AFC Wimbledon: For You, Fella
AFC Wimbledon’s promotion to League One on Monday afternoon provided a fitting end to a season that has, perhaps, seen more good news stories than most, of late. However, an argument over who would take a last minute penalty at Wembley caused discomfort for some, and it prompted Charlie Talbot to give consideration to the contrasting departure of two very different players from the club.
As an AFC Wimbledon fan, Monday was brilliant, obviously. It was also in a very literal sense overwhelming. The sight of 23,000 Wimbledon fans at Wembley in the the FA’s own stadium – a yellow and blue refutation of every mealy mouthed “not in the wider interests” provocation. Playing for a place in the third tier of English football having started at the bottom of the entire pyramid only fourteen years earlier, itself an even clearer refutation of Winkleman’s lies about how it wasn’t possible for Milton Keynes to win a league place on merit. As for the match, well, the only kind of game it hadn’t occurred to me to consider was one in which we dominated and the biggest concern would be whether or not we would regret not killing the opposition off earlier. Given the stage and the stakes it was among the least stressful games of the season.
But something has been bothering me. We need to talk about Callum. Callum Kennedy – or, for any non-Wimbledon fans who watched the end of the game, the losing half of the unedifying penalty ball-grab spat. I can’t really do that without this becoming an article about someone else too, but it’s precisely their hogging of the wider story-line that’s been niggling at me, so let’s come to that later. In the grand scheme of things, left-back gets released by League Two club by (sort of) mutual consent is not massive news. Neal Ardley said all the nice things you would expect a manager to say, some of which may even be true. Maybe we are so altruistic as to not want a player in their mid-twenties to wither away on the fringes of our squad and on the bench. More plausibly, we have some signings in the pipeline that the manager considers an upgrade in the full back positions and that’s fine, that’s how football works. You don’t win six promotions in 14 seasons without being ruthless.
Of course, he isn’t the only player to be released this summer and, like Sean Rigg and Adebayo Akinfenwa, he knew before Monday that it would be his last game for the club. You might have seen one or two people in the media pick up on some subtle hints from Bayo and his agent that his contract was up. But this is Wimbledon: we do things differently here. Long before football hipsterism made the phrase “goals are overrated” fashionable we’ve cultivated a healthy scepticism of the prima donnas whose only talent is putting the ball in the back of the net. Many of our fans never really warmed to Dean Holdsworth and more than a few eyebrows were raised at John Fashanu’s skills at self-promoting the brand of Fash ahead of the team. (Turns out he was ahead of his time on that front).
In our first season as AFC Wimbledon, when Kevin Cooper prodded, tapped and poached more than sixty goals, who was the player of the year? Lee Sidwell, a solid, unflashy, hard-working right midfielder. Even this year, when Lyle Taylor’s goals took us to Wembley, the Player of the Year award went to centre-back Paul Robinson. Who must have been surprised to know the fans appreciated his efforts as despite his undoubtedly redoubtable performances they haven’t come up with a song in his honour yet. Eventually when an altered-lyrics version of Mrs Robinson was heard on the terraces as the season drew to a close, it was celebrating the misfortunes of Karl of that name, not the abilities of Paul.
I’m concerned in the rush to accept the Hollywoodisation of our story we might be losing sight not just of what has driven, fuelled and powered the Wimbledon story, but one of the major reasons why sport drags us in and keeps our interest with plot-twists, surprises and dramatic interventions beyond even the most creative of scriptwriters. Ian King has already written very well on here about how describing the rebirth of AFC Wimbledon as a “fairtyale” actually ignores the messy, complicated overlapping efforts of so many people to bring the club back to this point.
Hollywood wants nice neat endings. And it wants formulaic narratives where the biggest box office stars get all the best lines. Sport reminds us that isn’t how it happens in real life. Cup Final winning goals weren’t scored by John Fashanu or Mick Channon or Cyrille Regis – they were scored by Lawrie Sanchez, Bobby Stokes and Gary Mabbutt’s knee. And at the end of the match at Wembley on Monday, the film narrative won out over the reality. The personality cult won out over the team and the designated penalty taker was sidelined. Hollywood would like Bayo to take the penalty that makes promotion certain. Sky Sports loved it. It was “Box Office”, it was the League Two player even casual fans have heard of. He’s the guy from FIFA, the bloke on Soccer AM, the Nandos spokesman and the hat salesman. Callum who?
But somewhere in a parallel universe, through Sliding Doors where the Beast Mode is off, a quiet unassuming young man signed off his Wimbledon career with an assist and the promotion-securing goal. A man who has been released by the club not once, but twice. Who would have stepped up to take a penalty in the 99th minute, already knowing this kick would be his last. Who would have remembered that two seasons ago he was told he was surplus to requirements, but through sheer dedication, application and bloody-mindedness just turned up, plugged away and gave the manager no choice but to pick him again.
And for what it’s worth it would have been a man who, if he had scored, would probably also have been booked for taking his shirt off as Bayo was. He didn’t have a clothing line slogan on underneath his shirt; he had a message to his father, who passed away during the season. It said, “For you, fella.” To be clear, that’s not why he should have taken it. This isn’t The X-Factor. No-one thinks scoring a goal at Wembley is karmic payback or adequate recompense for the pain of losing a parent. He should have taken it because, with Lyle Taylor off the pitch, he was the designated penalty taker. But Bayo wanted the moment. And, in his own words “I’m bigger than Callum. I had to be a little bit selfish, there’s no better feeling than scoring as a leaving present.” Hmmm….
I don’t think I am alone in having reservations about this outcome. This is Neal Ardley’s face after the penalty went in (screengrab from Channel 5 coverage of the match). And this was what the commentator Dave Farrar said as the celebration went into Beast Mode On. A rare commentator amongst ever-excitable peers terrified their audience have an attention span listed in nano-seconds, laudably for once not taking the easy headline and getting carried away screaming the simplest cartoonish exaggeration of the moment.
Bayo has, of course, apologised to Callum. He did so live on Sky Sports immediately after the game. I think he did so in the same sentence as asking managers to hit him up on WhatsApp as he was now unemployed. If you missed it, you can find the video listed as “Beast Mode Leaves in Style”. It’s gone viral because it’s an apparently “epic” and “hilarious” video. No one interviewed the unemployed left-back on live TV or for the highlights reel, but the highest profile player in the lower leagues got one more headline at the top of his CV to chase one last payday.
Now, I have to concede that for me to criticise Bayo for self-promotion is probably more than a little rich. I’m a writer and sometime comedian whose own approach to self-promotion is so poor I haven’t got round to relaunching a personal website on which I could have hosted this blog. In a profession with such a short shelf-life, Bayo’s canny branding and self-mythologising have been achieved through a lot of work and effort on his part and I don’t begrudge him that. Many players of his experience and stature (no pun intended) could have been a disruptive influence after being dropped from the starting XI but he wasn’t. He knuckled down and was an undeniably crucial part of the run-in and the play-off victories. So I come not to bury Bayo, but to praise Callum, or at least take a moment to think about the alternative ending.
Because Callum, it has to also be conceded, has been extremely gracious in accepting Bayo’s apology. Back at the club during the celebratory interviews he summed up their altercation with some excellent comic timing: “I said I was taking it, he said he was taking it, I said, ‘No, I’M taking it,’ he said, ‘NO, I’M TAKING IT’… Then their centre back knocked the ball out of my hands and Bayo picked it up. And I thought, oh, he’s taking it.” He went even further talking to the local press, where he said, “It was a heat of the moment thing everyone getting caught up in the occasion, but as long as we scored and we won I could not care less. I’m over the moon he scored because he is leaving and he has been a great servant to the club.”
Maybe he genuinely believes that. Outwardly at least, it doesn’t seem to have impacted on his enjoyment of the win. If he harbours no resentment at all, he’s a better man than I am or would ever hope to be in his boots. So farewell, Bayo, and thanks for the “present”. Good luck with your move and I hope you think the extra shop window (over)exposure was worth it. And a bigger farewell and thanks to Callum Kennedy, as well. Sorry you didn’t get the chance to sign off with the penalty that confirmed our promotion, but the game ending with you scoring just wasn’t Hollywood enough, I’m afraid.