Ploughing ahead

AFC Wimbledon’s promotion to the League provides optimism for a supporter-led future, yet Andy Brassell also remembers the machinations in SW19 that led to the death of the original club

Never mind May 28, 2002 – I remember exactly where I was on January 15, 1999. Sitting on the sofa at home with some mid-morning tea, Teletext told me that Wimbledon had signed John Hartson from West Ham. For £7 million. Seven million pounds. My mug hit the floor. Not for the last time in the years to come, Wimbledon FC were involved in the previously unthinkable.

Whenever the subject of Milton Keynes is brought up, it’s often forgotten that the whole sorry saga started with the hope of a new dawn. Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten had purchased a majority shareholding in the club from the infamous Sam Hammam almost two years before, in 1997.

Rokke, who had extensive experience in football governance at Molde dating back to 1993, and his business partner Gjelsten were among the richest men in Norway. Their money and ambition promised to solve Wimbledon’s myriad infrastructure problems and transform them into Premier League contenders, where Hammam had always pleaded poverty. Little did we know that the arrival of the Norwegian magnates heralded the beginning of the end for the club.

Wimbledon were always vulnerable. An unfortunate by-product of the club’s stratospheric rise up the divisions was to be left with a shambling, if loveable, shack of a ground, with no scope to develop on the Plough Lane site (subsidence at the Wandle End and unhappy local residents on the other side).

Even May 1987’s charming, fly-on-the-wall Grandstand documentary to commemorate the successful completion of the club’s first season in the top flight was haunted by the spectre of Hammam’s threat to cut costs (and fatten pockets) by moving to, or even merging with, Crystal Palace. Footage of the memorable FA Cup fifth-round win over soon-to-be-champions Everton – live on Match of the Day – featured interviews with gaggles of angry fans, while the ground was replete with protest banners and echoed with chants of “We’ll never go to Palace”.

What many thought the worst-case scenario came to pass in May 1990, when season-ticket holders received letters informing them of the move to Selhurst Park, prompted by the logistical impossibility of making Plough Lane all-seat as required by the Taylor Report.

It is easily argued that from then on Wimbledon was a “ghost” club, with its identity severely compromised. While sporadically talking the talk about finding a stadium solution, Hammam sold Plough Lane to Tesco and blamed the apparently obstructive Merton Council for the lack of progress. Long-serving manager Joe Kinnear, popular enough in media circles, was somewhat less so among fans, despite putting together a decent team capable of high Premier League finishes and which reached the last four of both domestic cups in 1996-97, as he brashly declared his support for a possible Wimbledon move to Dublin.
With the club in a stadiumless purgatory, it went almost unnoticed that by 1998, average gates had increased by 60 per cent from the Plough Lane days, despite frequent media “leaks” that heavy losses meant Dublin warranted consideration. So when Rokke and Gjelsten appeared, Wimbledon had seemingly found salvation.

Rokke’s wealth was still estimated in excess of $2 billion (£1.2bn) in 2008, and as Wimbledon slid down the Premier League, it emerged in March 2000 that he was having a £50m yacht built on the Adriatic coast. Having paid £25m for 80 per cent of Wimbledon in 1997, the Norwegians came to realise that they had vastly overspent, especially as the FA had put the block on a move to Dublin – which some suggested had been presented to Rokke and Gjelsten as a formality when they made the purchase. Not for the first or last time, Hammam had hoodwinked those with whom he had done business. When he sold the remaining 20 per cent to the Norwegians for £1.5m in 2000, it emerged to what extent all parties knew this was the case.

The odious Charles Koppel then came onto the scene as chairman. Appointed by Rokke and Gjelsten in 2000, it quickly became clear that his brief was to asset-strip Wimbledon in order to convince the FA that a move to Milton Keynes (officially announced to season-ticket holders in August 2001) should be sanctioned under exceptional circumstances, to save the club.

The independent FA commission’s May 2002 decision to sanction the move – neatly buried under build-up to the World Cup – was a devastating blow to the club’s supporters, but one from which they regrouped quickly. Just 43 days after the ruling, AFC Wimbledon were playing their first game, a friendly at Sutton United, in front of 4,657.

Despite watching a team of “near enough pub players” (as recently described by Wimbledon fan and current AFCW goalkeeper Seb Brown) in the eighth tier, the crowds kept flocking, in extraordinary contrast to the shell of Wimbledon FC. Their own nadir was the crowd of 664 for November 2002’s League Cup tie with Rotherham.  Rokke sold his interest in the club to Koppel and Gjelsten in November 2002, with Molde’s own financial difficulties preoccupying him as well as those of the recently acquired shipping behemoth, Kvaerner. The club went into administration in June 2003, played its first game in MK in September and changing its name to Milton Keynes Dons in 2004.

As AFC Wimbledon received media attention and popular support, the temptation to be assisted in their, well, Wimbledon-esque rise arose, with businessman Darragh MacAnthony offering to buy the club in 2006 – an approach rejected by the club members/owners. May’s Conference play-off victory, returning the town’s football community to the League and placing them just one division behind MK, has proved them right. Even if AFC Wimbledon’s rapid climb has stunned all in the game and many outside it, it is the very formation and maintenance of the club’s supporter-run principles that remains the real miracle.

From WSC 293 July 2011