Franchising Wimbledon: The Panel Decides
“We do not wish to see clubs attempting to circumvent the pyramid structure by ditching their communities and metamorphosising in new, more attractive areas. Nor do we wish, any more than the football authorities or supporters, for franchise football to arrive on these shores,” it said in the F.A. commission’s report on whether Wimbledon F.C. should be given permission to move to Milton Keynes. The date was May 28, 2002.
Wimbledon’s board, attracted by Peter Winkleman’s Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, wanted to move the club to a new location nowhere near their original home, in an attempt to parachute in a Football League club to a city that couldn’t be bothered to gain one by the old-fashioned method of winning football matches.
As we discussed in the first part of this series, the Football League Board had rejected the move, but Wimbledon had appealed, and it was now up this F.A. panel to decide. It was up to three men to determine the future of a club over a century old: Alan Turvey, chairman of the sub-conference Ryman League; Raj Parker, a commercial solicitor; and Steve Stride, Aston Villa’s Commercial Director.
The report outlined all the negative reaction this had drawn. In the “objections” section, it noted that opposition had not just come from Wimbledon fans; “respected football writers”, “a Parliamentary All Party Committee”, “Merton Borough Council” had all expressed their disapproval, “and of course the Football Association, the Football League, the FA Premier League and the Football Conference Ltd have all provided statements which stress the identification of clubs with community, the sacrosanct nature of the pyramid structure based on sporting merit (English football does not allow a franchise system)”.
Most of the hundreds of communications the panel had received were against the proposal, it said. “Supporters’ associations and individual fans from many other clubs and people from as far afield as the United States, Australia (Wimbledon Supporters Down under), Russia and Norway have also expressed similar views.”
The panel, in a 2-1 verdict, concluded that despite this, “Our decision is that, in light of its exceptional circumstances, WFC should be given approval to relocate to Milton Keynes.”
The report argued Wimbledon F.C. faced liquidation (this remains unclear as the club did not release its accounts), that it had “no viable South London” prospective ground (despite claims to the contrary by Merton Council) and most amazingly, that “WFC’s links or roots in its community are of a nature that can be and are agreed should be retained by WFC and MKSC, albeit in a new location. The Football League can ensure these links are put in place and preserved.”
Peter Winkelman, heading the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, could have written parts of the report himself. The report noted that “His enthusiasm for the project and it has to be said for Milton Keynes itself, was almost infectious, and obviously genuine. . .He believes that with over 40,000 school children in the area WFC will be fantastic news.”
“The potential fan base is huge. 8 million people live within one hour’s drive,” it blathered, as if Wimbledon were moving from a sleepy village on a remote island to a thriving metropolis. The report contrasted Winkleman’s vision of a 45,000 seater stadia with Wimbledon’s poor attendance figures and squalid groundshare with Crystal Palace.
The report added that “WFC intends to work with the fans to win them over and communicate with them to preserve the Club’s identity and meet their concerns as to travel. A glossy brochure has been produced which makes the case.”
The summary did, reluctantly, note that for some odd reason this “glossy brochure” had not won over the vast majority of Wimbledon’s fans to the move. “The most difficult issue was, obviously, how to win the hearts and minds of WFC’s fans to this proposal and to make it possible for them to continue to support and identify with the Club.”
This, though, would be easily remedied. The Board had agreed to subsidise travel and season tickets! Fans would even be consulted on the design of the stadium “to properly reflect the history and traditions of WFC.” Fans weren’t being consulted on where the stadium would actually be located, since they might want that to, well, “properly reflect the history and traditions of WFC”, but they could have a say in the design.
Dave Boyle, writing in Four Four Two magazine, captured perfectly this madness. “The report descends into farce by the end with the Commission seriously arguing that fans might find the transition to Buckinghamshire easier if they arrive at the new stadium along Fashanu Way or Sanchez Avenue. They also feel that if a museum was built in Wimbledon it would lessen the blow.”
The report dryly observed that the fans did not quite see the issue as one of marketing, but of life or death for their football club, inextricably linked to their community.
We heard both Mr Kris Stewart (Chair, WISA) and Ms Louise Carton-Kelly (Chair, the Dons Trust) in person. It was clear from their evidence that they care passionately about WFC[..]
Perhaps the most important point put forward by WFC’s fans is that the Club would die as WFC upon a relocation to Milton Keynes. Indeed when Mr Stewart was, in effect, asked by counsel for the Club, to choose between life for the Club in Milton Keynes, or death in Merton, he replied that he regarded both as death. Instead he hoped to resurrect the Club and start at the bottom of the pyramid. He would of course be free to do that if the circumstances so arose.
The committee was unmoved. “We do not believe, with all due respect, that the Club’s links with the community around the Plough Lane site or in Merton are so profound, or the roots go so deep, that they will not survive a necessary transplant to ensure WFC’s survival.”
The panel, with all due respect, was wrong. The fans founded their own club, A.F.C. Wimbledon, and have fought tooth and nail to ensure Milton Keynes Dons are not able to lay claim to any of the history of the club. This was finally recognised by all parties last year when Wimbledon’s honours were returned to Merton. We will look at how the two new clubs have fared since the panel’s decision in the remainder of this series.