MANCHESTER - The football club created by disillusioned Manchester United fans over a curry play their biggest match this week in the FA Cup as the ambitious team of tilers and chauffeurs prove they are no protest gimmick.
FC United of Manchester, founded in 2005 in the wake of United's takeover by the Glazer family, have won three promotions in five years and on Friday expect to take 4,000 fans to an FA Cup first-round match that is being televised.
The short journey to League One Rochdale is a reward for making it through four qualifying rounds and means the semi-professional club stand two victories away from a possible date with a Premier League team - including their big daddy United.
"It's a massive, massive achievement," defender Karl Munroe told Reuters at a rainy training session on a college campus.
"Over the years, the beauty of the FA Cup is that lower-league teams have created upsets in the past, I believe we could be one of them this time around."
The club from the seventh tier of English football are certainly punching above their weight in terms of attendances, while their website boasts 15 different language options and there is a comprehensive business plan for a 5,000-seater stadium.
However, when striker Carlos Roca is forced to go hunting behind fences to retrieve training balls, it is a reminder that these players earn in a week what Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney earns in the time it takes him to brush his teeth.
Roca is a loan sales adviser in his day job, while Munroe runs a chauffeuring business and others are tilers or decorators as football earns them around 100 pounds a week.
It is all par for the course at an English non-league club but what sets this club apart from others is the many passionate supporters who are so closely involved.
Fans are on first-name terms with players, directors and coaches and are funding a large part of the 3.5-million-pound stadium project.
Their dream of a ground in the Newton Heath area of the northwestern city where the 18-times English champions were founded more than 130 years ago will move a step closer to reality with the cash injection from the FA Cup run.
"More importantly than the FA Cup, which I think even the most enthusiastic supporter knows we are not going to win...it gives us the opportunity to raise the profile of that (stadium) project," said board member Martin Morris as players traipsed into the room to sign T-shirts for a raffle.
He said the cup run, including television revenue, gate receipts and prize money, would bring them more than 100,000 pounds.
The club are offering a community share scheme to raise 1.5 million, with investors getting one share regardless of whether they put in the maximum of 20,000 pounds or the minimum of 200.
Morris says they are around a third of the way to that target. Other money is being raised by a development fund where donations have come to 320,000 pounds over the past three years.
The idea is that the ground will help to regenerate one of the city's most deprived areas and provide community initiatives.
FC United play home games at Bury's Gigg Lane, 14 kms from Manchester, and fans say they would attract bigger crowds than the 2,000 average they get now if they played closer to home.
With good results on the pitch, FC United have become a club in their own right regardless of how they came to exist, though fans fondly remember concocting the idea at a local curry restaurant.
They were getting increasingly frustrated over the way owners were saddling Premier League clubs with huge debts and hiking ticket prices and the arrival of the American Glazers at Old Trafford was the final straw.
The fans who remember paying one pound to stand in the Stretford End at Old Trafford were not prepared to fork out more than 50 pounds for a game and so they took action.
"We didn't withdraw our support, we just withdrew our money," said Vinny Thompson, who reckons he has missed just four FC United games.
His friend John O'Connor agreed, saying: "Being part of something that is owned by fans is infinitely preferable."
Some things, though, took some getting used to.
"We never heard the word underdog supporting 'Big' United a few years ago," he said. "But we are the underdogs."
Opinions, and perhaps loyalties, were divided on the prospect of ever facing Manchester United in the FA Cup, which could happen this season if FC United reach the third round.
"I'd support FC United," said Morris. "For me the Manchester United that operates out of Old Trafford is not the Manchester United that we grew up supporting, it's the same in name only."
Assistant manager Roy Soule would prefer to take on one of Manchester United's traditional rivals, saying: "I'd rather beat Liverpool or Leeds United."comments