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Don roaming

As Wimbledon’s bid to move to Buckinghamshire collapses, WISA’s Ian Pollock looks at the whole sorry mess and asks where football goes from here

“To laugh or to cry, that is the question.” OK, it’s hardly Shakespeare,but the last couple of months at Wimbledon FC have provided enough to fill a good drama, or at least a pantomime.

Back on April 3, things seemed to be going so well for the club’s chairman, Charles Koppel. The Football League had finally given the thumbs up to Wimbledon’s proposed move to Milton Keynes. After sitting on its hands for months, the League did this by indulging in a grotesque piece of sophistry. In order to wash its hands of the whole affair and get round the general requirement that clubs should play in their home towns, the League simply declared that Milton Keynes was now the club’s conurbation. Just savour that piece of idiocy for one moment. A town in the south midlands was now the natural home of a football team that had never played there; which does not have a functioning home ground there; and which has in fact been based in south-west London since the 1880s.

Meanwhile, the club said work would now start on revamping the town’s hockey stadium to accommodate football crowds for the next four years. Then, in May, the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, the rather secretive body that has been luring WFC to the town, announced it was, at last, submitting its plans for permission for its much hyped big, new stadium in Denbigh North – along with a massive Asda hypermarket and other developments. What could go wrong?

Well, just as the whole project appeared to be coming to fruition, WFC’s biggest shareholder, the Norwegian multi-millionaire Bjorn Rune Gjelsten, pulled the plug. Fed up with having to pump in another £800,000 or so to keep the club ticking over before the new season, he decided enough was enough. Since taking over last November as majority shareholder from his business partner Kjell Inge Roekke, Gjelsten has apparently seen his subsidies to the club rise to £4 million. Now he’s had enough.

The great mystery is why he waited so long. WFC has been technically insolvent for the last two years. This was revealed in its accounts for 2000-01, published last summer. They showed that the club’s then debts of £17m (mainly loans owed to Roekke) outweighed its assets by £6m. It was carrying on only due to subsidies from Roekke and Gjelsten.

Even more startling was the opinion of the auditors, Chantrey Vellacot. Under the heading of “Fundamental Uncertainty”, they pointed out that the club might not be a going concern; that it had no identifiable business plan for surviving in Milton Keynes; and that the auditors could not get the club’s owners to give a written commitment to keep the club going for at least another year. Chantrey Vellacot’s opinion has now been proved right in every respect.

Needless to say, no one was too bothered. Last autumn the Wimbledon Independent Supporters’ Association wrote to the Football League several times, spelling out in detail the dreadful state of the club’s finances and the flaky state of its projected move to Milton Keynes. They just stalled. WISA pointed out to the trustees of the National Hockey Stadium the risks of doing business with a club that might go bust at any time. They decided to go ahead anyway with leasing their stadium to the club.

Sport England, who gave the hockey authorities £1.5m of taxpayers’ money for the stadium in 1993, ignored written objections to the stadium being used for the exclusive benefit of a privately owned professional football club. And WISA emailed every single councillor in Milton Keynes, pointing out the potential damage to their reputations if WFC should go bust. Most ignored what the auditors had to say. But Andy Dransfield, the leader of the Conservative group, rudely told us it was none of our business and advised us not to waste our time writing back. Liberal Democrat councillor Isabella Fraser airily said she did not need to be told how to do her duty. I wonder how much egg they are currently wiping from their faces?

Not as much as Charles Koppel and Peter Winkelman, the public face of the MK stadium consortium. At first, many ex-supporters of WFC thought the club’s administration was a cunning plan to get rid of its debts. Apparently these now stand at £3.5m plus whatever loans are outstanding to the shareholders. But Koppel’s demeanour in public has made it clear that the declaration of insolvency came as a surprise. If it is a plan, it seems to be cunning only in a Baldrick style.

Winkelman is clearly angry and upset. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to what Gjelsten said last October? He told his local newspaper in Norway that he and the other owners had lost £40m in buying and running WFC. They were getting fed up. And he said they might liquidate the club, or put it up for sale for just £1, if it wasn’t playing at Denbigh North by August 2004. How clear a warning do you need?

Many ex-supporters of WFC are gloating at the thought that the club they once supported may now go out of existence. It has publicly rejected them and tried to reinvent itself as a different club elsewhere, while still trading on its old name and tradition. Its demise will be thoroughly merited and will be a warning to anyone else who thinks they can introduce franchising into English football. With no ground, hardly any fans and an identity floating somewhat uncertainly between Wimbledon and Milton Keynes, it is a football club in name only.

Who should be blamed for this ghastly affair, in which we are watching the destruction of one of the best known names in English football – a club that in the last 40 years has won both the FA Cup and the FA Amateur Cup?

Sam Hammam, the former owner who sold Wimbledon’s Plough Lane ground and never built a replacement, is one candidate. If the ground and club had been kept together WFC could still be thriving in Wimbledon. Koppel, Winkelman, Roekke and Gjelsten, meanwhile, are all chancers who have become villains in their own pantomime.

But I would like to see the football authorities take their fair share of the blame. They are the guilty men. In the last year or so they have, in a quite pusillanimous fashion, failed to uphold their own rules. By kowtowing to WFC’s owners because of the implicit threat of legal action; by setting up a three-man commission accountable to no one which then approved the Milton Keynes move in May last year; and by pronouncing, like a character from Alice in Wonderland, that Milton Keynes is Wimbledon’s real home; the men who run the Football Association and Football League have shown themselves to be utterly unfit to run the game.

When, back in March, the Independent Football Commission enquired into how the decision had been made to let WFC go to Milton Keynes, it came to the conclusion that: “It is extraordinary that Wimbledon FC’s relocation should have been approved despite the evident opposition of both the Football League and Football Association.”

Extraordinary indeed. But the answer to this conundrum is quite simple. The men who run football have no stomach for a fight which involves upholding rules and concepts which might obstruct club owners trying to make profits on the backs of their clubs.

In the meantime the League and FA have failed in their promise to change their rules so that no other club can copy Wimbledon. It has been obvious for decades that, as far as the authorities are concerned, no one is so much of a shyster as to be stopped from running a football club; all spivs are welcome.

So the answer is simple: the authorities should simply be stripped of their regulatory powers. Let them organise fixtures and competitions. But now the government should regulate the ownership and control of football.

Self regulation has failed in most other areas of life. In football it has rotted away like a compost heap. The government should appoint a Football Commissioner with powers to sack board directors for running their clubs badly. The job should be to regulate the ownership of clubs so that the game can no longer be a happy feeding ground for assorted “entrepreneurs”, property developers and tax exiles. Only then will clubs be prevented from going bust in the name of property developments in other parts of the country.

From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month

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