Wimbledon: When The “Banter” Backfires

by | Dec 7, 2018

In his 2007 autobiography “Ollie”, Ian Holloway described the atmosphere in the Wimbledon changing room towards him after he joined the club from Bristol Rovers in 1985. At that particular time, Holloway was unable to spend much time ingratiating himself with the “Crazy Gang” mentality of the club. Instead, he spent as much time as he could with the girlfriend that he’d had since the age of fourteen, who was then being treated with chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer.

“What’s it like dating a baldy bird?” was one of the comments in reference to Kim’s chemotherapy. Wally Downes and a couple of others found that funny and in later years I would confront him about it. He has since apologised, but it was clear we were never destined to be great mates.

Holloway’s time at Plough Lane, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t last for very long.

In the years since then, the story of the Crazy Gang has passed into English football’s folklore. In the space of less than ten years, Wimbledon went from becoming the last club to be voted into the Football League to holding down a regular place in the top flight and winning the FA Cup. From the perspective of the supporter of a smaller club it’s an appealing story, a bunker mentality pushed to its limit and the moulding of a team that gatecrashed the party and then stayed for a decade and a half. That Wimbledon supporters should continue to feel so closely related to the players with whom they made that journey is completely understandable. Over the course of the last thirty-three years, though, football and the world has moved on – or has sought to move on, or has publicly stated that it has, or is, trying to move on – from the pretty horrible bullying culture exemplified in Ian Holloway’s autobiography.

It’s not entirely clear that Wally Downes did, though. It would be easier to write off these pretty horrible comments as youthful exuberance from thirty-three years ago were it not for the fact that his Twitter account, now deleted, was still serving up occasional spoonfuls of lukewarm bile to anybody who wanted it as recently as a couple of months ago. In September, for example, he tweeted a homophobic joke about gay rights legislation in India using the hashtag “#RainbowLacesTurbans.” On other occasions there were retweets – and let’s not forget that, unless specifically identified otherwise, retweets are generally considered to be endorsements – of such luminaries as Katie Hopkins (in which Hopkins claimed that the UK allows “half of Africa” enter via our immigration system), telling Piers Morgan that “Muslims need a reformation, it is stuck 500 years behind us!”, and asking his Twitter followers whether it would be “offensive” to refer to the actor Sir Ian McKellan as “a lovely old poof.”

The infantilism of the “Crazy Gang” dressing room carries a long tail then, it would seem. And this forms a part of the reason why none of Downes’ previous matters, at least according to the long-standing Wimbledon blog SW19’s Army, who stated earlier this week that his Twitter account contained “maybe a bit ignorant, and/or ill-judged attempts to be funny”, before adding that “I’d be surprised if a working class lad from West London of that era didn’t have similar views” (which doesn’t say much for the writer’s opinion of working class men from West London), whilst those who have been critical of the appointment are “Franchise fans/SJW types” and “by the time Friday comes it will be forgotten by everyone except the obsessive types.” Othering can so convenient, in situations such as this.

All of this led to a fairly unusual managerial unveiling, earlier this week. Kick It Out issued a statement in which they said that, “We have been speaking to the club over the last few days and expressed our serious concerns over some of the tweets from Wally Downes”, whilst the club itself had to address the matter in their club statement confirming his appointment into position as the club’s manager:

During the recruitment process we became aware of some use of social media by Wally that is not consistent with our values. We have talked at length with Wally about this, who has accepted that these messages were ill-judged and he has assured us they do not represent his views.

In the light of these discussions, we are satisfied that these do not represent Wally’s views. We have agreed a series of actions with Wally that we believe will demonstrate his commitment to the club’s values.

This particular non sequitur has become increasingly commonplace in recent times. It frequently feels – and has been commented upon elsewhere extremely recently – that no-one’s sexism, racism or homophobia is ever a representation of their actual views, these days. It’s always “just banter.” It’s always a joke. There can be no other meaning. And if there’s a chance that it might not be “banter”… the man who tweets something racist and sexist is never responsible for their own behaviour or language. It’s always everyone else’s fault, interpreting the exact words he typed, said, or amplified through social media incorrectly. Of course it is.

That said, Downes has apologised unreservedly for his tweets and the club has accepted his apology. The club – which has a history of being on the right side of discussions such of this, all of which makes this week’s events all the more jarring – has promised “a series of actions” to address his previous indiscretions which we assume they will make public to those amongst their support left uneasy by this appointment. If there is a silver lining to this appointment for those troubled by it, though, the decision does at least seem to have blown a few cobwebs from a club that had started to look a little moribund of late, one place off the foot of the League One table and separated from the very bottom only on goal difference by the surprisingly dismal Bradford City, following a narrow escape at the end of last season, which required a seven game unbeaten run at the end in order to scramble up to eighteenth place in the table and avoid relegation back to League Two after just one season.

There were some who wondered at the wisdom of sacking former manager Neal Ardley following a couple of wins, even if they did only come in the EFL Trophy and away to a club from the Isthmian League Premier Division in the FA Cup. That FA Cup win, though, summed up how things have been for Wimbledon so far this season and why Ardley ran out of luck shortly afterwards. They relied on a very late goal to win at Haringey Borough and could hardly have been said to have dominated the eighty-nine minutes prior to Mitchell Pinnock’s late winning goal, either. Following his departure came a narrow win against Southend United in the league – a first league win following eight consecutive defeats stretching back to the start of October – another defeat in the league, away to Peterborough United, and an FA Cup Second Round win at Halifax Town last weekend.

Downes has a reasonably decent reputation as a coach and his only previous managerial experience – at Brentford, between 2002 and 2004 – was unspectacular if not calamitous, so maybe he will prove to have the chops to keep the club in League One this season. But these skeletons in the closet aren’t necessarily – as some Wimbledon supporters appear to hope will happen – going to go away quickly. These aren’t the 1980s any more. The era of today’s news being tomorrow’s chip wrappers is over – statements made in public tend to stay in the public domain for a very long time whether the person who made them wants them to or not.

This is why it is important that both Downes and the club come good on the promises made this week. All the rainbow laces in the world are ultimately worth precious little if, a few days after wearing them, you appoint someone who has been making homophobic comments on social media, unless all concerned are at the very least prepared to acknowledge that this behaviour was wholly unacceptable, even if the statements actually were somehow made entirely in jest, and then act upon this acknowledgement. Both Downes and Wimbledon have come good on the former, but without the latter, their conciliatory words this week won’t take long to sound a little hollow.