10 Years Of AFC Wimbledon: Part Two – Salt In The Wound

By on May 30, 2012 in Latest, Politics | 13 comments

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.

The offer to move Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes had first been made by Winkelman following the clubs relegation from the Premier League in the summer of 2000. It was rejected by the club, but by July 2001 the offer had been agreed. How, though, had this come about? With the benefit of hindsight, there were probably three reasons. Firstly, the sale Wimbledon FC by Sam Hammam to the Norwegians in 1997 hadn’t been the sale of a “club” as English football supporters might understand it. There is little to suggest that either of the Norwegians had the faintest interest in Wimbledon FC as an institution in its own right, rather that they had paid £25m for a Premier League place – in other words, a “franchise.” Their sudden need to sell after the clubs tumble from the Premier League in 2000 probably reflects this, at least in part.

Secondly, the drop from the Premier League only amplified the losses that the club was already making. Without Premier League television money and commercial revenues, and with crowds having dropped significantly following relegation, the amount of money having to be put into it keep it afloat suddenly went from being substantial to colossal. Thirdly, there was the arrival of Charles Koppel as a share-holder and his subsequent appointment as chairman of the club. Koppel, like the Norwegians, had little or no previously recorded interest in this particular club and his appointment as chairman at the start of 2001 likely sealed the deal in terms of the clubs desire to abandon everything to move. Whatever the reasons, a fractious board meeting in July 2001 ended in Koppel getting his way and at the start of August 2001 the club wrote to the Football League requesting permission to move to Milton Keynes.

The Football Leagues response to application was simple and quick. They met on the sixteenth of August 2001 and their answer was no. If Milton Keynes wanted League football, it should “progress through the pyramid”, adding that “franchised football” would be “disastrous” for the game. In other words, the non-league pyramid had been established in the late 1970s and early 1980s in order to create a meritocracy in football. Indeed, the very fact that Wimbledon had played fourteen seasons in the top division when it had been playing in the Southern League as recently as 1977 was validation of the establishment of the pyramid in itself, even if the club had joined the League under the old system of re-election. What made Milton Keynes any different to any other town that was looking for a place in the top two divisions of the English game? It’s a question that has never been convincingly answered.

This time, though, after its defeat over Dublin, Koppel wasn’t taking no for an answer. The club appealed and the Football League, concerned at the possibility of spiraling legal expenses, passed the matter over to the FAs arbitration service. The FAs first panel sat at the beginning of 2002, and consisted of a barrister, Charles Hollander QC, and two football men, David Dein of Arsenal and Douglas Craig of York City. If Wimbledon supporters had concerns over these appointments, they weren’t without justification. Dein had recently tried to buy Wembley Stadium and move Arsenal there while Craig, just weeks earlier, had confirmed that he was evicting York City from its Bootham Crescent home and selling the land upon which it stood to a housing developer.

This panel, however, ducked answering the main question and passed it back to the Football League, although they did state that the Football Leagues original verdict had “not been properly taken in the legal sense, and that the procedures had not been fair” and ask a question that seems utterly alien to the eyes of any genuine football supporter: “Is it better for Wimbledon Football Club to go into administration than to permit a move to Milton Keynes?” The Football League requested that the FA set up an independent commission to review the case. In this case, the arbitration system outweighed the approval or otherwise of both the FA and the Football League. This was the cost of keeping English football out of the courts and safe from the ire of FIFA or UEFA. Another three man panel was set up – Alan Turvey of the Ryman Football League, Steve Stride, a director of Aston Villa, and Raj Parker, a commercial solicitor. Meanwhile, with discontent now having turned to angry protest, Wimbledon finished its first season back in the Football League in eight place, just below the play-off places for a return to the Premier League.

The FAs independent commission sat for four days in May 2002, and released its verdict on the twenty-eighth of that month. By two votes to one, the commission voted in favour of allowing the move. Alan Turvey, the non-league man, is understood to have been the man who voted against it. To say that it was a contentious decision would be something of an understatement. The FA indicated that it had recommended to the commission that it should reject proposal and the FAs Chief Executive, Adam Crozier, described the verdict as an “appalling decision.” In spite of this, though, the governing body still stated that their decision was final and binding. Some of the reasons that the panel gave for allowing the decisions were somewhere between nonsensical and, with the benefit of a few years’ hindsight, indicates that they had been fed a pack a pledges by Koppel and the Milton Keynes consortium that were either false or would end up not happening. Here’s a sample, with our responses, ten years after event, in bold:

We do not believe, with all due respect, that the Club’s links to the community around the Plough Lane site or in Merton are so profound, or the roots go so deep, that they will not survive a necessary transplant to ensure WFC’s survival. Survival in what sense? As a football club or as a business? The panel clearly felt that the latter was more important than the former. Concerns over the club entering into administration were rendered irrelevant in any case when Wimbledon FC did enter administration in June of 2003.

 

We believe that it can be fairly stated that finding WFC a home in MK will add considerable value to a large community starved of First Division football. In that case, Milton Keynes should have founded its club at the bottom, as any other town in England would have to do, and built its way up. The town might even have earnt respect from others for doing this. As it stands, in football terms Milton Keynes remains a football pariah ten years after the event. 

 

We do not wish to see clubs attempting to circumvent the pyramid structure by ditching their communities and metamorphosising in new, more attractive areas. Nor do we wish, more than any football authorities or supporters, for franchise football to arrive on these shores. The widespread franchising of football in England has, thankfully, not happened. But if these were the sentiments of the community, why reach a verdict that may have given precedent for it to happen again in the future? These words are no more than a feeble attempt at pacification, a pathetic and half-hearted attempt to claim some sort of moral legitimacy.

 

Milton Keynes provides a suitable and deserving opportunity in its own right where none exists in South London. If none did exist in South London (a preposterous argument to start with – the population of the London Borough of Merton is similar to that of the town of Milton Keynes), it is arguable that this may be because its ground was taken away from it by its then-owner. A suitable and deserving opportunity may, in the fullness of time, have presented itself to Milton Keynes City FC, but this club folded in the summer of 2003 due to a lack of funding.  

 

Mr Koppel has made it clear to us and publicly that WFC is committed to taking practical steps in relation to transport and maintaining WFC’s identity… it is committed to its name, Wimbledon FC, its colours, its traditions. It is committed to retaining its identity. Well, we all know what happened there. We know that the domain names relating to the name “MK Dons” were purchased by Peter Winkelman in 2000. Was Charles Koppel aware of this? We also, with the benefit of hindsight, now know that the Wimbledon name was dropped as soon as 2004 and that the MK Dons name – which retains the nickname of the old club, a considerable insult to all associated with AFC Wimbledon in itself – was adopted as quickly as possible.

 

There is no doubt that WFC has got to its current league position through sporting merit and achievement, in accordance with the fundamental principles of the pyramid structure. In the event that WFC were to go into liquidation, player registration would revert to the Football League and another club, most probably Brentford FC, would take WFC’s place in Division One for next season, not on its own sporting merit but as a result of WFC’s predicament. Quite what this has to do with the rights and wrongs of moving Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes is, quite frankly, anybody’s guess. Teams benefiting from the misfortune of others has long one of the side-effects of football clubs’ inability to manage themselves.

This final remark, however, was the one that would come to live the longest in the memory:

Furthermore, resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, ‘Wimbledon Town‘, is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so that they could go back to their position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football.

This final paragraph would enter into football infamy – so inflammatory, so antagonistic, so… unnecessary. Not only had a panel commissioned by the FA (of all people) reached the conclusion that in this case the ill-advised investment of a small group of individuals with no apparent prior interest in the game was more important than the traditions of a one hundred and thirteen year old football club or its supporters – no matter how many of them there may have been: that argument, which is still occasionally raised by those seeking to defend all of this, is a fundamentally disingenuous one, but for those supporters to regroup and reform at the bottom was, somehow or other, “not in the wider interests of football.” These were the weasel words of the contemptuous, the ultimate insult, not just to the supporters of Wimbledon FC but to all football supporters, especially when we bear in mind that Peter Winkelman had also touted his business plan around other clubs both before and after Wimbledon originally said thanks but no thanks. They are words that should never be forgotten and will now likely never be forgotten. We will never know whether they returned to haunt those that uttered them nine years later. It is to be hoped that they did. At the end of May 2002, they meant a lot and they hurt a lot. Fortunately, though, those very supporters that had been so casually dismissed by the establishment of English football had a Plan B, and on the thirtieth of May that plan began to come together.

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    13 Comments

  1. “Wimbledon finished its first season back in the Football League in eight place, just below the play-off places for a return to the Premier League.”

    It was Wimbledon’s second season in (the then) Divsion 1 of the Football League, now erroneously called the “Championship”.

    Nathan

    May 31, 2012

  2. “we are of the view that the pyramid structure is better served by giving WFC the opportunity to survive, albeit in a new conurbation.” Yep. That 3 Man Commission report is just full of amazingly idiotic comments.
    Raj Parker and Steve Stride should start a comedy duo.

    SW19 Womble

    May 31, 2012

  3. Good work again, Ian, but your assumptions about the rationale and motives for the Norwegian fishermen buying WFC gives them more credit than they deserve. The truth is more startling. At the time, Rokke and Gjelsten were two of the richest men in Europe. Having bought Molde in Norway, they wanted a new toy in the sexier English Premiershit. They lost out by just a matter of days in bidding to buy Leeds and then turned their attention to Wimbledon. Sham Hammam, despite being a shyster, could also be charismatic and persuasive and he convinced them a move to Dublin was in the bag. All it would ,ave taken was one phone call to the FAI but, like spoilt, rich brats, they wanted this new toy and they wanted it now. Zero due diligence was done and they paid Sham £25m for, as you rightly say, sweet FA. Even worse, considering they were supposed to be hard-headed businessmen and self-made billionaires, they left Sham in charge. For the first time he had (someone else’s) money to spend so there was the bizarre purchase of John Hartson for £7m. This by a club whose MO was to buy rough diamonds, polish them up and sell them on, along with our home-grown produc,, so it always broke even.

    Sham was finally booted out, with a further pay-off, and the fishermen brought in Koppel as their tame monkey. The penny had dropped that they’d been duped by Sham and they were seething. They wanted out, hoping to recoup at least some of their losses, and they didn’t care how they did it. Up pops Winkleman still seeking a club which would allow Asda/Walmart to build him a stadium/concert venue and this time he finds a kindred spirit. Amazingly, the premiershit would not countenance a franchised club so staying down in Division 2 (old money) was paramount. Even after the departures post-relegation, the remaining team had an excellent chance of going straight back up but Koppel sold whoever he could and loaned others to teams we were due to play without the usual restrictions. Concurrently, the stupid spending really started. Koppel hired an investment banker mate (not cheap), extra security for himself (so ironic), spent gawd knows how much on PR companies, law firms, etc, etc. The “we’re losing £X per week” which seemed to rise exponentially was dutifully accepted by the majority of the press and writs were issued with gusto to any of them even thinking of reporting differently, along with various fans’ organisations.

    Sorry for the long post!

    LadyWomble

    May 31, 2012

  4. Never forgive, never forget – is still in constant use among the fanbase. Its not evidence of an inability to ‘move on’ as our detractors would like to think. Its a badge of honour for our sheer determination and self drive that takes us forward. F### em all.

    Carshalton Don

    June 1, 2012

  5. That pointless £7m for John Hartson (Kinnear and Redknapp kick-backs and all) would have been infinitely better spent buying Plough Lane back from Safeways.

    Nathan

    June 1, 2012

  6. The stand out thread through these articles is the claim that Milton Keynes is to blame for the demise of Wimbledon FC!

    Lets forget the managements constant complaints about the lack of support from the people of Wimbledon

    Lets forget the role of Sam Hamman

    Lets forget the role of Merton Council in selling the restrictive covenant to an asset stripper

    Lets forget the 50% drop in support following relegation from the PL

    Lets forget the fact that the Wombles had been homeless for 10 years

    Lets forget the £35m debt the club had built up

    Lets blame Milton Keynes!! SHAME ON YOU!

    FOMK

    June 1, 2012

  7. Both the covenant and Hamman are covered in the article, £35m is a made up figure and the truth easily supported by figures with-held by the club / consortium during the commission, and what have crowd size and lack of support got to do with allowing the move of a football club?

    Treating football solely as a business is completely ignoring the existing and historic fan-base and community and is one of the biggest issues facing football today, from the Premiership down.

    Try and defend Milton Keynes all you like, but they were implicit in the move via the MK Consortium with Winkleman, ASDA Walmart and the Council all protagonists, aided by a few strangers passing through the club’s 100+ year old hierarchy.

    So now we are left with a private company owning the stadium and leasing it to a loss-making football club still playing one level below where it started, and a fan owned club with its own stadium and a small, controlled debt that’s been promoted 5 times in ten years. I know which side of the fence I’d rather be on.

    Bert

    June 2, 2012

  8. Quite simply the formation of AFC was the realisation of a long held dream of certain members of WISA to form their own club. Nothing more, nothing less. No harm in that but lets not lose sight of the fact that the proposed move to MK set the wheels in motion for them to realise that dream of their own club. Could they have fought it, you say? Well, try telling the fans of Charlton & Brighton that solutions can’t be found.

    They had an opportunity to purchase WFC and passed it up because it was easier to start all over again rather than take on the enourmous debts. Again, nothing wrong in that and completely understandable in the circumstances but I wish fans of AFCW would stop peddling the myth that the club could ever have been viable in it’s former guise as WFC. It wasn’t, and the FA Comission were at least honest enough to admit

    Bald Eagle

    June 2, 2012

  9. The club was viable as WFC, albeit by the unpleasant route of Administration, thus writing off the debts, which of course happened eventually anyway.

    One of the key things to remember about Wimbledon was that it was really a Division 4 club even if it was playing in Division 1 or Division 2. That was the underlying support level and that was largely the ethos of the club, which is not a criticism. It should have gradually settled back to that level, playing somewhere like errrm Kingsmeadow, if no suitable stadium in Wimbledon was available.

    I’m unconvinced that members of WISA particularly wanted their own club and by your argument they could have had that by buying the old Wimbledon and putting it in administration.

    As for MK, it is pointless to blame the people of MK. Most of them still continue to show admirable apathy over Franchise. They couldn’t be expected to cast their votes for councillors on the basis of whether a football club was being uprooted. One can of course still blame “infectiously enthusiastic” Pete – or should that be enthusiastically infectious? – and the councillors at the time.

    Geoff

    June 2, 2012

  10. Bald Eagle – you’re right about a few WISA members having the dream of owning a football club – who indeed doesn’t? Yes it was a perfect storm, and for once, dreams became reality (just as happened at Chester City, occasionally these plans have to be put in place) they soon manoeuvred themselves into those positions, and good luck to them for that. They, along with hundreds of other fans, stepped up to the mark: we even had an accountant from PriceWaterhouseCoopers take early retirement to help steer the ship.
    The skillsets were there, whether they were WISA or not.
    One thing that is patently untrue is that the Nogs would have _ever_ sold the club. Both WISA and then The Dons Trust were routinely snubbed by the ownership: any attempts to buy into the club, even in its alleged financial death throws, were dismissed (strange, when you would have thought they’d be desperate for any extra income). The Nogs, through Koppel, had a battle plan – they didn’t mind chucking an extra few hundred thousand in to deliberately steer the ship onto a shallow financial reef and then claim “help help! we’re drowning!”
    And yet, they didn’t, did they?
    They somehow managed to limp along for another two years at Selhurst Park, in a far, far worse position than 2001-02. Sold the club, when the time was right, to their “preferred bidder” Pete Winkleman, who moved the club into a makeshift, rented stadium at the National Hockey Stadium (what happened to the hockey teams?). Then finally moved into their shiny property development in Denbigh. And they’re renting that too.
    I knows it’s difficult for you to appreciate how much Koppel and the Nogs treated the fans with a dismissiveness and callousness. You only have to ask the few minority shareholders in WFC Ltd how the Nogs treated them – in arranging SGMs and votes and meetings. For a stretch of over 15 years, chairmen such as Ron Noades, Sam Hammam and Charles Koppel had attempted to merge (with Crystal Palace) or move (to Dublin, Celtic or Milton Keynes) the club.
    But yeah, you know best.
    We could have stopped it yet again, this time going up against the FA, the Football League, presumably UEFA and FIFA too, if we’d _really_ wanted to.
    I bet the Nogs would have hung around for another five, six, seven years and not done anything spoilt and selfish – like deliberately destroy the club – in the meantime.
    The Nogs weren’t playing fair, you have to understand that.

    SW19 Womble

    June 2, 2012

  11. Bald Eagle:

    “it was easier to start all over again rather than take on the enourmous debts.”

    You mean those enormous debts that were almost totally wiped out by administration just a year later (in 2003)?

    I would have thought a Palace fan would know all about avoiding debts via repeated administrations…

    Nathan

    June 7, 2012

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