Hot-Take Sunday: On Coming Home, After 30 Years Away

by | Aug 15, 2021

It’s well-worn enough to have become something of a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. They said it couldn’t be done. They said that the formation of the club was “not in the wider interests of football”. They said that ever returning to their both literal and spiritual home would be “impossible”. Yesterday at Plough Lane, though, 9,000 people turned out for the first time to see that dreams can come true after all.

As had happened the night before at Brentford, a little further north in West London, the return of AFC Wimbledon to a new stadium initially had to take place behind closed doors. It was, perhaps, one of the crueller ironies of the pandemic, in terms of its effect on football in this country. Both Wimbledon and Brentford have a special link with their supporters. Wimbledon are owned by theirs, and Brentford used to be. Yet both of these clubs had to make their debuts in front of empty stands forced by the biggest public health emergency of our lifetimes.

Considerably greater cruelties have been inflicted elsewhere over the last 18 months, to the point that this in itself felt like just another inconvenience, but for Wimbledon supporters yesterday was the big day, the point at which a stadium move which has been a very long time in the making made its final step towards becoming their new reality.

Their opponents for the match were Bolton Wanderers, a club which has been through a wringer of its own over the last few years. When the two clubs met at Selhurst Park in Division One – now the Championship – in December 2000, just over 6,000 turned out. On this occasion, the crowd was 50% higher, and the Wimbledon have plans for further expansion, with permission already approved to expand Plough Lane’s capacity from 9,200 to 20,000.

And the match itself proved to be an appropriately entertaining first match for fans to attend. Will Nightingale gave Wimbledon the lead after twenty minutes, only for goals from Eoin Doyle, Josh Sheehan and Dapo Afolayan to put Bolton 3-1 up and apparently sailing towards a comfortable win. Wimbledon, however, are not to be discounted at the moment, with impressive wins away to Doncaster Rovers in the league and Charlton Athletic in the League Cup already this season, and in a couple of breathless second half minutes a penalty from Aaron Pressley and a third goal from Dapo Mebude secured a 3-3 draw.

It would be facile to say that the result didn’t matter – this was a League match, how could it not do? – but there was a fundamental point to be made by this fixture that transcended what happened on the pitch. When the FA’s independent commission approved the transfer of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes, they needlessly added that the formation of a new club in Wimbledon would be, “not in the wider interests of football”. These words alone proved to be all the inspiration needed for the band of supporters who’d fought so hard to prevent the club from moving – first to Dublin, then to Milton Keynes – to make it happen.

Wimbledon wasn’t the only club at which this dismissive attitude had to to be faced down by supporters. This summer marked the twentieth anniversary of the first club to be formed by a supporters trust. Enfield Town were formed in June 2001 in frustration after the sale of Enfield FC’s ground by its owner and his failure to build the club a new one, despite many promises to the contrary. There were plenty of doubters there, too, but that club also persisted and, with the supportive of their local council, moved into a ground of their own in 2011.

Enfield have risen, too. Starting their life in the Essex Senior League, they’re now in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League and they started their season yesterday afternoon with a 4-2 win at Carshalton Athletic. Their new ground, just a stone’s throw from their original home at Southbury Road, forms the hub of a club that is very active in its local community and has hosted CONIFA World Championship matches. Their ambitions remain somewhat more modest than those of Wimbledon, but the club has more than vindicated its existence.

There was also plenty of video footage available yesterday of another set of fans to have come from a similarly challenging background. FC United of Manchester were told that they were unnecessary when they formed in 2005 in protest at the direction that modern football was taking, and in particular how this manifested itself in the Glazer leveraged buyout of Manchester United.

A vast fundraising effort eventually led to the opening of Broadhurst Park in 2014, and although there have been bumps in the road since then, the club continues to play in the Northern Premier League. They lost their first league match of the season yesterday, 2-0 at Warrington Town, but the footage of their supporters at the end of the match, for which hundreds had made the short journey from Manchester, served as a reminder that football can be about more than a merely transactional process of winning and losing matches.

There was a point at which it felt as though the battle for the fan ownership of clubs was in full retreat. The dissolution of Supporters Direct and it’s absorption into the Football Supporters Association was a political decision led by the far-right tabloid press, and with the scales tilted firmly in favour of clubs owned by private individuals, fans at some clubs have sold to private investors. It happened at Brentford several years ago. It happened at Wrexham last summer, where Hollywood, in the form of actor Ryan Reynolds and writer Ryan McIlhenny, siren called them.

Sometimes selling up works – at Wycombe, for example, a short period of community ownership ended with the club sailing up to the Championship for a brief spell under a private owner – but sometimes it doesn’t. At Notts County, the club was effectively given to a rich-sounding consortium for nothing, only for it to turn out that said consortium was nothing more than a front for a convicted fraudster. That particular plot fell to pieces after a few months, but under subsequent owners the club lost its EFL status and hasn’t regained it since. Portsmouth were rescued from oblivion by their supporters trust, but sold out several years ago to Disney executive Michael Eisner, only to find that their progress has stalled a little since then. There are no guarantees of success, either way.

We still need to reposition what we mean when we talk about “success”, in terms of football, though. The destination of trophies at the end of each season – with notable exceptions every year, even now – still tends to be primarily be determined by which club will throw the most money at them, and those who aren’t owned by a single, wealthy individual are at a disadvantage when it comes to pouring money onto the bonfires that many clubs’ wage budgets seem to resemble, these days.

These clubs – and plenty more besides – offer a different vision of what a football club might be, though. For Wimbledon supporters, the decision to allow the owners of their club to franchise what belonged to them and move it to Milton Keynes was no less than an act of larceny, the buck-passing of the game’s governing bodies at the time no less than being complicit in this theft. Every step of the way, they’ve had to scrap to get back to the London Borough of Merton, and yesterday’s match was a complete vindication of every single time they ignored those who said it couldn’t be done. Yesterday afternoon, the Dons came home. At a point in the history of the game when more people are giving consideration to what the game should look like than ever before, the story of their success couldn’t be more timely.