Monday, October 13, 2014

Beating the Franchise

Originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voomfootball website.

Some football matches are more important than others. Cup finals, relegation six-pointers and local derbies all mean more than your average game. But then there are some fixtures which have a significance reaching far beyond the confines of the pitch. They speak to us about the society in which we live, its divisions and priorities. Sometimes teams assume the roles of good and evil in a battle for the very soul of football. It’s just not often that this all happens in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Last Tuesday Adebayo Akinfenwa scored the winner as AFC Wimbledon beat the team from Milton Keynes 3-2. It was a result which brought smiles to the faces of countless football fans across the country regardless of which team they support. Why? Because this was more than a game. It was a contest between two very different conceptions of what football is and what it should be. On the one hand you have AFC Wimbledon, a genuine grassroots initiative. On the other, you have Milton Keynes, a club that will always be the “Franchise” and will never be the “Dons”. And their histories are painfully connected.

Wimbledon FC was formed in 1889 and for the best part of a century the club rattled around non-League football. Only elected to the Football League in 1977 they rapidly climbed through the divisions and were promoted to the top flight of English football in 1986. Two years later they beat Liverpool to win the 1988 FA Cup. For more than a decade the Crazy Gang, featuring the likes of John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and Lawrie Sanchez, would terrorise the so-called big clubs, turning their brand of physical, direct football into something of an art form.

But their success was not to last. Unable to develop Plough Lane they were forced to groundshare at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park from the start of the 1991/92 season. By the end of the century their larger-than-life owner Sam Hammam had sold the club to Charles Koppel, Kjell Inge Roekke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten. In 2000 they were relegated. Still without a ground of their own and financially unstable Wimbledon were faced with an uncertain future. Then in stepped Pete Winkleman.

Winkleman had long wanted a football club in Milton Keynes and it was much easier to steal a team from another part of the country than build a club from scratch. His pitch was simple: Wimbledon could move to Milton Keynes. This was a city without a club for a club without a home. After protracted negotiations with the FA and the Football League – both of whom had originally rejected Winkleman’s idea – the club moved in 2003. Winkleman personified vulture capitalism at its worst: wait for a business to fail, cherry-pick the parts you want and damn the consequences for everybody else. The effect was to destroy Wimbledon FC - screw the history, screw the tradition, screw the fans.

The closest the English game had previously come to a franchise side had been in 1913. It was then that Arsenal chairman, Sir Henry Norris, moved the club from Woolwich to north London, in search of larger gates and increased revenue. Instead franchising has been most closely associated with sport in the United States, where club ‘brands’ can be bought and sold and, in theory, transplanted to the other side of the country on the whim of a multi-millionaire owner. Milton Keynes is the only such franchise club in English football.

Wimbledon fans were rightly outraged by the way their club had been stolen from them. But they didn’t mourn the loss of their club, they organised. AFC Wimbledon was formed in 2002 and their rise through the divisions has been every bit as meteoric as that of Wimbledon in the 1970s and 80s. Their victory over the Franchise was just the latest in a series of milestones. But was it justice for what Wimbledon fans have gone through? Not according to Kris Stewart, the founding chairman of AFC Wimbledon.

“I can't speak for everyone, only myself, obviously,” said Stewart. “For me, I'd say that it essentially makes no difference – the Franchise still have the league place they stole, they still exist. No-one should ever have to play them. They shouldn't exist. "Justice", if it comes, will come the day they go out of business. And it was a tinpot cup. And we've been there twice and lost. And we shouldn't ever have to play them. But fuck me, it was great to stick it up 'em!”

“We spend very, very little time thinking about them. We have a great club and we're on our way home. We 'proved' whatever we had to prove back in July 2002 when we played our first friendly at Sutton United and lost 4-0. We have nothing to prove. We are Wimbledon.”