Kingstonian On The Move Again

by | Mar 17, 2017

Football protest movements are usually admirable. You wish every good fortune to Millwall and Leyton Orient fans. But Kingstonian fans? Where’s that “head-in-hands” emoji?

Ryman League Kingstonian (Ks) will be ground-sharing at Ryman colleagues Leatherhead next season, for “an indefinite period” before Ks’ potential move to a new ground within Kingston borough. It is a one-year deal with an annual renewal option, dependent on the moves’ progress…or otherwise.

The scenario, announced on February 22nd, is riddled with uncertainties. Ks ground-shared with then-Ryman colleagues Hampton in February 1988. However, our move to Kingston borough’s Kingsmeadow Stadium was already assured then (and completed in August 1989). Our current future isn’t so clearly marked-out.

At our home game on March 4th, fans organised a standard “words-scrawled-on-bedsheets” protest. The sheets said Leatherhead was “too far for indefinite period” (sic) and asked …someone to “please consider the Athletics Stadium” which adjoins Kingsmeadow. But this move has been inevitable for 15 years, so the bedsheets felt like virtue-signalling, especially as so few could read the bloody things from the main stand (what DO they teach kids at Agitprop school these days?).

Kingstonian entered administration and lost the Kingsmeadow lease in October 2001. It was assigned in April 2002 by the administrators to small-time property developers. A potential “buy-back” by Ks’ ex-directors offered sole secured creditors, Barclays Bank, more money. But attached conditions made it less lucrative. The administrators, court-appointed to act for Barclays, were instructed to reject it.

Formed in June 2002, AFC Wimbledon were Kingsmeadow sub-tenants before buying the lease in June 2003, making it their “home” until the return to Wimbledon, their main raison d’etre. Ks secured a 25-year sub-tenancy agreement, with customary break clauses.

In December 2014, Wimbledon announced plans to sell Kingsmeadow to Chelsea, to part-finance their return TO Wimbledon. The Dons Trust, Wimbledon’s (vast) majority shareholders, backed the sale in November 2015.

In January 2015, Ks three-man board, long-briefed by Wimbledon, concluded that Ks’ “best long-term interests…would be served by…leaving Kingsmeadow” for “a stadium better suited to our needs, income and support.” And they added: “Our search for a new facility is well underway and progress has been made.” They “always understood this could happen,” as Ks could not afford to buy Kingsmeadow. And Wimbledon “fully understood” Ks’ position and wanted “to give us (as always) as much moral, practical and financial assistance as possible.”

The Ks board targeted “the summer of 2017” for the move, stressing that “the possible new locations” should remain “confidential as speculation would undermine this process.” And in February 2016 they announced “a few steps forward with one site…the former Chessington Golf Centre,” five miles south of Kingston town.

Co-chairman Mark Anderson’s September 2016 update acknowledged “fans’ increasing frustration with what they perceive as an increasingly distant and non-communicative board.” This was “absolutely not our intention but in all areas vital to (Ks’) future, there is hard work and delicate negotiation.” Anderson noted…correctly that” it is usually very hard to get me to shut up,” (but) “we need to keep negotiations quiet until we can tell you something concrete.”

He could, though, reference “a short list of three” possible groundshares “within the local (sic) of Kingston Borough.” Each had “pros and cons with Friday or Sunday football contemplated in at least one.” And each impressed with their “facilities, professionalism and willingness to provide the things we need.” However, while “we will ask for your opinion (on) our recommendation, as we promised, we cannot, as originally hoped, give you a ballot for which venue you want, as this is not practical with cost and conditions having to remain confidential.”

This January, the board were ready to announce a deal once “certain legal situations” were “clarified” and “agreement of non-disclosure” no longer applied. They recognised “tension around the club” with “one or two out there” having “agendas driven by personal animosity towards us, or with bigger plans. We are absolutely committed to the cause so any notion that we are heading for the hills once this season ends is incorrect.”

And on February 17th, they did announce a “ground and pitch rental” deal with “a local Ryman League club” for 2017/18, “with an ongoing annual renewal dependent upon our progress with a new stadium” and a need for league approval. Fans “in-the-know” translated “local Ryman League club” as Corinthian Casuals, a popular option, as Casuals play three miles from Kingston, with the surely game-changing advantage of the glare from midweek-match floodlights being visible from my front window.

Five days later, the league approved the “short-term solution” of…Leatherhead (those in-the-know…knew Foxtrot Alpha). Unlike alternative venues, the board explained, Leatherhead offered the “important Saturday afternoon at 3pm slot for home games” and they thanked “the Supporters Club” for “a valuable list of priorities to help us make the decision.”

Off-field discontent has been amplified by the team’s late run for relegation (there’s always one…apparently). But even allowing for that, the announcement went down badly. I won’t dignify the ill-informed, vexatious trolls over-populating the “Ks in Point” fans forum with quotation. Yet an astonishing logic also emerged from more articulate fans quoted in the local Surrey Comet newspaper.

“Because people were saying it was going to be Corinthian Casuals, Leatherhead feels like a kick in the teeth,” claimed Jamie Cutteridge, who in 2015 presented an error-strewn, if heartfelt, petition to Kingston Council, urging them to help Ks find a permanent Kingston home (14 years after we lost the last one they found for us). “It’s not in Kingston [town], it’s not in Kingston borough, it’s not even in London. For older fans, it will be quite difficult, for midweek games it will be a nightmare,” he added. Yeah…but apart from that…

Suddenly, one half-hourly 45-minute bus ride to Leatherhead FC’s front-door was a journey to the edge of time. And the Comet moved Leatherhead “ten miles out of the borough,” (it’s three), though this was perhaps due to the dismal effect of outsourcing “local” news away from localities.

However, Corinthian Casuals is a 20-minute bus ride, with a 20-minute walk to finish. And for Ks’ many fans south of the borough, Kingsmeadow is two bus rides, half-an-hour plus waiting time, or one 20-minute bus ride and a 15-minute walk through an ill-reputed high-rise housing estate.

Still, Leatherhead may present off-putting logistical difficulties for the many fans from the borough’s northern hemisphere. So, crowds will likely drop. Anderson told the Comet: “if we produce a good team and an attractive team, people will still come.” But history suggests not. Ks team at Hampton, including ‘confident’ striker Graham Westley (whatever happened…etc…), finished sixth, their highest league position since 1966. But crowds were pitiful. And many fans seem keen to stay away from Leatherhead in protest at the move and the board’s overall performance.

Yet much board criticism is ill-evidenced and misinformed, even when the board has arguably deserved it. For example, the supporters club surveyed fans on groundshare priorities. Proximity to Kingston came top with 59%, followed by bus/rail links. Saturday kick-offs were a distant third, yet became the deal-clincher (although Anderson claims the supporters club told him “playing on a Saturday afternoon” beat “close proximity to Kingston” into second place, which doesn’t sound right at all).

This let fans dismiss the consultations as shams. But it also demonstrated how the reality of Ks’ negotiating position has simply not bitten. The sense remains that Ks could dictate groundshare terms, without demonstrating that our presence would be worthwhile, logistically and/or financially.

The board has slowly addressed fans’ issues. And in a 34-minute chat on You Tube this week, Anderson patiently explained, and resolutely defended, their past and future strategies. During the board’s 11-year tenure, Ks had progressed from having £100,000 debts, mostly tax, (and nearly a second insolvency) to “assets of over £1m,” with “a promotion and a cup win,” while remaining competitive throughout.

“We’ve done pretty well,” he ventured to suggest. Claims of continuing financial bother were “so far off the mark its untrue” and claims of personal financial benefit were incredulously dismissed: “The club doesn’t generate enough cash to pay the players. Where you think we’re trying to get money out is just beyond me.”

He offered some groundshare reality checks: “A lot of people don’t want us (and there are) different appetites to have us as a groundshare.” He admitted Leatherhead was “not the perfect solution” but was surprised that fans were “so hard against it,” despite Leatherhead “providing the whole nine yards for us.” Redeveloping someone else’s ground to meet ground-grading requirements for “maybe one-to-two years” was not “the best way forward.”

And he “considered the Athletics Stadium,” as per bedsheet request. The board had “considered” the venue a “no-no” (a technical planning term?) as it would “take all the money we are getting” to fulfil ground-grading requirements, with the pitch being too small and the changing-rooms too “multi-purpose.” But it has come “back on the table…really recently.” Possibly as part of an overall facility rebuild. And possibly because the bedsheet worked.

He was more optimistic than supporters about the Chessington development, although without bursting into tears on-camera he could hardly have been anything else. The council were “supportive.” But they were “clear on what we need to do to create a situation to allow us to build, (with) extra circumstances above and beyond what would normally be acceptable for planning.”

The convoluted language probably betrayed the convolutions to come, which made his revelation that there were Plans B and C and “a potential D and E” most welcome, although these would involve “another club.” The road to Chessington could be longer than the perceived road to Leatherhead. But, as Anderson has said before, the development “has legs,” a phrase which is not-at-all annoying.

The interview, with Ks fan and local Liberal Democrat councillor Jon Tolley, also covered Ks’ youth and ladies’ teams, community-club status…and some disturbing revelations about directors’ suntans and socks. But it’s a must-see, catchily-entitled Mark Anderson on the Leatherhead move and the future of Kingstonian.

Some Ks fans will continue complaining. The unimpressed on the “Ks in Point” remain unimpressed. But blaming everyone else hasn’t served any purpose in YEARS (you are as well blaming Donald Trump as the Dons for losing Kingsmeadow, given the chronology, and they are not obliged to spend a penny on our relocation costs, let alone contribute significantly to them).

My idea for a big finish to this article, “if Ks die, the blood will be on no-ones’ hands but ours” was ab bit melodramatic. And “Arthur Haynes” put it way better in the Comet. Ks fans “cannot expect to have everything handed to them on a plate. A sense of entitlement seems to prevail amongst a few of them. It is up to the supporters to keep it going.” Exactly.

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