It was a balmy evening at the end of May 2002 and emotions at The Sir Cyril Black Community Centre in Wimbledon were running high. Two days earlier, the unthinkable had happened. A three-man independent commission set up by the Football Association had, by two votes to one, waved through permission for Wimbledon FC to leave Selhurst Park, its unhappy home for the previous eleven years, and decamp sixty miles north to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. Football franchising had arrived in footballs modern era, and their club was the laboratory animal upon which the experiment would be carried. What were Wimbledon supporters to do? Their club would continue to play at Selhurst Park for another year. Should they continue the protest at the club? Play out the final year and then meekly follow the freak show north? The answers to these questions would end up having far wider-ranging ramifications than most would have thought possible at the time.
The Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (WISA) had been formed seven years earlier, as the permanence of the clubs move to Selhurst Park became increasingly obvious. These were seasoned campaigners who had already played a significant role in seeing off the proposed move to Dublin. Fighting off the Milton Keynes move, however, had proved to be a bridge too far. Perhaps the writing had been on the wall. After all, when the Football Association set up its first panel to look at the rights and wrongs of the move to Milton Keynes it included, without explanation, Douglas Craig, the owner of York City who had just a couple of weeks earlier given his club notice that they were to be evicted from their Bootham Crescent ground, which was to be sold for housing for £4.5m. Of all the people in the whole of English football who could have been invited to join such a panel, why him? It beggared belief and this panels sympathy to the owners who had misjudged their investment was, perhaps, not particularly a surprise.
WISA, though, had been working on a back-up plan. There was, of course, no way in the world that anyone in their right minds would follow the club to Milton Keynes bar a handful of quislings. The FA had already confirmed that even though the verdict of the commission went against every fibre of what both it and the Football League stood for, their decision would be final and binding. The twenty-eighth of May, therefore, had seen a decisive end to that battle. The panels comments that the formation of a new club would not be “in the wider interests of football”, meanwhile, had merely acted like a red rag to a bull, and made what happened next something of a fait accompli. Kris Stewart, the chair of the WISA (at the start of the meeting, at least), took hold of the microphone at the meeting and gave a short speech which ended with the words, “I just want to watch football.” The assembled crowd erupted as one and at that moment, AFC Wimbledon was born, in spirit at least.
Six weeks later, a team wearing carrying Wimbledons name and livery took the pitch at Gander Green Lane, the home of Sutton United, for its first ever match. They lost by four goals to nil, but seldom in the history of English football has the result of a match been so much less important than the symbolism of it being held in the first place. The idea of forming a new club under a different model of football club ownership had been floating around during that previous season, and the conditions for such a club were right. The year 2000 had seen, as a result of the recommendations of the Football Task Force, the creation of Supporters Direct, an umbrella organisation which would encourage the creation of supporters trusts with the aim of building up share-holdings in clubs on a non-profit, one-person-one-vote basis.
In addition to this, events on the other side of London a year before raised the possibility of the formation of a football club coming as a result of supporters breaking away from a club. Enfield FC had been occasional jousting partners of Wimbledon many years before – the clubs met in the FA Cup in 1982 – but had fallen on hard times in the 1990s. In 1999, following a disastrous ground-sharing agreement with the Saracens Rugby Club, owner Tony Lazarou sold its home and the club began a nomadic existence as Lazarou claimed to be looking for a site for a new ground. Within two years, however, it had become apparent to supporters that there was to be no new ground for the club. The supporters club converted to a supporters trust and, in June 2001, voted almost as one to sever links and form a new club called Enfield Town FC, which joined the Essex Senior League.
In becoming the first supporters trust to form their own club, Enfield Town demonstrated that it could be done – that there was an alternative to merely acquiescing to the whims of others. When the commissions verdict came in over Milton Keynes, a small group of supporters – including Ivor Heller, Kris Stewart, Trevor Williams and Marc Jones – were already prepared for what they would need to do next. “We all felt that if the vote went against us we would have to start another club”, Heller would later say. A ground-sharing arrangement was agreed at Kingstonian FC, a short distance from the London Borough of Merton itself, and a manager – former Wimbledon player Terry Eames – was confirmed at a meeting held on the 13th of June, along with details of the clubs crest and kit, as well as news that an astonishing £75,000 had already been raised in two weeks to get the new club off the ground and, perhaps most importantly of all, the decision was made that this new club would be owned by The Dons Trust, which had been formed four months earlier.
Eames held trials, appropriately enough, on Wimbledon Common, at the end of the month and, from the hundreds of would-be players that turned up, a squad was selected. By this time the club knew in which division it would be playing. An application to join the Ryman League had been rejected a couple of weeks earlier, but the Combined Counties League did accept them – a drop of seven divisions from where Wimbledon FC had completed the season before for the supporters of the club. By this time, however, such considerations were largely on the back-burner. The club signed a sponsorship deal with Sports Interactive, the makers of the Football Manager series of computer games worth a substantial sum of money. The crowd at Gander Green Lane – more than 4,500 people – surpassed any reasonable expectations.
A week after their game at Sutton United, the club scored its first goal in a friendly match at Bromley. The goalscorer was known at the time as “Trigger”, and was subsequently described in The Guardian as “a mysterious figure who, said his dad in the bar, works for an agency that works for MI5.” AFC Wimbledon’s first goalscorer turned out to be Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator whose activities led to the closure of the News Of The World in July 2011. Five days prior to the start of the league season, the club won for the first time, a victory by three goals to two against, ironically enough, Enfield Town. So it was that on the 17th of August 2002, AFC Wimbledon took to the pitch for their first league match, away to Sandhurst Town FC in front of a crowd of 2,449 people. The Combined Counties League had never seen anything like it before, and AFC Wimbledon won by two goals to one. A new era for the supporters of this already extraordinary club had begun.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the phrase “community club” has teetered on the brink of becoming a cliche. Back in the summer of 2002, though, the phrase took on a truly tangible meaning as AFC Wimbledon took a step into the – then almost – unknown. And tempting though it is to place all of the praise at the feet of those named above and the others that took this particular bull by the horns and kept the spirit of Wimbledon FC alive, it is worth remembering that it was the entire community of this club that was responsible for its building. Everybody that donated money and/or time, everybody that turned up for the meetings and the protests and everybody that turned out on Saturdays for those first tentative steps on the pitch played their part in making this happen.
There would be ups and occasional downs over the next ten years, but these would pale into insignificance alongside the mere, simple facts that their club existed in the first place and that the future of their club would be carried out according to their terms and no-one elses. Within three months, the argument that the reformation of this club was “not in the wider interests of football” had been comprehensively shown up for being the bunkum that it was. On the evening of that first game, Marc Jones, writing on the fan-site that he edited at the time, said of that day:
At its heart was the true Corinthian spirit, a sense of hope, of effort and of respect. This is something very special here. A cottage industry in the middle of a globalised trading estate. A corner shop perched between hypermarkets. A community football club in the midst of greed and desperation. As money continues to distract football club chairmen like a young girl fluttering her eyelids at a married man we stand proud as an example of good people doing the right thing the right way. That reason alone is enough to make me know we CANNOT fail. Decency in the face of extreme adversity. An example that belief is all, that dignity and courage counts after all.
That these words should come from a supporter of a club that had just been chewed up and spat out by the very organisations that were supposed to protect it whilst the comments regarding this club not being “in the wider of interests of football” came from a commission acting for English footballs governing body, spoke volumes about the way in which football in England was being managed in 2002, and we might reflect that not a great deal has changed in the ten years since then, either.
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