Fletcher Moss Rangers may not be a name that means much to those outside of Manchester’s grassroots football scene, but those with a close connection to the area will know of a side with a remarkable record of producing top quality talent.
The club was founded in 1986 by two fathers, Nigel Hanson and Howard Isaacs, casually kicking a ball around in a park with their sons, before snowballing with further involvement and encouragement into one of the most respected grassroots outfits in the region.
Since then the club have been a virtual conveyor belt of talent for professional sides, producing a long list of players who would go on to carve successful careers at the very highest level.
Such has been their success, there has been at least one player to have represented Fletcher Moss Rangers included in the England squad at each of the last four major international tournaments.
The Football Faithful spoke exclusively to David Horrocks, a coach and now chairman of the club who has been associated with Fletcher Moss for three decades, on the foundations and ethos that have helped transform this grassroots giant into a hotbed for emerging stars.
Horrocks, by his own admission, was little more than the typical parent when he first became involved in football, describing himself as “the idiot that screams and shouts on the touchline and knows everything, but actually knows absolutely nothing.”
Encouraged by his son and friends, Horrocks approached a fledgeling Fletcher Moss about starting a side and found himself impressed by the principles and procedures already set in place by the club’s founders.
He admits his early experiences of grassroots football were an eye opener and quickly set about ensuring he was qualified for the position, undergoing coaching courses and completing his UEFA B licence – alongside a referee course – in the late nineties.
Horrocks recalls the early seasons of the fledgeling sides and admits that Fletcher Moss had much more than sporting challenges in their path, a side comprised mostly of players from BAME backgrounds subjected to discrimination and abuse.
“The very first team had Clive Brown in it, Wes Brown’s older brother, and the majority of kids in the team were of a different background, with the majority from a black or mixed race background.” he told The Football Faithful.
“In the first couple of seasons they took dog’s abuse on the pitches, loads and loads of racial abuse on the pitches. What Howard and Nigel instilled into the lads was this bond, this equality, this thing that they were all one group and black and white meant nothing, they were all the same group of lads.
“It was like the Class of ’92 with Nicky Butt and the rest of them, if you kick David Beckham then Nicky Butt will kick you. If you kick Phil Neville then Gary Neville will kick you, that sort of thing. They looked after each other.
“It got to a stage where when they were playing, even when I started, there were very few teams that would not be intimidated by Fletcher Moss Rangers. It was a case in some games where we were already 1-0 up because of the reputation of how tough they were, how hardworking they were and how aggressive.”
The reputation of the club’s sides continued to flourish including one particular age group, ran by Neil Brown, who went three seasons without defeat, winning back-to-back County Cups and Horrocks revealed the ethos that was instilled in a talented side often subjected to on-pitch abuse.
“(Brown’s) ethos was take all the fouls, take all the abuse, the best way to answer these guys is to put the ball in the back of the net. They would play football around them, Barcelona-type football around opposition and basically take the mickey out of them.
“They would nutmeg them and call the nutmegs before they did it. They’d get fouled, but get up and take the free-kick and score the goal and smile at the opposition.”
The success of Fletcher Moss soon began to be demonstrated with the number of players who would turn professional, with former Manchester United and England defender Wes Brown arguably being the club’s first household name.
Since then the likes of Danny Welbeck, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford have all represented England at senior level, whilst Ravel Morrison and Keiren Westwood are other Fletcher Moss alumni to have received full international honours abroad.
Amid an extensive collection of names, did Horrocks ever believe his side had a guaranteed star on their hands from such a young age?
“I get asked about Marcus (Rashford) and whether I saw him becoming an England international at five-years-old – absolute rubbish!
“What we look for at the club is players that we can put into teams. From that squad of players that played with Marcus there’s only one other player, Ro-Shaun Williams, who’s still in football and playing at Shrewsbury Town.
“Throughout the time I’ve been there it’s not been a case of identifying kids that can get into the professional game, but kids that can get into our teams. We’ve been in a situation for a few years now where we can create teams that can play elite football. We do believe that there is a level of football in grassroots for every child to play.
“There are kids in the soccer school with two left feet, no coordination, who don’t want to play football. The Community Soccer School is the best place for them, they’ll come every Saturday and kick a ball about with their mates and say ‘see you next week’.
“Then we have the other end of the scale, the elite player, the player who is too good to play in his or her own age group and good enough to play in the next year up. We’ve had several teams who have played an age up.
“Because of the reputation we have and the success we’ve had with that, we’ve had clubs such as Stoke City who have been in touch and said ‘we have this kid, who is not quite ready for us, but we want to put him in a group where we can keep an eye on him, would you like to take a look at him?’
“We put him in the team, kept an eye on him and Stoke have since re-signed him. We’ve done this on several occasions with kids, and it’s worked because it’s a challenge to them.”
One name that has regularly attracted a fascination from football fans is that of Ravel Morrison, a player once hailed by Sir Alex Ferguson – amongst others – as ‘the best young player he had seen’ during his time in the Manchester United system.
Morrison’s career has proven one of unfulfilled potential as he has bounced around from club to club, taking in spells in Italy, Sweden, Mexico and the Netherlands in recent years.
Negative publicity has regularly followed the midfielder, though Horrocks lights up and touches his heart with a beaming smile upon his face when recalling his memories of a young Morrison.
“Ravel, for me, the best player we have ever had. One of my friends recently sent me some footage of him playing international football for Jamaica.
“The last time I actually saw Ravel, was at a County Cup final. Both of our U-16 teams, Yellows and Blues, made it to the final. This was down at Salford Sports Village, and Ravel Morrison turned up on this particular day to support both groups of U-16.
“He was there and so unassuming, but so encouraging to both sets of lads. He was a star on that day, he really was. When the game finished, instead of him going to the lads and congratulating them, all the lads went to him and said thanks for coming down. I’m getting a bit emotional now, but that’s the sort of lad he is.
“I saw an interview with him the other day with Rio Ferdinand and that sums him up, he could have been a superstar. To do the things he could do with a ball. We used to say with Marcus, when he was playing we needed two balls on the pitch, so the rest of the kids could have a kickabout.
“With Ravel, he was was something else, completely different class.
“I’ve seen some of the goals that he’s scored and you’re just in awe of how he’s been able to do the things he’s done. For me, Ravel Morrison was probably the most gifted footballer that we have ever had and it’s a shame the paying public have not had the chance to see the best of Ravel Morrison.
“I love him to bits, love him to bits. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he’s a sensitive lad. It makes no difference that he knocked about in Wythenshawe with all the lads he knocked about with, with this label that he’s a hard man and a tough kid and he doesn’t give a shit about anybody.
“He’s a sensitive kid and for me he shows his sensitivity by being as passionate as he is and saying what is on his mind. It took me 50 odd years to learn the lesson of keeping my mouth shut and only saying things in the right places about people!
“He’s a lovely kid, he really, really is. I remember the day that he got picked up by United at the ENX tournament on Hough End and we’ve got the picture up on the wall in the changing rooms.
“You can see in the kid’s eyes and in his body language that he wasn’t interested in the trophy in his hand, he was fidgety because he wanted to be kicking a ball around. He wasn’t interested in winning things, he just wanted to play.
“I think that of those years ago when he was 14, 15, 16 and even younger, if they had the safeguarding system in place and support systems that they have now to support talented kids, I think we would possibly have seen Ravel, maybe not the same sort of person as they may have tried to take a bit of his edge away, but a different person.”
Watching former players move on to success is undoubtedly a huge source of pride for the Fletcher Moss community, though it is those who have since given back that brings out true emotion in the long-serving chairman.
Horrocks can hardly contain his admiration for now Nottingham Forest defender Tyler Blackett, recalling a tale in which the 26-year-old returned to the club for a media interview, before the reunion ended with a generous contribution towards the next generation of Fletcher Moss youngsters and a surprise wedding invitation for his former coach.
“I love that man,” Horrocks proclaims when opening up on Blackett.
“I get very emotional regarding the players that I know are nice kids, I really do.
“I was broken up, I was crying my eyes out. To invite me to his wedding with his family, it’s something phenomenal. Honestly, I feel blessed that I’ve had that little bit of influence in his life and what a lovely lad. Fantastic kid.
“We’ve never asked any players for anything at all and there’s a lot of players to come through the club, but before the first lockdown he asked if the kids need anything, and sorted the kit out.”
Fletcher Moss acknowledged Blackett’s contribution by printing the player’s autograph on the shirt sleeves, whilst a similar arrangement was agreed with Kyle Bartley, currently of West Bromwich Albion, after he also provided kit for one of the club’s young sides.
There was also praise for former player Marcus Rashford following his continued work in fighting against social inequality and Horrocks says it has taken bravery for the 23-year-old to push for change with his free school meals campaign.
“He’s done absolutely brilliant work as far as the School Meals are concerned. Doing what he did, he risked being ridiculed by his peers, by his fellow professionals, and to do what he did and to get Boris (Johnson) to do a U-turn is phenomenal.” he said.
“We had arranged for Sky News to come down and film some year one kids last July, it was nice to see all the kids sat talking to each other, all different shapes and colours and sizes.
“The interviewer got speaking to the parents and found one dad, who is a refugee who now works at the university and the other was a single parent with two boys. Her eldest had been one of our eight U8 players signed by Manchester United and Manchester City last season.
“The interviewer is talking about the school meals and it turned out that out of the five parents, every single one of them was receiving free school meals. What sort of came home to me, from the demographic of where our kids come from, it was probably 80-85% of the kids in the club were receiving school meals.
“In a roundabout way, Marcus has put something back into the club to the parents and to have that number of kids to be able to eat every day is a fantastic achievement. I don’t think he’ll have Fletcher Moss Rangers’ kids in his thinking, but it is a bigger picture.”
Fletcher Moss are currently making plans to support their own children by seeking funds and partners to run a breakfast club for their youngsters, though Horrocks admits the pandemic has placed a financial strain on their ability to make positive change and has criticised governing bodies over their lack of refunds for the curtailed 2019/20 campaign.
“Grassroots sport has been hammered,” he stresses. “The season that got curtailed, absolutely hammered grassroots football. You had the FA, leagues all taking a year’s fees from the clubs with no refunds back for not completing the season.
“What happens in season 2020/21? They put the fees up. When you’re running 26/27 teams, that’s a hell of a lot of money. The leagues are abusing and taking advantage of grassroots. The only people who are paying out for grassroots are the parents. They’re the ones putting their hands in their pockets.
“We’re paying £4000-a-year for pitch fees and we’ve not even kicked a ball since September because of lockdown.
The Government’s latest roadmap towards normality at least offers hope for Fletcher Moss Rangers and clubs in a similar situation, as sport and wider society prepare to rebuild following the most challenging of periods.
Resuming the club’s impressive work in the community is now, health and safety permitted, within sight and one of the shining lights of Manchester’s amateur football scene is eagerly anticipating its return.
Fletcher Moss Rangers have spent more than three decades promoting strong values and inclusivity. The club are a shining light amongst their peers, a grassroots giant who provide opportunities to all and manage to produce more than a few diamonds along its way.