despite this, the men’s team has worked its way up to the sixth tier of the Czech pyramid. The women’s team are in the second tier, putting them among the top 16 sides in the country. There are around 200 young players in the academy.

Overseeing all this is Kim Grant, director of football and men’s head coach. After playing for Charlton Athletic in the Premier League between 1991-96 and internationally for Ghana, Grant’s playing and coaching career took him to top-tier clubs in Europe, Asia and Africa before he joined the Raptors in 2019.

“I’ve put my handprint on the whole club itself, to add a bit more professionalism,” Grant says. “Even though they are amateurs, the recruitment structures I put in place was based on the type of players we want, because we like to play from the back with high pressing.”

Each year there are plenty of new recruits who arrive to discover their coach has played among the elite. “They’re pretty shocked,” Grant says. “They say ‘what are you doing at this level?’ You know, I love the club. So I get a little bit of respect as well because of my background.”

Raptors’ growth has been hindered by them not being able to play at their own ground, something which will change from next season. Another of the Fenix teams, Lewes, on the other hand, have been able to call The Dripping Pan their home since they were founded in 1885.

One of England’s most scenic grounds, with its views toward the hills of the South Downs, now has one of the best pitches in non-league as a result of the club’s ground-breaking commitment to women’s football. In 2017, Lewes pledged to split revenue equally between the seventh-tier men’s team and the women’s side, with the latter’s long-held second-tier status (they were relegated this season) earning a £750,000 Premier League grant for a new pitch.

“I am one of those people that saw that Lewes took the decision to split revenue equally and introduce equal pay back in 2017. I saw it happen, and I immediately clicked three times and became an owner,” says CEO Maggie Murphy, who persuaded people such as Angel City owner Natalie Portman and USWNT great Julie Foudy to do likewise at a summit during the 2023 Women’s World Cup. “For me, it was simply this club that was doing something differently that was brave enough. It was only a tiny part of the problem, but wanted to be a big part of the solution.”

For a club that is always trying to innovate, from the “Equality FC” initiative to using beach huts instead of corporate boxes, entering the Fenix Trophy seemed like a natural fit. But it was not universally popular, especially as it meant opting out of the regional Sussex Senior Cup.

“We’ve been accused in recent years of not treating cups seriously, so that was actually quite a political decision that we knew had a risk attached to it,” says Murphy. “At the same time, we thought what a great opportunity to bring a little bit of European football to Sussex at the same time that Brighton were entering Europe for the first time ever just down the road.”

Ryan Edwards, one of more than 2,500 Lewes owners, is in no doubt about the decision. “There are always going to be some fuddy-duddies who don’t like change,” he says. “But would you rather be going down the road to play Hastings again or be here by Lake Garda?”

Lewes thought they had avoided playing extra games against familiar opponents, but the elephant in the room is that three of the teams in the finals of this year’s Fenix Trophy are English.

Enfield Town are the most successful of that trio this season in Desenzano before they even arrive. While Lewes and FC United finished eighth and 14th respectively in their domestic leagues, Enfield — who can lay claim to being England’s first fully fan-owned club, as they were founded in 2001 by supporters unhappy with how Enfield FC was being run — secured promotion to the sixth-tier National League South via the playoffs.

“It’s terribly exciting for us,” vice-chairman Paul Millington told ESPN ahead of their first group-stage match in November. “Something that we could never dream of. We’ve been watching the Fenix tournament take place over the last two years, with just a hint of jealousy that we’d like to have taken part as well.”

But with their playoff victory occurring just four days before the Fenix semifinals on May 10, the exertions of winning promotion (and the subsequent celebrations) hampered Enfield’s hopes of a unique double.

“I don’t think there was any consideration given for the fact that we were going to have to play on Friday night,” says manager Gavin Macpherson, who led Enfield to promotion in his first season at the club and just two months after the death of the club’s founder chairman, Dave Bryant. “The celebrations were pretty full on, to be honest with you. I’m sure there were a few sore heads.”

The final four

The two semifinals take place back-to-back at the Stadio Tre Stelle on Friday. Lewes are up against FC United and Enfield face Prague Raptors.

Lewes have the better of the first half of their match, but the biggest cheer comes when a second bar is set up in the fan zone after organisers grossly underestimate the thirst levels of English football supporters. FC United come out a different team after the break and right-back Joe Ferguson pounces on a loose ball to fire in the only goal of the game. As the clock ticks down, red flares and smoke bombs appear among the FC United crowd, and at the final whistle there are chants of “we want our trophy back.”

The next day, with the squad relaxing by the pools at the holiday camp which is a kind of Olympic village for the four teams, Ennis teases Ferguson about his goal: “He shinned it!” Ferguson, 21, had been in Blackburn Rovers’ academy since the age of 11 before he was released two years ago, and he gives an honest appraisal of why he was let go.

“I wasn’t a 100% surprised,” he says. “I know it’s a common story in football, but I had really bad injuries. Prior to coming back for a year, I’d been out for a year-and-a-half with a lower back stress fracture. And this was the time of COVID. So it was really tough.”

As well as spending time working in retail for Adidas and at Manchester’s National Football Museum, Ferguson is also getting his coaching badges and sharing the ups and downs of life as a non-league player with his 12,000 followers on Instagram.

“I thought this is a good opportunity now to show the reality,” he says. “It would be very easy to make it seem better or more glamorous than it is. There are really good parts of being at this level, like this tournament for example. But then a couple months ago, we’re playing on a really bad pitch in front of 150 fans in the cold. So it’s very up and down. And then going to work the next day, it’s not the life of football everyone dreams of.”

Enfield and Prague Raptors only arrive in Italy on May 10 — the day of their semifinal. Travel and accommodation costs, as well as additional time off work for players and staff who have full-time jobs elsewhere, are factors that all clubs have to juggle. Prague played only two days previous; Enfield have not trained fully since their playoff win on May 6 (“they’re knackered,” says Macpherson).

They get to the Stadio Tre Stelle as the first semifinal is taking place. But, with only three locker rooms available, Raptors draw the short straw and have to change in the stadium’s gym.

Perhaps the travel fatigue shows, as it’s goalless at full-time and goes straight to a penalty shootout. But it then takes 28 spot kicks before the Raptors prevail 13-12. They celebrate by piling on goalkeeper Zach Banzon, who has previously played in the Asian Champions League.

The Raptors’ celebrations are boosted by some FC United followers who have stayed behind to cheer on a team they have got to know well from their Fenix trips. At the other end of the stand, it’s clear that Enfield are here for a good time, not a long time. The players not in the matchday squad are already drinking among their fans, who have treated this trip as one big promotion party.

With the final and third-place game set for Sunday, Saturday is a day off for all four teams. After some recovery work, Ennis leads the majority of the FC United group down to Desenzano harbour for the afternoon, but a handful of players make the 150-mile round trip to Milan. They spend the day sightseeing before heading to watch AC Milan face Cagliari on the same San Siro pitch that some of them played on a year ago in the Fenix final. They try to make the most of their trips abroad, even if it’s difficult to fit tourism around football commitments.

“We had a match in Paris,” FC United defender Jan Palinkas says outside Milan’s Duomo cathedral. “We landed at 6 p.m. the night before the game and we got straight in a car and drove 1½ hours into the city. We saw the Eiffel Tower, got back at about 3 a.m.”

The group are double-checking their route home, as it will be a tight squeeze for them to make the last train back to Desenzano after the final whistle. In the end, they leave before Milan score the final two goals of a 5-1 win and make it back to camp.

Lifting (and dropping) the trophy

Everyone returns to Stadio Tre Stelle on Sunday to bask in the afternoon heat. In the third-place playoff, Lewes beat Enfield 2-1 via Chris Whelpdale’s late winner. Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winner Alessandro Altobelli is kept waiting to hand out the medals as Lewes celebrate in front of their fans and, in the end, Altobelli has to come to them.

Meanwhile, it’s FC United’s turn to use the stadium’s gym as their locker room ahead of the final. Reynolds struts up and down the middle of the room with his chest puffed out, before the players form a circle around him for his team talk: “Remember the f—ing scenes at the end of the game the other night, how you f—ing felt. Go f—ing double it, triple it, quadruple it. If you want that feeling again, with them f—ing fans after the game. One f—ing chance, all right?”

Right from the off, FC United are dominant, but at the cooling break midway through the first half it’s still 0-0. That soon changes, with defender Curtis Jones heading in from a corner, and just before half-time Aaron Bennett rounds the goalkeeper for his Golden Boot-winning sixth goal of the competition to make it 2-0.

“It’s like 45 minutes have been wasted, we’ve given them f—ing two easy goals,” Raptors boss Grant tells his players at half-time. “At the moment before the water break, they actually ran out of ideas. We went in and switched off and they got two goals.”

Prague respond with their best spell of the game at the start of the second half, but any hopes of a comeback are extinguished by two more direct goals from Dontei Gabbidon and Lewis Gilboy that condemn the Raptors to a third loss in the final. For Grant, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

“We just came out of the blocks really slow. We weren’t supposed to play like that,” he says after the game. “I’m still proud of the boys, because most of them are students. They don’t get paid, we train twice a week. If we’re on it and we are fresh, the result would’ve been different.”

FC United boss Reynolds, meanwhile, has taken control of the microphone and leads his players and fans in celebration. As the squad and staff go to greet the fans, youngster Wilkinson is given a card signed by everyone at the club and has “Happy Birthday” sung to him by the crowd. Goalkeeper George Murray-Jones, on loan from Manchester City, will return to the Premier League champions with a winners’ medal of his own.

“It was devastating last year when we didn’t do it and we got beat in the semifinal,” Reynolds tells ESPN. “But to give something back to this amazing football club, it’s what this weekend was about. We wanted to win the trophy for the fans and that’s what we’ve done.”

Later that night, fans are celebrating together at Pit Stop bar in Desenzano when the players arrive and goalkeeper Dimeji Willan, who missed the tournament through injury, enters with the trophy. Before long, United kit man Jimmy Deadman — who made an appearance for the team during the group stage — has it in his hand and holds it aloft while being carried on Willan’s shoulders.

Before the players all leave for a nightclub, there is just time for one last lift. Willan and Bennett do the honours, letting the anticipation build before hoisting the trophy above their heads … but it comes down as quickly as it goes up, and the bottom of the base shatters on the floor.

Even that doesn’t dampen the celebrations, though. FC United of Manchester are champions of Europe again.

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