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