This time 10 years ago, almost to the minute, I was in the Wibbas Down in Wimbledon seeing people with smiling faces. We’d all just voted to form AFC Wimbledon at an amazing meeting at the Wimbledon Community Centre, called by the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association in the wake of the FA tribunal’s shameful decision to allow Wimbledon FC’s owners to move the club to the town of Milton Keynes.
Two days earlier, in the Fox and Grapes on Wimbledon Common, fans had gathered to drown sorrows after the decision of the tribunal. Marc Jones was picking people up by telling them about how it could be done differently, how fans could and would start the club again. Some believed, others were less sure.
I’ve only ever been at one meeting where people were literally hanging off the rafters, and this meeting was it. Emotions ran high, and opinion seems to be divided between those who wanted to give up, and those who wanted to continue to fight the move to keep the club. There wasn’t rancour between the camps, as both were just different emotional responses to the facts at hand.
It was then that WISA Chair Kris Stewart gave the chair to his deputy Nicole Hammond, and stepped down from the stage to the mic at the front, and gave a speech where he said that he was tired of fighting, and he wanted to watch some football. The room erupted. I’m getting goosebumps as I write this now, as I recall it.
He said more, of course, but the phrase “I want to watch some football’ has a similar recognition as placeholder for ‘the formation of AFC Wimbledon’ as its weaselly antithesis, that such efforts ‘would not be into wider interests of football‘.
Kris was able to move the meeting. Maybe people were there already (it was amazing how the division seemed to simply disappear) but such was the fragility of emotions that this wasn’t about reason, but about people being psychologically allowed to make a new step.
Kris articulated it then, and the timing was perfectly judged. Any earlier, and people would have not had time to come to terms with alternatives, and would reject them; we would be burying the patient before we were sure they were dead. Any later, and division could have set in.
Kris didn’t lead people, but nor was this a spontaneous uprising of the proletariat, as it were. It was a strange and wonderful mixture, where there was a real dialogue and relationship.
Like the formation of FC United some years later, it worked mostly because the people in the room had already long since defined themselves as a community; the issue was really whether they were going to stick together or call it a day.
Lao Tzu is over-quoted in all sorts of situations, mostly in management self-help books. It’s rare one can actually point to events where his words actually fit perfectly: “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”
The best leaders are like marriage guidance counsellors, perhaps. They hold a mirror to the community, and remind them of who they are, and what they could achieve if they stick together. But in the end, the community have to do the sticking and commit, and just look how they did.