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.
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