In May, an arbitrarily appointed FA body sanctioned Wimbledon's move to Milton Keynes. Ian Pollock reorts on the staggering logic of a hugely damaging ruling
Just before the World Cup started, a special three-man commission of the FA came to one of the most profound decisions any football authority in England has ever made by giving permission for Wimbledon to move 60 miles north to Milton Keynes. With most fans’ attention firmly fixed on events in Japan and South Korea, it is not surprising that hardly any scrutiny has been given to the ruling handed down by the commission on May 28. After all, it only concerned Wimbledon, so who cares?
The three men on the commission were the Aston Villa director Steve Stride, Ryman League chairman Alan Turvey and FA legal adviser Raj Parker. Their arguments – agreed by a vote of two to one, with Turvey believed to be the dissenter – have destroyed two of the essential elements of the way British football has traditionally been organised: that clubs should be based in the area from which they draw their identity; and that progress through the leagues should be on merit.
The essence of the commission’s 67-page report is that it is better to let Wimbledon move than to die. The club’s owners made it clear that if a move was not sanctioned, it would go straight into liquidation and out of business. Yet the commission appears to have given this supposed “fact” no scrutiny at all. According to the report, the owners claim: “WFC’s 2000-01 operating loss was greater, at £10.8 million, than all but two of the other 91 professional clubs in England.”
However, in a glossy brochure sent to Wimbledon fans just after the decision, the club adds a rider that puts a completely different complexion on the figures: “In the 2000-01 season, the club made a loss of £10.8 million (operating loss before player trading).”
What is glossed over by that phrase “before player trading” is the fact that during that season the club sold Carl Cort to Newcastle for £7 million; Ben Thatcher to Tottenham for £5 million; Hermann Hreidarsson to Ipswich for £4 million; Marcus Gayle to Rangers for £1 million; and John Hartson to Coventry for an undisclosed fee. These sums clearly should have eradicted the club’s losses and left it with a healthy surplus (the money spent on players coming in was puny by comparison). In the season just ended, another £4 million came in through the transfer of Jason Euell to Charlton. What has happened to this money? If it is in the accounts (which have yet to be filed at Companies House) they should show Wimbledon to be solvent.
The club stated that it could not afford to move to a redeveloped Plough Lane site, and therefore had to go to Milton Keynes. Yet on the evening after the decision, one of the club’s owners appeared on Norwegian television stating that he would now be authorising the release of £40 million to assist the club in its move, significantly more than was required to make Plough Lane a reality. So much for the club’s owners, two of the richest men in Europe, having no money.
Quite independently, however, the FA commission managed to conjure up two arguments for the move that should astonish most football fans. Believe it or not, one of the most important reasons for the decision was that: “Milton Keynes provides a suitable and deserving opportunity in its own right where none exists in south London.” Savour that concept: the suitable and deserving opportunity. In one glib, ignorant phrase the commission has swept aside more than 100 years of football clubs trying to advance themselves by actually beating their opponents and winning games.
Just to rub it in, and to make it clear that league placings should have little to do with merit any more, the commission quoted approvingly the view of an earlier Football League arbitration panel which said: “It should be in the interests of football as a whole that major new stadia are encouraged where there is an untapped demand for major league football, such as in new towns. It is true that a route does exist through the pyramid structure to achieve this, but it is a somewhat tortuous one.”
There we have it. You are a new town or maybe a big town. You have no club or maybe a very unsuccessful one. The answer is simple. Don’t bother with the long-winded and tedious business of building up a local outfit into something bigger and better. Just get another one to move in! This is a policy familiar to people in the US and Canada. It is called franchising, where teams disappear overnight, only to reappear on the other side of the country in a more prosperous location, or one that has fewer competitors in the vicinity.
Intriguingly, the commission peppers its reports with assertions that it has not set a precedent; that franchising is bad; and that it won’t happen anyway. It says much for the intellectual rigour of the commission that it could so blatantly deny the most obvious conclusion of its own decision. The plain fact is that any unscrupulous chairman could now sell his club’s ground, move to a “temporary” location, claim poverty and then demand a move. How could the football authorities argue against it? What could they say if an existing club in a big town or city (like, say, Bristol, Swindon, Bradford or Coventry) went bust and another club came along and asked for permission to move in and take over the “franchise”? The incoming club would only have to point to the example of Wimbledon in order to succeed.
For their part, Wimbledon fans have set up a new club (which they will own and control through the Dons Trust) so that they can watch a football match this coming season and actually enjoy it. AFC Wimbledon narrowly failed to win election to the Ryman League, but were accepted by the Combined Counties League and the season kicks off on August 17 after a flurry of friendlies. With a target of 1,000 season ticket holders, and having established a groundsharing arrangement with Ryman Premier League Kingstonian, it will be by far the best supported club in that league and promotion to the Ryman First Division is the initial goal.
What about Milton Keynes though? Members of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association will continue to campaign vigorously against their old club’s move. But most WISA members have given up on the football authorities doing anything to help. Both the Football League and the FA ducked their responsibilities. They asked three people who represented no one but themselves to make the decision instead.
The football authorities, bizarrely, now say the decision is one they don’t like and which worries them. But will they do anything about it, such as repudiating the commission’s findings, or refusing Wimbledon FC the move its owners desire? No chance. Pusillanimous hand wringing is the order of the day when the authorities are faced with the demands of rich businessmen to make a profitable return on their misguided investment in football.
From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month