Kingsmeadow, Wimbledon & Kingstonian: An Alternative View

by | Dec 15, 2015 | Latest, Non-League

Ian’s article on the future of my club, Kingstonian, got to press as I was writing a similar piece. I could not have bettered Ian’s work – he should really be winning awards for this sort of thing.   But even Ian fell foul of one or two of the misinformation traps which the story has set. So I’ve got at least some excuse for flinging my righteous indignation your way.

Recently, I’ve watched as the club I’ve supported for thirty-three-and-a-half years has come under apparently fatal threat. Halfway through those years, such a situation would occupy my thoughts in every available waking hour. Now? I care less obsessively. Yet I have been shocked by how unaware and ill-prepared some at Kingstonian (Ks) have been for AFC Wimbledon receiving planning permission to build a ground on the old Wimbledon FC’s Plough Lane site. It is worth re-iterating (and italicising) that this was the whole point of AFC Wimbledon existing in the first place. Because, as Ian implied, Ks’ pre-planning for the eventuality appears to have been threadbare. Possibly within the boardroom and certainly among the fan base.

I must first, though, confirm where I’m coming from on this. I am quite delighted Ks are leaving Kingsmeadow Stadium. The move from Ks old Richmond Road ground in the 1980s was designed to upgrade facilities to Conference standard, while making significant profits on selling the old ground and buying the lease to the new one, at Norbiton (remember that location) Sports Ground. For reasons which could fill a book, the second part of that plan failed. And while the first part succeeded, there were many reasons not to like our new home. A mile from Kingston town, Kingsmeadow was served by a bus route for which the timetable was only a gesture. And while such a distance was walkable for a twenty-something (even an unfit one such as myself), it involved a potentially fraught journey through a notorious local housing estate – I was once halted on my journey back from an evening fixture by a policeman radioing a colleague: “I have sight of the suspect, the one who isn’t armed.”

The ground was, from scratch, symptomatic of the dreadful way Ks was run throughout the 1990s. When I was asked to support the naively-futile campaign to prevent the ground’s Kingston Road (“home”) End from re-development by Wimbledon in 2013, my canvasser was genuinely shocked by my willingness to “tear the f***ing thing down with my bare hands if I could.” In 1989, the over-shallow terracing offered a poor view when any crowd of significance gathered, obstructed further by a whopping water tank behind the goal, which was supposed to be elsewhere but was “forgotten.” Efforts were made in the 1990s to deepen the terracing and stick a roof over it to create some atmosphere. Ks’ Kingsmeadow fanbase has never been small for the Ryman League but they’ve never been loud either, outsung by any half-dozen-strong travelling support with exhibitionist tendencies and medium-sized quantities of alcohol in their bloodstreams.

However, the roof was a joke, part of a £27,000 job which many credible builders looking at it said they’d have “done for eight.” And when Ks steepened the terracing at the other end during their brief spell in the top half of the Conference at the turn of the century, the safety capacity of the smaller end remained higher. For those reasons and more, I’ll be glad to be shot of the place. But this is only part of the reason why I’ve been irked by the reaction of Ks fan-campaigners and, to a small extent, the board to the club’s “new” situation.

News broke a year ago that Wimbledon were “in discussions” to sell Kingsmeadow to Chelsea, subject to approval of their Plough Lane return. However, it was clear that these discussions were far advanced and that Kingstonian remaining at Kingsmeadow was not part of them, given that the ground was the proposed home of Chelsea’s youth and ladies’ teams. Indeed, Kingstonian were merely “briefed” on the discussions. As boards almost seem contractually-obliged to do, they found the “speculation” which arose from the press reports “unhelpful.” But it was largely accurate. “After much long and careful thought” they had concluded “that the best long-term interests of our club would be served by us taking this opportunity to leave Kingsmeadow” for a more suitable (i.e. smaller) site. And they were considering ground-sharing options, including fellow Ryman Leaguers Hampton or Corinthian Casuals, while this site was being sought and developed.

Neither proposal was objectionable. Indeed, Ks shared at Hampton for 15 months while waiting for Kingsmeadow’s completion. Corinthian Casuals was a splendid idea and NOT just because their ground is…well…just over my shoulder there (honest!)…you’d be able to see the floodlights at night if it wasn’t for that bloody tree in next door’s garden… er… anyway… It remains unclear what was available to think “long and carefully” about, given that leaving Kingsmeadow was inevitable and timetabled by events beyond their influence. This has led to some criticism of the board as slow and reactive, responding only to these discussions rather than tightly-marking Wimbledon’s “journey home.”

Some of these concerns were allayed at a supporters’ open meeting in October, although new concerns arose from the menstrual cycle of a gap between press revelations and said briefing. One important clarification was that Ks would receive two payments from Wimbledon. The first was compensation for Wimbledon activating the break clause in the 25-year agreement over the terms under which Ks play at Kingsmeadow. This, the board reported, would help pay “most of the (club’s) outstanding debts” (Ks are, at this season’s halfway point, genuine title contenders, and such a team isn’t paid for by crowds averaging under 300). And the board would write off “any outstanding directors’ loan balances” not covered by the compensation, for which perhaps more credit is due to whoever negotiated that than has currently been given. The second was a straightforward donation by Wimbledon, described as “many multiples” of the compensation. More than one source has quoted £1.5m as the total figure, with the donated portion ring-fenced for future ground arrangements.

A more detailed open meeting is promised for early 2016. Judgment on the board’s handling of the situation should be reserved until then. As Ian wrote, “some people might” indeed “consider that the board should have acted somewhat more decisively before now.” I certainly wouldn’t “consider” anything further than that. Whether or not the board have been “slow and reactive,” supporters certainly have been. Ks fans have been strongly apolitical for over a decade. The supporters club is good at what it does. But it doesn’t do politics. So Ian’s suggestion that Ks board “do not seem to speak for the overwhelming majority of supporters” in wanting to leave Kingsmeadow is purely speculative.

Ks did have a supporters trust, formed in 2003 in the hope of forging a close working relationship between Ks and Wimbledon, with aspirations towards mirroring the trust-ownership structure. The Ks Trust failed, largely because at a time when sensitivity and skilled negotiations were required, the Trust chair’s diplomatic skills were more pre-menstrual tension then UN peacekeeping. He didn’t trust Ks then-owner, Rajesh Khosla, as far as he could throw him – a theory he more than once felt like testing. And rightly so, to the point where he could fill a 24-page fanzine with contrasts between Khosla’s words and deeds However, he was hopeless. All of which I can say with certainty and without fear of legal retribution because I’m not about to sue myself. My subsequent efforts to merge the constitutions of supporters club and trust into an effective representative body met with widespread indifference. But that indifference has proven unwise, leaving Ks fans without a pro-active representative body holding the board to account if required (see “published accounts” below).

The board see Ks future as a “community-owned club” (which may explain the donation from Wimbledon) by a “target date of 2016/17.”. And liaison has begun with Supporters Direct’s club development manager James Mathie (I’ve heard of him, so he must be good). However, the task will be huge, although quite how huge is unclear as the club hasn’t published accounts to fans for some years (see “holding the board to account” above). Campaigners to safeguard Ks’ future have emerged from the more enlightened fans who so splendidly brought Ks to the forefront of the recent “refugees welcome” movement. And while they are an intelligent, likeable bunch, their campaigning so far has been pock-marked with schoolboy errors, a prime example being the petition to Kingston Council which erroneously claimed that the Kingsmeadow freehold was being sold.

They have also had surprising difficulty with the Kingsmeadow lease obligation that the stadium must be used for “senior football.” There is no commitment within it to Kingstonian or any specific club inside or outside the borough. Had the council wished to undermine Ks fans’ campaigning, the petition gave them ammunition to spare. Fortunately, the council are not so-minded. I addressed lot of these misconceptions when the Trust was formed but my anger at these repeat mistakes is tempered by the realisation that many new campaigners were schoolkids then. I’m old.

More disturbing is the opposition to taking Kingstonian out of the town. Reaction to Ks rumoured potential move to South Chessington (near the railway station serving Chessington’s World of Adventures) has led to a belief that Wimbledon’s move to their home borough resulting in Kingstonian having to leave theirs. But while Chessington is at the very south of the borough (in the phallic looking sticky-out bit of south-west London) it is within it and only three miles from Kingston town. One fan, clearly unaware that I live in Hook, in the Chessington postal district, said he wouldn’t watch Ks in Chessington, which was especially odd as Ks don’t currently play in Kingston town (NORBITON Sports Ground, remember?).

Chessington’s status as an unwanted location (hinted at in fan Jamie Cutteridge’s well-written, if flawed, article in the latest When Saturday Comes) is predicated on Ks being the town’s club, not the borough’s. The many Hook and Chessington-based Ks fans would object to that concept. Meanwhile, an undercurrent of mistrust of Wimbledon still rears its ugly head among fans. Many still call Wimbledon “squatters” (“leaseholders” I reply, to a WOOLWICH Arsenal fan with no sense of irony). This even manifested itself in support for the Milton Keynes franchise, which defies words.

At such times, I often thought that Ks fanbase was split right down the middle, between those who saw Wimbledon as the best option for a Kingstonian in otherwise dire straits (me) and those who thought them hypocrites and usurpers who were too big for their boots and would steal Ks fanbase and ultimately destroy the club (everyone else).

Even Jamie’s article suggested a “cruel irony” in “AFC Wimbledon’s long-term impact on Kingstonian” being “the removal of a much-loved football club from their historical home.” This is untrue on a number of levels, and his assertion that “there was an unspoken assumption that Kingstonian would take back control of Kingsmeadow when Wimbledon returned “home”” was industrial-scale naïveté. That Jamie put inverted commas around “home” is as puzzling as his hints at darker motives for Wimbledon’s conduct. “No-one knows how much the Dons Trust knew about Khosla’s plans,” he says, apropos of absolutely nothing, adding that “a sale of Kingsmeadow that leaves Ks homeless would see Wimbledon falling short of the high standards their fine history has set.” And the idea of Kingsmeadow as a “historical home” is emotive nonsense. Kingstonian played at Richmond Road from 1919 to January 1988. There’s “historical.” Ks only owned the Kingsmeadow lease from 1989 until entering administration in October 2001. I did like Jamie’s article, though. No… really.

Ks future is uncertain. But it has been uncertain since administration and Wimbledon have done little to exacerbate Ks’ problems. I’m one of the “some” that, Ian wrote, “argue that Kingstonian have only been able to continue for as long as they have as a result of (Wimbledon’s) munificence.” Perhaps my detachment from the situation has bred some of this optimism. Indeed, I accept that I may be alone again in my views. But I believe Wimbledon have given Ks the opportunity of a future by the way in which they have framed the Kingsmeadow sale. And Ks, fans and directors alike, should grab it.

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