In South Yorkshire fans are copying AFC Wimbledon after becoming frustrated with directors, writes Joe Quimby
Disillusioned fans of Second Division Barnsley have formed a new club, taking its inspiration from AFC Wimbledon. AFC Barnsley announced their intention to forge ahead on their own terms, following the move made by disenfranchised supporters of the London club, because of reservations over the intentions of the Reds’ new owners.
The South Yorkshire team were among a number of sides stung by a brief spell in the Premiership and the scramble to return. Their one-season tenure in 1997-98 led to a dramatic and unprecedented increase in spending. By the time Ipswich defeated them at Wembley in the play-off final in May 2000, the wage bill had reportedly hit the £6 million mark. Blinded by the post-millennial euphoria that seemingly affected many football directors, Barnsley’s hierarchy continued to fund the side’s push for a return to the Premiership without proper regard for the long-term future. A period of questionable expenditure on a series of managers and their increasingly eccentric purchase of players culminated in relegation to Division Two.
However, with the side stuck in the lower reaches of the third tier, the club went into voluntary administration, admitting to unmanageable debts. The white knight seemed to have arrived in the shape of Peter Doyle, a local politician and businessman who appealed to the administrators – but not a sizeable section of the fan base. By the end of the 2002-03 season, the Reds not only remained in administration, having also remortgaged Oakwell, but had finished in their lowest league position in two decades.
The new regime added representatives from supporters’ organisations, but none had the faith of a large percentage of the fans. This proved unacceptable to a group of long-serving season-ticket holders. A series of heated exchanges poisoned the atmosphere and only added to the lack of confidence in the new board, still chaired by a member of its old, widely criticised predecessor.
In May, the band of unhappy supporters made their move. AFC Barnsley offered the town’s supporters an alternative to a club they saw as riddled with mismanagement and patronage. AFC’s founder, law student Paul Bestall, says: “After being called slime and having voiced our concerns, we felt enough was enough. Nobody we spoke to held any trust in the new owner and had anything good to say about him.”
The project is going ahead full steam, with a number of ex-Premiership and Barnsley players having expressed an interest in joining the side. AFC have a kit sponsor, two alternative venues, FA Cup ambitions and a planned opening fixture against a Premiership club. They start next season in the Kit Club Central Midlands League and are aiming to one day meet their former club on level terms. But the priority remains for the new club to give some much-needed optimism to the area’s avid football supporters.
“Of course, the Football League is our dream,” says Bestall. “The guys who’ve applied for our manager’s job so far are very confident they can do the job and they know the division. But to start with, it would be great just to get even one player I’ve admired as a fan.”
From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month