Wimbledon Football Club is Dead; Long Live Wimbledon

Posted on August 13th, 2002 in Football, Published Writing

Originally published in FourFourTwo at the start of the season in which AFC Wimbledon played their first game in the Combined Counties Leagues, two months after the FA Tribunal gave permission for the Milton Keynes move which the old Wimbledon FC’s owners had been agitating for in the face of fierce opposition from fans.

It’s agony for the 30 Wimbledon fans gathered outside the FA headquarters as part of a vigil whilst an FA’s Commission meets to decide whether the club can move to Milton Keynes. FA Chief Executive Adam Crozier has been out to see them and given them coffee and cakes, even though the Commission is not meeting’s inside the building – it’s being held down the road in the offices of the Commission Chair, Raj Parker from the FA’s lawyers.

They’ve been here for the last 2 weeks to let the FA know they care and it’s not just the Dons fans who are concerned. Fans from other clubs have been turning up in support and passing drivers have been hooting their opposition to club Chairman Charles Koppel’s plan to move the club 60 miles to Buckinghamshire.

Rumours have been circulating since journalists had called some supporters the night before to report that the news wasn’t good, and subsequent text messages sent throughout the morning say the same thing. But they’re waiting, hope against hope, that there’s been a mistake and that the official verdict will be different when someone finally comes out to tell them what it is. Sadly, no-one comes out to give the news but someone does ring up to say the FA have put a statement up on their website. They’ve lost.

After the initial shock, they regroup and are joined by other Dons working in Central London. Soon, there’s a sizeable crowd outside gathered for this impromptu wake. The disparaging comment that that Wimbledon was a club that didn’t have any fans has been given a twist – Dons supporters are now the fans without a club.

When I heard about the plan to move to Milton Keynes my immediate thought was that it was wrong and ran against the grain of what football was all about. It sounded like a crazy scheme dreamt up by people more concerned with money than the game itself. Several assumptions underpin English football, from the Premiership to the Unibond Premier and beyond. One is that a club ‘belongs’ to a particular area. Another is that, through beating teams similarly based in a particular area, you rise up through the leagues and that ultimately, you play where you performances deserve.

I’ve also always had a soft-spot for Wimbledon. They lived the dream I cherished for my own club (Northampton Town) – the hope that, despite the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between the Premiership and the rest (not to mention within the Premiership), anything was possible with a bit of luck, some inspired signings and a good team spirit. Part of being a fan is the balance you maintain between pessimism (probably won’t do much this season) and optimism (but we might, could, should have a great season) and Wimbledon were living proof to support the optimism. Whilst Wimbledon past was all was good about football, thanks to this decision Wimbledon future embodied everything that was wrong with it. How did it come to this?

 

The story behind it goes back a long way, and has twists and turns and more than its share of blind alleys. The club that wants to move to Milton Keynes started life as Wimbledon Old Centrals in 1889. After becoming the Manchester United of non-league football, they were elected to the Football League in 1977 and began a fairytale rise to the top-flight and famously won the FA Cup in 1988.

For many people, the Wimbledon means Tennis, extortionately priced strawberries and Middle-England practising their annual bout of Henmania. The tree-lined avenues with well-appointed houses don’t immediately strike you as a hotbed of football. But that was always a lazy stereotype. 45,000 watched the FA Cup replay with Leeds United in the 70s and whilst the regular hardcore support was the smallest in the top-flight, they equalled anyone with their passion for their team.

But despite the Crazy Gang spirit and the antics of Sam Hammam, passion and sentiment weren’t the only things found at Wimbledon by the start of the 1990s. The Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster had recommended all-seater stadia in the top-two divisions, and Wimbledon, by this time ensconced in the top flight, had some hard work to do.

Plough Lane had been the club’s home since 1912. Donated by the Council, it was a typical non-league style ground, with a Main Stand seating 150 people. According to the club though, it was time to take the next steps and find a new ground, but nothing came of schemes to relocate the club to a new stadium in the area, and with clock ticking on making the ground all-seater, the club moved to Selhurst Park in 1991. The club continued to play reserve games throughout the 90s, but Hammam later sold the Plough Lane in 1994 to Safeways for £8M, which went to Hammam’s holding company, not the club.

Relationships deteriorated between him and the Council and the club began to look further afield for a new stadium. “Having made his family homeless, Hammam embarked on several increasingly barmy schemes to move to a new home. Wigan and Glasgow were suggested, before Dublin became the Holy Grail,” recalled Kris Stewart, Chairman of the new club AFC Wimbledon and formerly Chair of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (WISA).

Tapping into an Irish ‘market’ unserved by Premiership football, it was claimed that the club would gain a large fanbase and get a new stadium. UEFA put the skids under the plan by ruling out cross-border leagues, but the arguments cited in its favour were filed away rather than put in the waste basket.

Hammam sold 80% of the club in 1997 to two Norwegians, Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten, for around £25M. For a club without a ground, it seemed a lot of money, even if they were in the Premiership. But with an estimated fortune of £480M, Røkke could probably afford it. The FA Commission report says that the Norwegians came in on the understanding that Dublin would get the go-ahead eventually, so the knock back from UEFA was a blow. As was relegation from the Premiership in May 2000.

That relegation marked an inauspicious start for new Chairman Charles Koppel, a business associate of the Norwegians and part-owner himself after buying 10% of the club from Hammam’s remaining shares. With five months, he and his fellow directors had met Pete Winkelman, a music producer from Milton Keynes. He had been touting a plan to move a club there to a purpose built stadium and give the town a professional team. He wasn’t the first to have the idea; former Luton Chairman David Kohler had wanted to move his club there in the early 90s but had been told by the League that Luton had to play in Luton and he dropped the idea.

But Koppel didn’t drop Winkelman’s plan. Despite saying in April 2001 “all discussions of Milton Keynes are pie in the sky – we are a London club and that is where we will be going”, he wrote to Wimbledon supporters in August 2001 telling them that the club had signed a deal to go to Milton Keynes. It was a “unique solution to a unique problem”. You’ve got the stadium, I’ve got the club – let’s make lots of money.

“We viewed this battle with a weariness of having done it all before, but we were slightly optimistic too,” said Stewart, who’s members were up in arms about the move. “It was such a mad idea that we thought it couldn’t possibly happen.”

The club’s case was that there was no possible hope of a return to Merton, nor anywhere else in South London. Plough Lane was both impossible to redevelop and too expensive to buy back from Safeway to boot. Given that, they either faced a future of playing second-fiddle to Crystal Palace and Selhurst Park or something else. That something else, like the Dublin plan before, would be to move to an area with a thirst for professional football to a purpose built stadium. It was “the only realistic solution for Wimbledon Football Club,” said Koppel. The inability to bring in money through owning their own ground and the size of their fanbase contributed to mounting losses that would eventually kill the club.

Supporters say that the club had been misleading people with its claims of poverty and its protestations that there was no alternative were little more than spin. They have a point; the club’s accounts hadn’t been filed, so no-one could prove whether they club was in dire straits or not. The 2002 edition of the Deloitte and Touche Football finance report shows the club making a loss before player transfers, which is significant since several players moved on for big money such as Carl Cort, Ben Thatcher, John Hartson, Jason Euell, and Marcus Gayle.

As for Plough Lane, the supporters had plans drawn up by professional stadium architects that showed that a 21,000 seater stadium could be built on the site. Whilst the Council’s relationship with the club had in the past been fraught, new leadership had clasped the club to its civic busom and the Council said they would not oppose a planning application there should one be submitted.

The only people who might object to a return would have been local residents, but the supporters had commissioned an ICM poll in Merton that showed 10% of Merton residents (18 000) would consider going to watch the Dons should were they to be playing in the Borough.

Throughout the boom years for football in the 1990s, Wimbledon were marooned in Selhurst Park, which, due to the vagaries of South London transport, was no easy journey. Fans wondered whether the rival charms of resurgent Chelsea and Fulham might have tempted many, so the poll was pleasing to Stewart: “We knew there was latent support for the club, and it was pleasing that despite the club not selling tickets in Wimbledon and doing very little to promote themselves locally, we’d still retained affection in the Borough.”

It was strange then, that Charles Koppel put in an appearance at the Haydons Bridge Residents’ Association meeting in the New Year. They were the local group for those living closest to Plough Lane. Perhaps he was making one final attempt to get the club back to Merton?

No such luck. He was there to get them to state how much they would object to any return home and to pass a motion he’d prepared earlier. He said that “Football supporters are not necessarily the kind of people you want on your doorstep”. It didn’t sound like the words of a man who’d only decided reluctantly that Merton wasn’t an option. He added that it would be great if they could appear on local TV backing him and they were given tips about how to come across as suitably sympathetic. A press release issued advised interested reporters to contact the club’s PR advisors for further details.

But Koppel had forgotten the first rule of espionage – don’t get caught. Those living in the Residents’ Association’s patch were asked whether they supported a return to Plough Lane or not, and only those opposed got an invite to the meeting. Posing as an anti, a sympathiser had got into the meeting armed with a tape recorder. “We were a bit shocked by the tactics of the club,” says Stewart. “It was all a bit Spy Vs Spy really. But we were also encouraged that the club were rattled.”

There was a bigger issue behind it all too. But fans saw it differently. It brought home a bigger issue about what a club was. The club maintained it was a business that put a team onto the pitch, and like any other business struggling in a particular area, they had a duty to their shareholders to take up an offer to relocate to more profitable pastures. But the argument that the ‘club’ would die cut no ice with supporters; the club would die if it moved to Milton Keynes because it would no longer be Wimbledon and they wouldn’t be there to watch it. As Jock Stein said, “football without fans is nothing.” They are the club, the custodians of the traditions and the people who preserved the history of the club in their hearts. The club might worry about not being able to challenge in the Premiership – or get there – but if the price of success was Milton Keynes, as far as fans were concerned, it was much too much.

Koppel promised that ” no agreement could ever be reached without consulting our supporters first” but upon the announcement, the club began to retreat from those supporters. WISA never a response to any of its letters or requests for a meeting. This in itself was a new departure for the club, as despite disagreements with supporters on many issues, Hammam’s regime was notable for his willingness to engage in argument and debate, from returning calls from concerned fans to stand-up rows outside games.

The club’s official Fans Forum saw all 6 candidates elected being vehemently against the move, whilst the openly pro-Milton Keynes candidate gathered just 30 votes out of 339 cast. Koppel’s attendance at his own consultative body became progressively poorer and the club’s campaign was conducted mostly through the wider media.

The club programme wasn’t much use, as WISA immediately voted to boycott official merchandise, and fans started producing their own glossy alternative programme for every home game that outsold the club’s version by two-to-one. Part campaigning voice and part matchday magazine with features, match reports and statistics, it looked at felt just like a real programme. A far cry from a photocopied fanzine, it was a demonstration that the supporters were not only sincere in their opposition, but that the oft-made argument that fans couldn’t run a bath, let alone a football club, just didn’t hold up.

In the wider world though, the tight-knit world of sports reporting and the clubs they report on worked to the club’s advantage, and the natural instinct of many journalists was to trust official sources rather than fans’ groups.

To get their message across, the supporters utilised an alternative network of fan websites, messageboards and email lists. They organised a Fans United Day, similar to ones held at Brighton and Chester City in the past, and over 1000 fans turned up representing 97 clubs. They were mostly from the UK, but representatives from Barcelona made the trip and one fan who came all the way from Reykjavik.

They made it clear to other fans that there was a bigger issue here than the fate of Wimbledon Football Club. If the move went ahead, we would have US-style franchising as professional football would suddenly appear in an area without a club having to gone through the inconvenient stages of demonstrating their right to be there through winning promotion via the pyramid. Doing a Wimbledon meant rising up from the non-league to the top-flight but now means something altogether different in Charles Koppel and Pete Winkelman’s brave new world.

The deal the club signed for Milton Keynes was contingent and the agreement of the Football authorities and so the club Football League for permission to move. League rules say that clubs had to play in the area they took their name from or were traditionally associated with, though the League had the power to set this rule aside under exceptional circumstances. When the League’s board rejected the proposal, like Luton before, it seemed that the plan had hit the rocks. The fans were jubilant, with a Press Release from WISA urging people to “come down to the Wetherspoons in Wimbledon tonight for one major session.”

But, like Rasputin’s killers, the supporters hadn’t landed the fatal blow they’d first thought. The club had expended too much time and effort on this, and they were convinced that it was the only way they could go. They appealed against the judgement, saying that it was a hasty decision that hadn’t fully recognised the club’s plight. After much behind the scenes argument (assisted by M’Learned friends), the League agreed to an independent panel being formed to look at the issue and make a decision.

This Panel agreed with the club when it made it’s judgement in February and so the issue was knocked back to the League for a new decision. The League then asked the FA to rule the case, saying it had ramifications for the whole of football and not just the 72 clubs in the League. The FA then set up another three-man Commission to make the final call.

The Panel met during May and had before them the club’s evidence and all the evidence gathered by the League from the previous tribunal. They also interviewed witnesses including supporters representatives, people from Merton Council and Pete Winkelman from Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium. Their decision was a majority verdict. After all the hard work, all the arguments, all the support from around the country, the supporters had lost because two people agreed with the club, and only one with them. Football supporters know better than most the thin line between success and failure.

The language of the decision makes interesting reading too. Fans will be surprised to know they watch something called ‘Major League Football’, which is what Milton Keynes apparently deserves. Orwell himself would be proud of the doublespeak, where it states that clubs should be based in communities and that franchising is a bad thing – before going onto to completely contradict that statement by allowing the decision. They seem to have been under the impression that their task was to decide whether Milton Keynes was worthy of having a team, rather than whether a club should be allowed to move.

The report descends into farce by the end with the Commission seriously arguing that fans might find the transition to Buckinghamshire easier if they arrive at the new stadium along Fashanu Way or Sanchez Avenue. They also feel that if a museum was built in Wimbledon it would lessen the blow. Experienced commentators I spoke to were united in condemning the report as one of the most poorly argued documents ever produced within football. They had a shocker, as Big Ron might say.

The FA and the League both condemned the move, and said that this was not an open door for franchising. Commenting at the time of the initial rejection, League Chief Executive David Burns said that “The exceptional set of circumstances we might consider to allow such a move did not exist in this case.” Who knows what the club discovered in the attic in the months following, but it must have been pretty exceptional, everyone, from the FA to government ministers fell over themselves to argue how exceptional it was. All agreed that it certainly wasn’t a precedent for others to use.

I asked an FA spokesman how they would stop it happening again who was unclear on the specifics. The aim, he said, would be prevent “will be to make sure that clubs don’t develop a set of circumstances like Wimbledon, where earlier decisions came back to haunt them.” He added “it must have been a compelling case for the Commission to allow it.”

But that’s just it. It doesn’t appear to be a compelling case at all. The Commission were bowled over by Winkelman who was clearly the star turn, describing him as “enthusiastic” and “persuasive”. They obviously got some charm from the record producer, but they didn’t get answers to some serious questions, such as who the money was coming from or where the 28,000 new fans were coming from. They also weren’t bothered by the fact that the land for the new stadium hasn’t been bought yet and planning permission is still a long way off, less still that the accounts presented by the club as evidence of their plight were not the legally filed and audited accounts.

It seems as if the club were shocked by the decision too, as the plans don’t seem to have been in place in case the Commission said yes. The land for their new stadium hasn’t been bought, yet alone got planning permission and they wanted to play at the National Hockey Foundation stadium in Milton Keynes. Difficulties with the plastic pitch, the lack of turnstiles and CCTV (not to mention lots of weddings booked in for forthcoming Saturdays at the Hockey stadium) though mean that the club will kick-off the new season still in Selhurst Park. The majority of supporters won’t be there to watch them though as fans have vowed to boycott games to deprive the club of money in the hope it goes bust before it can relocate, and they’re asking fans of teams visiting Selhurst to do the same.

They’ll still be watching football though with their new club AFC Wimbledon that they set up in the weeks following the judgement and is owned by the fans themselves through the Dons Trust. It might seem like a radical step, but argues Kris Stewart, it was the only one available. “We’ve been fighting for years, and we’ve done everything we could do, and we’ve lost. I want to watch some football and I want it to be fun again.”

Former Dons hero Terry Eames is the Director of Football, and player trials on Wimbledon Common attracted 250 players. “I think what has been allowed to happen with Milton Keynes is disgusting and my involvement with the supporters has grown over the years. I am doing this for me and the supporters I have been with for the last 12 years because they have been left in the lurch,” says Eames, clearly excited by the prospect. Terry Burton, the manager sacked by Koppel at the end of the last season shows up. “Today is very exciting,” he says. “Football clubs in the past were usually formed through one man’s enthusiasm and passion, but this different. Here a group of supporters have worked very hard to create this club. I have known some of the people here for 14 years and its great to see a smile back on their face. A part of my heart will always belong to Wimbledon and today I am a fan of AFC Wimbledon.”

They will play in the Combined Counties League, and for some, it might be a culture shock to go from Arsenal to AFC Wallingford. But this is Wimbledon, and many fans began watching the club since their old Southern League days and over 500 season tickets have been sold for a league with average gates of 80. Many applications have been from people who never made the switch to Selhurst who are excited by the prospect of a short bus ride to nearby Kingstonians for home games.

The first game, a friendly against Sutton United at Gander Green Lane, brings 5 TV crews and 4657 fans to see club that’s 5 weeks old. They have signed the biggest deal in non-league football – well into six figures over 3 years – with Sports Interactive, makers of Championship Manager, who’ll be featuring AFC Wimbledon in the next version of the game. The game is delayed for 30 minutes to allow everyone to get in, so people read the 32-page full colour programme they produced for the game, even though they’re the away team. The official kit isn’t ready yet, so the team play in Sports Interactive’s own office team kit. There’s no numbers on the shirts and no team sheet, so comments like ‘the blond lad did well there’ are common place.

The game is effectively the team’s fourth training session rather than first game, and the 4-0 defeat to a team three divisions above doesn’t cause anyone too much concern. The players are mobbed at the end, and despite the difficulty in identifying them, songs have already been penned about some of the new heroes, including former Chelsea man Joe Sheerin, the new club captain.

The gate at the game must worry Charles Koppel, who now knows what he’s up against. Earlier in the year, he derided those who opposed him as not ‘true supporters’ as they would rather watch the team in the third division than try to get to the Premiership at Milton Keynes. He was wrong; they’d rather watch them four divisions below that level than go to Milton Keynes. The club claimed to be losing £20,000 a day during the last season with gates averaging 5000. If that gets cut to around 2000, then the club’s financial position worsens. I asked the club what their strategy was for this, but received no response to any of the questions. However, in a radio interview after AFC Wimbledon’s game against Sutton, Koppel would not say how many season tickets they had sold – which suggests that it’s fewer than AFC Wimbledon have sold – and admitted that Gjelsten and Røkke would have to fund losses.

Those losses could be greater if significant numbers of away fans carry out their boycott of games against the club, arguing that the surest way to make sure that nobody else tries to move their club is to make Koppel’s attempt fail. The fans of the first two visitors to Selhurst Park – Gillingham and Brighton – have already indicated that they’ll be recommending a boycott and will be protesting about the move to Milton Keynes. With star players sold at the end of last season and the prospect of tiny attendances, there’s already a pall cast over the forthcoming season.

Before the Sutton game, there are few thoughts of the club formerly known as Wimbledon. Kris Stewart says “that this club is about Wimbledon and that’s nothing to do with Charles Koppel.” Other team shirts are dotted around the ground, and Bristol Rovers fan Hazel Potter captures the mood, saying “Wimbledon were the team who showed the way for smaller clubs, and now AFC Wimbledon are doing it again.” The atmosphere in the ground is fantastic and it’s almost eerie to see so many smiling faces at a game, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Whilst their former club has been snatched away from them, they’re happy to finally have a club to call their own. “We’ve lost the battle but won the war.” says Stewart. “We’ll be watching a decent game of football played by a club that respects us and is proud to be from Wimbledon. It’s all we’ve ever wanted.”

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