Wimbledon: What Price Founding Principles?

by | Dec 5, 2019

It’s an age old dilemma, if truth be told. What is the true price of your principles? There are two sides to the current questions facing AFC Wimbledon, following the confirmation that there is a funding shortfall of £11m relating to the construction of their new stadium on Plough Lane. The Dons Trust have so far raised £20m towards costs, £2.5m of which came from crowdfunding, but this shortfall has come about regardless, primarily because of delays in getting the work done brought about by planning permission and commercial agreements.

With the club due to be moving out of Kingsmeadow in the summer, time is now tight, and the club states that it has to sign the contracts to get this moving by next month. It could borrow the £11m, but missing any payments on a loan of this size would put the new ground in jeopardy, while the cost of servicing it would also greatly impact upon the club’s spending in other areas. The likelihood of the club being left completely homeless seems fairly remote, as it is understood Chelsea would be open to letting Wimbledon stay there on a temporary basis at the start of next season.

None of this, however, addresses the funding of the new stadium, and the club now seems to be of the opinion that opening the club up to be sold to private investors may be the best way of closing that funding gap. At present, no one individual can take more than a 25% ownership in the club, which remains 75% owned by the Dons Trust. Local businessmen have stepped forward, stating that they have the money to make all of this go away, but there’s one catch. They want the club – or at least a shareholding that will give them effective control of it – in return.

So, the potential for a schism opens. On one side of the argument, there will be supporters of the club for whom the principle of fan ownership is of little to no value in comparison with getting the new ground built with no delays. To be fair to this side of the argument, the description of the new stadium should the funding not be found doesn’t look terribly appealing. Indeed, it sounds substantially worse than their current home in Norbiton, with a 4,000 capacity, with only one stand and no conference and banqueting, or hospitality facilities, and no club shop.

For some, however, principles can’t be bought, and there are plenty of people around the club who still recall only too well the circumstances that led to the club’s formation in 2002, for whom the phrase “never again” will likely loom large in their minds for the rest of their lives, and when the club issued a statement the week before last outlining the options ahead of next week’s meeting it seems to have opened up something of a can of worms.

One trust board member, Rob Crane, has already resigned his position on the Dons Trust Board as a result of the proposal, saying:

We are where we are. And unfortunately for me one of the things we as a club are now going to have to consider – bringing in external investment – goes against what I personally have for years been saying about how I believe a fan-owned club should be running itself.

No matter how unpalatable it is to me, we’re going to have to consider that option in order to keep the Plough Lane dream and our club alive. But given my long-standing concerns, it’s not an option that I personally could stomach presenting to our members with my name attached to it.

He’s not the only person to be deeply unhappy at being put into this position by the club, either. The statement prompted an open letter – which can be seen here – signed by a list of names that reads like something of a who’s who of those who kept the club’s flame alive at the start of the century which describes club’s actions over this as “deeply insulting” and lists “ten key issues” which the club should be answering in response to what increasingly feels like a debacle. The club responded with this deeply unsatisfactory statement, which really doesn’t address the points raised in the initial letter and which prompted this initial reply from the opposition (opens in Google Docs.)

Standard rules before discussing new owners still apply, the most critical of which is who these prospective investors are, what they intend to get out of it all (because making money out of a lower division football club remains the 21st century’s equivalent to practising alchemy), and why everyone who knows seems so shy about revealing who, exactly, they are? This sort of selective secrecy would raise alarm bells at any football club. At a club that is in the middle of very expensive property transactions in London, where most clubs bar the biggest have had their own battles with property developers and other assorted interlopers over the years, those bells become sirens.

And, since this has already been through crowdfunding, what of the money already raised by supporters? Many will have put in money in good faith, with no idea that this entire project could end up with such a huge financing gap, and at least some of them would likely not have done so had they known that their club might end up being controlled by investors, a couple of years down the line. In the event that this all goes through, will people who put money into the new stadium but are deeply unhappy at subsequent events be offered their money back? Because perhaps if private equity wants to reap rewards from all of this, it should be bearing the entire costs of the project. 

There will be no meaningful votes at the SGM called for the 9th December, but Wimbledon supporters are being asked to discuss something that will change the very constitution of their football club, almost certainly forever. There is no transparency in not allowing supporters know who’s behind all of this. “Making it clear to us that they have the long-term interests of AFC Wimbledon at heart and are not motivated by making a profit” is simply not good enough. These investors will already know that the club’s current owners would not be selling the stadium and pocketing any profit. If they are “not content for the Trust to insist on retaining 75% voting control as this limits their rights and the club’s ability to raise more money if and when we need it”, why should this be? Why would they “require” the club “to make major changes to the ownership structure and governance of AFC Wimbledon”?

And, perhaps most pertinently of all, why, if, as the club itself states, “the choice is yours”, are they leaning so heavily towards this one particular direction? It feels, from reading all the documentation on the subject spewed out over the last couple of weeks or so, as though the Dons Trust Board is a far from neutral party in this, and that all of this might easily be interpreted as the Board having already made the decision to sell the Trust’s share in the club. This, however, comes with risks. Portsmouth sold theirs out a couple of years ago, but their revival has been slower than we might have expected from a club of their size in the lower divisions. Notts County’s Supporters Trust gave away its ownership to a front for a convicted fraudster. Let’s not start pretending that there aren’t inherent risks to the new ownership of a football club. To claim otherwise could only be considered naivety bordering on imbecility.

This is, however, the latest in a series of matters that have chipped away at the club. Selling Kingsmeadow to Chelsea (a decision which rendered the club that Wimbledon purchased it from, Kingstonian, homeless) wasn’t a strong look, even if the reasons for having to do so were understandable at the time, in some ways. The decision to appoint Wally Downes as manager last year despite a history (both old and new) of bullying, racism and homophobia didn’t reflect particularly well on the club either. Downes left the club in October after being found guilty of misconduct by the FA over gambling on matches. So that went well, then.

The goings-on at Kingsmeadow at the moment only add to the sense that the very idea of the community ownership of clubs within football in this country is withering on the vine. Wycombe Wanderers approved the takeover of their club by a private owner in October. Portsmouth did  likewise in August 2017, while FC United of Manchester almost tore itself to pieces in 2016. Supporters Direct was merged into the new Football Supporters Association just over a year ago, and precious little has been heard of the old body’s campaigning zeal since.

Perhaps it was always a bit too optimistic, this “fan ownership” business. Modern football is obsessed with money to the exclusion of almost everything else, these days, so the idea that clubs won’t sell out founding principles should the price be right is probably fundamentally absurd. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not hugely disappointing to see this club standing on the precipice of becoming just another football club, despite more than a decade and a half of actively marketing itself as a different way of running a football club.