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It was ten years ago yesterday that an independent commission set up by the Football Association reached a final verdict on a case that would, in some unexpected ways, come to change the face of football club ownership in Britain forever. It had happened before and it has happened again since, but the decision of that commission to allow Wimbledon FC to move sixty miles north and jettison name, its colours, fan-base and traditions continues to mark a fundamental shift in the politics of football in this country, but how did it happen, how was it allowed to go ahead and what were the implications of English footballs first foray into franchising in living memory?
The seeds of the momentous events of May 2002 were planted almost two decades earlier. The ascent of Wimbledon Football Club from the Southern Football League to the First Division in eight years with an FA Cup final win in 1988 is often portrayed as a fairy tale, but the players that made it so were undoubtedly angels with dirty faces – children that only a mother could truly love. They played the gamesmanship card to its fullest – including a sometimes viciously reductionist brand of the game – but, given the clubs meagre financial position this was unsurprising. The means, in terms of league positions, justified the ends. But this of itself was not the fault of the supporters of the club and neither, throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, was the journey – both literal and metaphorical – that the club would end up making.
Looking at the clubs respective positions in 1983 and 1993 tells that story quite concisely. On the last day of the 1982/83 season, Wimbledon travelled to Bury already promoted from Division Four of the Football League. They played their home matches at the decidedly rough and ready Plough Lane and were managed by Dave Bassett, who had been a player for the club during the FA Cup runs of the mid-1970s which went a long way towards helping to seal its election into the Football League in 1977. Wimbledon won that day at Gigg Lane by three goals to one. This would turn out to be a promotion that would kick-start a chain of events that would lead to where the club finds itself today.
By May 1993, Wimbledon FC had changed forever. It’s ascent to Division One, FA Cup triumph and position amongst the founder members of the Premier League would see to that. Ron Noades, a serial football club owner in South and West London, had sold the club to Sam Hammam in 1981 but proposed a merger between his new club, Crystal Palace in 1986 which didn’t come to fruition. When Hammam attempted to revive the idea a year later, supporters found out that Hammam owned land surrounding the Plough Lane ground which would have earned him a considerable amount of money had he moved the club to Selhurst Park, and it was later established that Hammam had transferred the ownership of Plough Lane into the name of one of his companies, Rudgwick Ltd, in 1984 and that the club had been paying him rent ever since. It was The Taylor Report that gave Hammam the perfect opportunity to get what he ultimately wanted. In 1990, he bought out the covenant on Plough Lane which stated that the land upon which the ground was built could only be used for sporting or recreational purposes. He had made half-hearted efforts to build a new ground for the club at Wandle Valley – planning permission was granted in 1988 – but solid plans never came through with Hammam and the local council blaming each other.
On the last day of the 1990/91 season, Hammam inferred in the clubs programme notes that this match would be the clubs last at Plough Lane. Wimbledon FC was finally moving the six miles east to Selhurst Park, to ground-share as tenants of Crystal Palace. That promotion in 1983 had been the start of something extraordinary, with two further promotions in the next seasons catapulting the club into the First Division of the Football League. Arguably more remarkably still, once in the rarified air of the top flight, Wimbledon managed to stay there and by August of 1992 had become founder members of the Premier League. Ten years after winning at Bury to get out of the bottom division of the Football League, Wimbledon completed their first season in the league that left it behind in a respectable twelfth position out of twenty-two clubs.
Selhurst Park, however, was never a viable long-term solution for Wimbledon FC. Crowds remained small by Premier League standards and the support-base was increasingly grumpy with its clubs now rootless existence. Then, in 1997, in the warm post-coital afterglow of the European Championships and at the height of the Premier Leagues financial bubble, Hammam decided to cash in. The buyers were two Norwegian powerboat racers called Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten, and the price – for 80% of the shares and with Hammam staying on to run the football side of things – was £25m. Not a bad price for a club that Hammam had bought for less that £100,000 and no longer had any significant assets apart from its players and its Premier League place.
That Premier League place, though. Now, that was worth something, especially if Hammam and the Norwegians could do something with it that came from outside of the box. The idea of moving an English club to Dublin, where there was a strong and still growing interest in football but only a weak domestic league, was one that had been idly floated before, but the idea of moving Wimbledon FC there appealed not only to the Norwegians and Hammam, but also the the imperialist instincts of the Premier League itself. The plan first started to gain traction in 1996, with the support of Hammam, manager Joe Kinnear, U2 manager Paul McGuinness, and Irish property developer Owen O’Callaghan and a long-standing critic of Irish domestic football, Eamonn Dunphy. The Premier League clubs waved through the proposal, and even some of the clubs of the League of Ireland were sweetened by the promise of a £250,000 windfall for each club if the move went ahead.
It was rumoured that the deal between the Norwegians and Hammam had been at least in part been decided on the basis of the authorities not blocking the move, but while the FA stayed silent on the matter, the Football Association of Ireland didn’t. Even though some within the Irish game were unconvinced that Hammam was even serious about moving the club to Dublin – “Who is to say he may not use our support as a big stick to beat the people in England he is attempting to persuade help him build a new stadium there?”, commented one Irish football official – the FAI blocked the move, and the conventions of international football governance meant that that FA stood by their decision with UEFA – who stated that, “UEFA are specific about this. Wimbledon are an English club with a home in England and UEFA is not in favour of them moving to a foreign country” – and with FIFA in agreement. Hammam made noises about making a legal case to the European Union, but by the summer of 1998 the idea was dead and Hammam had left the club. In the same year, supporters found out that he had sold the Plough Lane site to the Safeway supermarket chain for £8m. They were subsequently refused planning permission to build a supermarket on the site.
This left the Norwegian owners in something of a bind. Wimbledon were losing money heavily, and were back to square one in terms of finding a permanent home, whether in London, Dublin or elsewhere. In April 2000, Charles Koppel, a South African who knew the Norwegians through power-boat racing – he had been involved in the sale of media rights in the sport – bought Hammam’s remaining shares in the club. It was, perhaps, not an ideal time to be spending £1.5m on such a share-holding. On the third of January 2000, Wimbledon had beaten Sunderland in the Premier League by a goal to nil at Selhurst Park. They would, however, go on to win just two of their remaining seventeen league matches of the season and were dumped out of the FA Cup by a team a division below them, Fulham. Relegation was the inevitable outcome of this form, and the prospects of a quick return to the Premier League were not good.
In August of that year, though, the club was offered a way out. The town of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, sixty miles from Wimbledon, had tried throughout it brief history to establish itself as a venue for a professional football club, and Luton Town and Crystal Palace had, amongst others, been previously approached by a group called The Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, which was fronted by an odd-looking former CBS Records executive called Peter Winkelman but backed by the American supermarket giants Wal-Mart and Ikea. This group started registering domain names – including mkdons.co.uk and mkdons.com – as soon as June 2000, but this proved to be a little premature. The club rejected the proposals, and Winkelman instead approached Queens Park Rangers, who also turned him down. In January 2001, however, Koppel was appointed as chairman of Wimbledon FC and within seven months the story of that club would be coming to its end, while the story of AFC Wimbledon would be just about to begin.
Part Two of this story is now available on the homepage of this site.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
Great article that sums up the recent history of Wimbledon very well.
Never forgive, never forget…
point of order 1 – “They played the gamesmanship card to its fullest – including a sometimes viciously reductionist brand of the game” – to me gamesmanship is diving, feigning injury, and Dave Bassett would never allow that. Point of order 2: On the last day of the 1982/83 season, Wimbledon travelled to Bury needing a win to guarantee promotion from Division Four of the Football League. – err no we didn’t, we were already confirmed champions, it was bury needing a result to go up thank you very much!
Rob, I’d spotted the oversight over the Bury match and have already updated. As for definitions of ‘gamesmanship’, I was referring more to a slightly later era than 1983. What was it that was said to have said in the tunnel prior to the 1988 FA Cup final, for example?
If that was enough to put off the likes of McMahon and the “team of the 80s” then maybe they weren’t as good as people thought they were.
Hi, great article! Just a little more info on the covenant on Plough Lane, which was put there by Sidney Black, who donated the land to the club in the 50’s after buying it from the council. Basically (and simplifying it a bit) the covenant froze the value of the ground at £150,000 plus interest, since Merton Council had first refusal to buy it back if it was used for anything other than sport (for instance, a supermarket)
You’d think this would protect the club and the stadium, but Sam Hammam “somehow” managed to persuade Merton Council that it would be a great idea to purchase the stadium for £150,000 ‘plus costs and handling’ and then immediately allow him to buy it back via them. Of course, Merton didn’t attempt to ringfence the funds or place any other restrictions on the transaction… instead just said “oh yeah, here you go then!”, to which Sam said “Thanks!” and promplty sold to Safeway and pocketed the proceeds for himself.
Morons and wankers.
Come on, Nathan. You know fully well what I mean when I say gamesmanship in relation to “The Crazy Gang” , as a general point.
[…] In part two of our series on the formation and rise of AFC Wimbledon, we rejoin the story in the summer of 2001. With the clubs owners having seen their attempt to move Premier League football to Dublin rejected by the Football Association of Ireland and in turn by the FA, UEFA and FIFA, an entrepreneur has turned up at Selhurst Park with a potential get-out for the loss-making clubs owners. Part one of this series can be seen here. […]
Ian, you are referring to an alleged remark by Jones to Dalglish as a player. It wasn’t 1988 nor at Wembley. It’s probably no more “gamesmanship” than what Vierra and Keane exchanged. I assume Arsenal and Manchester United are also viewed the same as Wimbledon on that basis? No? Thought not.
Also the programme didn’t announce we was leaving. It suggested we might. It was a clever/cowardly move by Hammam. His stock in trade, part cunning dastardly swine and part yellow snide cunt.
Regards Dublin, FIFA had killed that, and we’re recorded as doing so, before the Norwegians bought any stake. Had they put their mind to it, Wimbledon could have build a stadium and built a team in the way future wealthy football virgins across Britain would go on to do. Quite how they were so thick will always puzzle me. That said, I have no such trouble wondering why Charles Koppel resembled a bumbling idiot, it’s what he is. Arguing hard in a meeting with fans that Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday “seemed to both do fine with a groundsheet in place” was typical of his level of football understanding. A weasel if ever I met one (and I was at all club/fan/council meetings with Koppel).
All that aside, you have my thanks for at least speaking about us. It’s appreciated.
Damn that iPad autocorrect and pff to the “no edit available” comment section 😉
Yeah, the editing comments thing is a functionality that I have left out. I’ll amend the original comment.
But anyway, the only point that I was trying to make there was that it is possible to support the supporters without necessarily supporting the team or the way that they go about their business. From a personal perspective, one of the most dispiriting things about what happens on the pitch in the modern game is the gamesmanship – that certainly has more of an effect on grassroots football than any of the other stuff that pundits constantly whinge on about. It’s a point at which I probably diverge from most people on the subject.
On Hammam, yeah, agreed, and if he didn’t show his colours enough at Wimbledon he proved himself beyond doubt at Cardiff. I daresay there’ll be a place for him in the Top 100 Owners thing. The thing is, though, that finding out about this sort of shenanigans was much more difficult in the 1990s than it is now. We have it easy these days, relatively speaking.
The author rightly refers to Ron Noades as “a serial football club owner in South and West London” but conveniently or through ignorance omits to record the fact that he purchased MK City FC in 1979 after they won the Berks and Bucks Senior Cup in front of 2000 fans. After he “abandoned” the club in favour of Crystal Palace in 1981 they went bankrupt. So the chairman of Wimbledon caused the death of a club in Milton Keynes working its way up the leagues… how ironic is that!
Fully aware of Noades’ involvement with that. I usually get criticised enough for articles being too long though!
Not very ironic.
Well done for noticing that Ron Noades isn’t a very nice man or very good for football anywhere.
Not sure what any of that has to do with a League place being used to get a supermarket in MK built.
Nathan – Noades was only in it for the money really, admitting later that he didn’t see much of a fan base in Milton Keynes at the time. The link with later events is that Noades wasn’t the only man involved in 1979, but 3 other WFC board members, including a certain Sam Hamman.
As a general comment, and as a follower of MK Dons, this article perfectly sums up how the real damage was done to WFC. It actually makes me feel sorry for Wimbledon FC supporters from this time, but this is quickly revoked by the fact that AFC Wimbledon only seem interested in what happened after Winklemans involvement. Events after this get caught up in passion, vitriol, and conjecture.