The Inevitable Don.

It was always inevitable, that sooner or later AFC Wimbledon would come up in competition against MK Dons.

As a teenager, growing up on Southern League football in London, the Wimbledon of the seventies had a bit of a reputation, but as with most non-League teams of the time, they were in reality a haven away from the troubles with hooliganism that all the top teams were suffering from. The most memorable feature of a visit to Plough Lane was the huge bank of terracing behind one goal

There was not always a lot between teams, and what was needed for success (as we would later find out), was am inspired manager and a chairman prepared to back him. For Wimbledon, the manager was Allen Batsford, who had already led Walton & Hersham through their most successful years, (Athenian League title, FA Amateur Cup and humbling Brighton & Hove Albion during Brian Clough’s tenure there). Batsford was to take Wimbledon to a hat-trick of Southern League titles, and in his first season to their famous meeting with Leeds United in the FA Cup. The chairman, at least for the third year was Ron Noades, who apparently paid £2782 for the club.

Timing is everything, though and Wimbledon had this. After their first Southern League title, in 1975 they gained just 4 points in their election bid, behind Kettering (20) and Yeovil (8), who between them equalled Workington’s 28 points for re-election. No less than 12 non-League teams, eight from the Southern League had put their names forward. Again in 1976, there were 9 applicants, six of which were Southern League, and the combined scores of Kettering (14) and Yeovil (18) would have easily beaten Workington (21). For 1977, the leagues agreed that only one team from each of the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues would be put forward, and as Southern League champions, Wimbledon were up for election, along with Altrincham (despite finishing only 10th in the Northern Premier), Halifax, Hartlepool, Southport and Workington. It was Workington who had been bottom two places four years in a row that lost their place. It was a brief window, Wigan were elected 12 months later, but even with the creation of the Alliance (now Conference) and a reduction of non-League teams in the election to one from 1980, no other team joined the league until automatic promotion was introduced in 1987.

Wimbledon were not an immediate success in the Football League. Indeed they started more amateurishly than in winning three titles, no scouting, no youth coaching until Dario Gradi was recruited to assist Batsford, (they did not get on). Batsford resigned after the team had to travel by car to an away match at Rochdale. Wimbledon were promoted from the basement division of the League in 1979, 1981 and 1983 – each time they spent only one season in the third tier, but in 1984, they moved upwards.

Dave Bassett, who became manager in 1981 led them through this spell, leading the club to the top division (still division one in those days) and keeping them up in his first season, before giving way to Bobby Gould who managed the Cup winning team of 1988. Overall, Wimbledon were to spend 14 seasons at the top level.

It was Noades, back in 1979 who first considered relocating the club to Milton Keynes. The City’s development plan included a stadium close to the central railway station, and Noades purchased the local Southern League club, Milton Keynes City for £1, thinking he could merge his two clubs and play at this new stadium. After a short period of study, Noades concluded that Wimbledon could not get any more to view them at Milton Keynes than at Plough Lane, and in 1981 he divested his interests in both clubs, before buying Crystal Palace.

Sam Hamman took over the ownership of the club. They still owned and played at Plough Lane. As with many football grounds, there were covenants in place on what could be done with the land. The Plough Lane football ground could only be used for Sport or Recreation, and in the event of Wimbledon FC folding, it had to be sold to the council for the less than princely sum of £8000. The amount Hamman paid to the council to change these conditions is not known, but was about half a million pounds. By 1991, Wimbledon had risen to the top division, with crowds around 7,500 per match. This was a remarkably small number for the top division, which had an average of 22,000+ that season. It was the Taylor report that was the excuse to re-locate to Selhurst Park. The club said they could not afford to upgrade the old ground. There was an immediate loss of 10% of the spectator base, but this quickly recovered. Around 1993, the averages exceeded 10,000 and they set their attendance record, over 30,000 for a match against Manchester United. In 1999-2000, the season Wimbledon were finally relegated from the top flight, the average crowd was 17,000.

Surely this figure could have been sustained, but at this time, Wimbledon had a fickle support, more concerned about visiting stars than the local club. Palace were an irregular member of the Premier League, and so while the big Premier stars came a visiting, Wimbledon were the best show in town. In one season out of the top division, the average crowd had been halved.

Hamman had by now sold Wimbledon to Norwegian owners, and in 1998 he had finally sold off Plough Lane for £8 million. Hamman stayed on at the club as an advisor to the Norwegians, (which of course meant a fee was paid, and I bet it was not a pittance). After proposals for two sites within Merton came to nothing, Hamman was behind a wild slew of relocation schemes, as far afield as Scotland and Dublin, (the Premier League quite fancied the idea of having a Dublin club, but the Football Association of Ireland vetoed it). All this added to the clubs problems – creating a wedge between the club and its supporters. Most clubs still try to maintain the illusion that their owners hold the club in trust for the supporters, and for future generations. With Wimbledon openly stating they wanted to move to somewhere where a profit could be made, the supporters were clearly thought of as dispensable.

Meanwhile, the Milton Keynes Stadium Corporation was formed in 2000. Fronted by former op impresario Peter Winkleman, and supported by big commercial names Wal-Mart (Asda) and Ikea, who were looking for sites in Milton Keynes. Later, AFC Wimbledon supporters have suggested that the Stadium plan was a Trojan horse required to get the commercial plans approved, but this does not truly recognise the situation in Milton Keynes. The City planners surely wanted it all, the Stadium and the Commercial developments.

But what could is a stadium without a team? The Milton Keynes City team Noades had once bought had folded some time back, and a new team of the same name were just a renaming of Mercedes Benz, playing four levels below the Football League in front of a few dozen spectators. The MK area boasted a number of other teams at similar level, but no one much more senior. Of course, with enough investment, it is possible to move a club from non-League football to the Football League, Max Griggs was just about to achieve this with Rushden & Diamonds – but as we have seen, the club was not sustainable without a continual injection of cash.

Winkleman wanted an established League club to move into his stadium (and at the time, that is all he wanted – he could see that clubs lose money, but stadiums with a well supported club make a profit). The Football League and FA always claimed to be opposed to a club moving into Milton Keynes, and the combination of this, and the clear connections between clubs and their fan bases meant that Luton, Barnet, Crystal Palace and QPR all rejected moves to Milton Keynes, but in the summer of 2001, Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel announced the intention to move to Milton Keynes.

The Football League immediately turned this down, but Wimbledon appealed to an FA panel, made up of David Dein (Arsenal), Douglas Craig (York City) and Charles Hollander QC (these panels always appear to have one legal ‘brain’). Craig was an odd choice, he had transferred the ownership of Bootham Crescent from one of his companies (i.e. York City FC) to another for a sum of £165,000 eighteen months earlier, and at this time he had just announced plans to evict the football club as he thought he could sell the ground for £4.5 million (this of course, never happened, although York’s long term future is unlikely to be at the ground). This panel found the Football League decision had not been fair and legal, and batted the issue back to the League for reconsideration. The League quickly returned the issue to the FA who had to set up a new Arbitration committee, this time of Steve Stride (Aston Villa), Alan Turvey (Isthmian League) and solicitor Raj Parker. This committee decided 2-1 in favour of the move, with Turvey being the one against. As a demonstration that it wanted to have its cake, eat it and wash its hands of the evidence, the FA quickly announced that the decision was binding, but that it was opposed to the move. Chief Executive Adam Crozier called it an “Appalling decision”. The average crowd for Wimbledon at Selhurst Park 2001-2 was just under 7000. The following season, it was 2787.

It was at this point the decision to form AFC Wimbledon was taken. Before this time, there was just talk about it, but the speed that they moved from talk to action was amazing. The initial meeting was held on 30 May 2002, with the manager, stadium, kit and crest announced to supporters just a month later. Clearly some of the groundwork must have been carried out in advance.

Only months previously, Kingstonian FC had been taken over Rajesh Kholsa and his son, Anup. Kingstonian had struggled through the season after relegation from the Conference, and gone into administration. They badly needed good administration. This is not what they got. Non-League football is not a good vehicle for profit making – the best opportunities for a profit – as we have seen in more than one case – involve separating the ownership of club and ground and selling the stadium when the clubs debts are too high for them to be able to resist. Many football clubs have means to avoid this, at the original Wimbledon FC, it was the arrangements whereas the club would have had to sell the ground for £8000 to Merton Council, (an agreement that Hamman splashed a little cash to get out of, before later feathering his next). At Hillingdon Borough, the club I supported in my early days, the directors had to see the football club fold in order to negate a covenant on the ground and take their profits. At Kingstonian, the ground was on a long lease from the council, with the ground only usable for sports use. Hence, the only way Kholsa could sell at a profit was if another sports club came in. Did Kholsa spy an opportunity in the headlines about Wimbledon? Is it possible that some agreement was suggested in advance? No one has ever said anything to suggest any wrong doing, but there is some feeling that Kholsa did see Wimbledon coming. He was quick to split football club and ground, leaving the head lease in the hands of Anup, and with the income once AFC Wimbledon agreed to share the stadium, this part of the business was running a nice profit, while the Football Club that were leaseholders a year before were starved of the cash.

Meanwhile, the AFC Wimbledon bandwagon was the biggest story in non-League football. In a marvellously orchestrated media circus (something the early AFC W seemed to lead the way in), they held open trials on Wimbledon Common, where some 230 turned up for a trial. If I am not careful, I could even blame Wimbledon for the X-Factor here, but I’ll shy away from such an accusation. Safe to say that some of the 230 would have been an embarrassment, but fortunately not in front of TV cameras. Another sign of how it was to be was the quick signing of a kit sponsorship deal, which meant that AFC Wimbledon would already have more money behind them then the average club in their league, notwithstanding the £75,000 raised at the initial meetings, and the benefits of crowds that were to exceed 3000 on average.

Of course, it has to recorded that AFC Wimbeldon were a different type of football club. The ownership structure, where all fans had an equal say at general meetings, and to elect the board does present a novel contrast to the idea that your votes reflect the size of stake you take in the club (or business). However, the model was not that new, hundreds of clubs (as opposed to companies) had been operating as members clubs in the less rarefied atmosphere of non-League football – indeed many of their opponents in that first season were also “Fans Clubs”, the different being that only a handful of fans would ever turn up at a meeting. There were members clubs in the Football League up until 1982, when Nottingham Forest became the last to change to a limited company, and then Wycombe Wanderers were still a members club when joining the Football League in 1993. The supporters retained “golden shares” in the club when it became a limited company in 2004. Steve Hayes became MD of the club in 2005, built up debt and then paid it off in return for becoming 100% owner. To be fair to Hayes, he has since given up control of both Wycombe (to their supporters Trust) and while I cannot say the exact status of the ground, I feel certain Hayes lost a lot of money through his involvements at both Wycombe and Wasps.

It was not long before some bright spark at AFC Wimbledon decided that the best course of action was to purchase Kingsmeadow from Kholsa. To this day, AFC Wimbledon fans tell me this was the only course of action, as otherwise it would have been sold for housing. As I have already mentioned in this piece, that was not an available option – but a sale (around £3 million) sounded good to Kholsa, especially as he could loan some of the money at high interest rates. AFC Wimbledon did manage to change this over time to bank loans at conventional interest rates, and later sold off a portion of the moral high ground shares in the club to pay off this debt.

Before AFC Wimbledon came on the scene, I had already visited all but one (Horley Town had just moved grounds) of the Combined Counties League grounds, but as I was working mainly in Slough, I saw AFC three times in the first two seasons of their existence. Without doubt, it was this that removed any romanticism I might have had about them being the best thing in non-League football. For the most part, with average crowds well under the 100 mark, the Combined Counties League is a civilised place. When it is quite clear who is shouting what from a sparsely populated terrace, one tends to watch your language. AFC Wimbledon fans, grouping in numbers more common in the Football League, but with no security other than their own stewards, had the run of the league. Generally the vilest comments were reserved for those of their own players not performing to the standards expected (they were behind for just 7 minutes at Horley, but the worst was their home crowd when they took time to break down stubborn resistance in a scoreless first half). The club lost seven games in their first season, finishing third in the league behind AFC Wallingford and Withdean 2000. There was crowd trouble at the Wallingford game, which AFC Wimbledon always deny is to do with their own fans, but was then used as an excuse not to play at Wallingford in 2004, but to switch the match, (AFC Wimbledon’s last game in the Combined Counties League) to Kingsmeadow. This game did not even matter in the scheme of things, AFC Wimbledon already having secured the league title by a country mile, but it appeared they were unforgiving for Wallingford’s title the previous season, and were determined to hang onto their unbeaten record.

The other thing that was noticeable from those early visits were how many AFC Wimbledon fans were glued to radios, (we did not all have internet phones then). Their rivals in the Combined Counties League never featured on the radio – it was only ever the fortunes of the other Dons that interested them. There were two things they wanted to hear – Wimbledon losing, and Wimbledon getting a lower crowd than AFC Wimbledon. For 2002-3, this is exactly what they got, Wimbledon (still at Selhurst Park) drew an average of 2787, while AFC Wimbledon claimed just over 3000. This disparity led to Wimbledon FC going into administration before they actually left South London. They even started 2003-4 season at Selhurst Park, before moving to the Hockey Stadium in MK in September, and all this under administration. AFC Wimbledon’s rash move in buying Kingsmeadow meant that they were not in a position to even contemplate buying their old club out of administration, and instead spent their time hoping no buyer could be found and that the club with move into liquidation. With crowds in Milton Keynes much better than the last Selhurst season, (Wimbledon averaged 4751 compared to AFC Wimbledon dropping to 2606). Still, Wimbledon did get relegated, and eventually they were bought out of administration by Pete WInkleman, who after all was keen to see the club stay alive to play in his stadium. When Winkleman took over the club, he rebranded them as MK Dons. This basically meant it was a new club in a new location, and after a dispute in which various football supporters bodies supported the AFC Wimbledon case, MK Dons gave up any pretence that they were Wimbledon FC. Trophies and other mementoes of the earlier club’s history were given over to the London Borough of Merton, but pointedly not to AFC Wimbledon. There is not any justification for claiming that AFC Wimbledon has won the FA Cup, but the AFC Wimbledon web site still lays claims to all the honours not just of Wimbledon FC, but also of Wimbledon Old Centrals back to 1899. From my point of view, I cannot be 100% sure that the club that joined the Athenian League in 1919 was the same as the one that spent a single season, 1909-10 in the Spartan League.

MK Dons dropped down to League-2 for two seasons, but have since moved back up one division, and have been close to the promotion bracket in recent years. They finally moved into their new stadium, with its curious name of Stadium: MK in 2007. The crowds rose significantly on moving to the new stadium, helped by the club winning the League-2 title and Football League Trophy. I made my trip to MK in 2008 when Cheltenham played their (the only time so far). MK won that game 3-1, and the return at our place 5-3. I have to say I liked the ground, and we were well beaten. In a nearby pub before the gae in MK, I met with at least one fan who had transferred loyalties from the original Wimbledon FC and had watched at Selhurst, such people do exist, (admittedly in small numbers). I would wager that by now only a minority of AFC Wimbledon’s support have been with the club since long enough to have been regulars at Plough Lane. We have since lost to them twice in the League Cup. Wimbledon continued to rise up the leagues, winning promotion in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011 – the last being the one to take them into the Football League. The clubs Conference South season(2008-9) saw them exceed their first season average crowd for the first time, this was bettered again two seasons later in winning promotion, and again in their first Football League season. 2011-12 was also the first time AFC Wimbledon were to lose more matches than they won. The notable thing about the visits to Kingsmeadow with Cheltenham is that the place had actually become more friendly than it appeared to be in those early Combined Counties seasons. AFC Wimbledon fans are no longer a different breed, but are part of the general football fraternity.

Both clubs now have their own support and following, and the meeting this weekend ought to be the last time the connections are aired before the clubs fully part. However, there is now a new campaign in Wimbledon, (started I think by the local paper and not the football club), to try and get MK Dons to drop Dons from their name. Dons was the original nickname of Wimbledon FC, and was certainly what their supporters would have called them back in the seventies. However, the popularity of the Wombles on TV, and the adoption of a Womble as mascot (originally by Wimbledon FC, but now by AFC Wimbledon, and never of course by MK Dons) means that Wombles is more commonly used now. As a Don is also an academic term, there is no reason why MK should drop it – it all seems part of the sour grapes fight by those that still believe MK Dons should not exist. While like most people, I was aghast at their creation, I recognise that you cannot turn back the clock and you cannot now remove MK Dons from the map any more than, say the state of Israel, no matter how many people think differently.

AFC Wimbledon fans still seem to need to be on the defensive against some suggestions against them. I read it a lot on the internet boards. I think the three great defences that are over their entry into the Combined Counties League, the buying of the stadium and the fate of Kingstonian. So to try and see through the smokescreens, the Combined Counties League was not by any means the lowest level the club could have started, there are many levels of lower football. However, they were voted in by member clubs of the Combined Counties League, which was the legitimate method of clubs entering at that time. They did not take the place of any other club, indeed the league extended its numbers to take them in. Of course, AFC Wimbledon would have liked to enter the Isthmian League but were turned down. I have always thought that the purchase of Kingsmeadow was a bad move, and I feel that developing this ground hinders their attempts to relocate to their home borough. It is possible that Kholsa might have allowed Kingstonian to fold had AFC not appeared on the scene, but if that had happened, the lease would have reverted to the council paving the way for any reformed club to move in. Kingstonian still exist, but their crowd base has been eroded by the coming of Wimbledon to their town. It is an illusion that football supporters follow clubs through thick and thin. Fans come and go, and some may turn up occasionally to see what is going on at the local ground. It is from these that the long term supporter is somehow made. When two clubs share a stadium, it is natural for those new fans, at least if not subject to other influences, to watch the bigger of the clubs at the stadium. With AFC Wimbledon’s media juggernaut, (even being the team of choice for a TV detective), it was always inevitable that they would take some support that might have watched Kingstonian, even with a Wimbledon team in the next borough. When Wimbledon first bought the ground, Kingstonian’s rent was to be paid from the proceeds of a pre-season friendly between the teams. A great advert for altruism that did not actually last long.

Of course, the greatest knock on from the Wimbledon story is the increase in fan owned clubs – this is now becoming both a common way of restarting a club after the original has floundered, but also there have been more cases of supporters clubs breaking away from the original. In England, we have Enfield Town who actually thought of the idea before Wimbledon (perhaps the reason why they did not take up the name AFC Enfield). Enfield Town were founded after the chairman of Enfield refused to walk away with the lion’s share of the proceeds of the sale of Enfield’s old ground, leaving the fans with a clean start, a debt free club and a little money in the bank, (a deal had been brokered, but the owner of Enfield reneged on it). Enfield Town started life sharing at Brimsdown Rovers and playing in the Essex League, (three levels lower than Enfield that season). At this point, Enfield Town refused to merge the two clubs. The clubs met in the Southern League in 2005-6. Enfield FC finally went into liquidation in 2007, but a new club, Enfield 1893 was immediately started (in the Essex League, only one level down on the last season as Enfield). In 2010, Enfield 1893 moved into Brimsdown Rovers ground, after years sharing grounds outside the borough, meaning that both clubs shared a ground for the season – Brimsdown had folded or merged with 1893, depending on the version you listen to. By this time, Enfield Town had secured the new ground they always wanted, now called the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, and took with them a stand they had added to the old Brimsdown ground. This meant the ground did not meet Isthmian League standards, and although 1893 were Esssex League champions in 2011, they could not be promoted.

Other fan clubs include AFC Telford United, formed quickly after Telford United folded, and Wrexham who had to fight long and hard for control, but always kept fighting. An attempt at a protest club called AFC Barnsley lasted only a short time, playing its last season on Barnsley’s training pitches before being absorbed by the club it was protesting about. FC United of Manchester were also formed as a protest against the way Manchester United’s American owners took control. They claim far higher crowds than others in their leagues but are hampered by high rents at Bury. Unlike AFC Wimbledon, they do appear to have identified a site for their own ground, and may well progress further after they move. Their fans sing a curious mixture of Manchester United songs, and anti-Glazer (the United owners) songs. Despite their claims, they have not actually had any effect on the Old Trafford club, although their fan base may well effect other clubs in the area, including Bury who are benefitting greatly from the income United provide. By contrast, it appears that AFC Liverpool only exist as an echo of United. They have not developed a fan base above that of the better clubs in their league, when you look at the programme and ground, it appears to bristle with indignation at either the main Liverpool club, or the injustice to the 96, but the fans do not reflect this. Last time I saw them play, their only indignation was a complaint over what appeared to be a perfectly justifiable penalty.

The supporters’ umbrella group, Supporters Direct seems almost to favour the formation of new clubs over the alternative of trying to identify and remove bad club owners. The latest example being at Northwich Victoria. Now there is no doubt the old club has been incredibly badly administered, leading to the loss of their ground, (and the new owners can develop the site there), and the club playing 40 miles from home in front of negligible crowds. Even so, there should have been hope for some compromise, but the existence of a rival club appears to be strengthening the owners resolve not to let the old club go.

It does appear that a lot of AFC fans are not for a boycott of the match, as shown by the fact that a large number are travelling to Milton Keynes to see it. The directors are making their protest by standing with the fans and not accepting hospitality, but this is only noticed because they have managed to get the press to mention it. I noticed the Cheltenham Town chairman sitting among the fans, rather than accepting hospitality at an away game two weeks ago. This was not a protest, he was there because he likes to be there! No doubt there will be protests or posters from within the crowd over the existence of MK Dons, and if the TV cameras care to show it, there will be a large audience watching the match back in Wimbledon, but this match may be the last stand for the protests.

The real villains of this piece are not the current owners of either Football Club, whose only problem seems to be that they cannot find a way to live in peace with each other, but the football authorities. The game needs a system of licensing that is more stringent in stopping clubs from building up unsustainable debt, it needs more care applied to the idea of “fit and proper” persons as directors, and a way of taking sanctions against club directors who are found not to meet the required standard after taking up the post. Above all, the practise of separating the ownership of club and ground must be stopped, as it is a license for asset strippers. The legacy of the MK Dons/AFC Wimbledon saga should not be the extinction of either club, but the assurance that history cannot be repeated. While Northwich Victoria play home matches in front of a handful of spectators in Stafford, that legacy still looks far from achievable.

Comments are closed.