Reaction stations

Wimbledon supporters are mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more, Kevin Rye tells how the Milton Keynes plans finally roused Dons fans into action

What is so unusual about calling for the chairman of your football club to resign? Criticising the board is almost part of the fabric of football, but when Wimbledon supporters recently turned on Charles Koppel for applying to the Football League to relocate the club to Milton Keynes, it was also the beginning of the end of years of apathy and denial by their fans.

Since promotion to the old First Division in 1986, there have been confrontations between the club and its fans. There was opposition to the proposed merger with Crystal Palace in 1987, initiated by Ron Noades and Sam Hammam, and very short-lived opposition to the move in 1991 to Selhurst Park.

Over the years, though, the club has been touted to Dublin, Manchester, Wigan, Bristol and Cardiff with very little adverse reaction. Even in the late 1990s,  when a proposal to move to Dublin was virtually sealed, a large proportion of Wimbledon supporters never really believed that the deal would happen. In fact, it appears that the hastily arranged protests over the Dublin issue gave then chairman Sam Hammam the shock of his life. During a recent confrontation with Wimbledon supporters after a friendly at Brentford (the day after season ticket holders received the letter telling them of the club’s plans to move to Milton Key­nes) Hammam said that he realised the Dublin deal was in tatters when “I saw five thousand of you bastards hanging from the rafters”.

Matt Lowndes, a former supporters’ club committee member, believes it was the club’s success over 20 years that prevented the raising of awareness. Noting the lack of real protest against the move from Plough Lane, he says: “No one batted an eyelid at what hap­pened. They just accepted what was said and believed that it was for the good of the club.” Marc Jones, a founder member of the Wimbledon Independent Sup­porters Association in 1995, says: “Fans have been in denial, which has resulted in apathy on a massive scale. That’s partly what has got us into this state.”

The new chairman Charles Koppel and the Norwegians who took over from Hammam, Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten,  were regarded by the majority as a breath of fresh air. In proposing the move to Milton Keynes, however, they simply picked up where their predecessor left off. The announcement was made with the season still a week away. The national press reported the move as though it were a fait accompli, the Guardian even offering a crass guide to Milton Keynes for travelling fans. This reflected a reluctance of the media to question the val­idity of proposed mergers and relocations which has been a constant theme from “Fulham Park Ran­gers” in 1987 right through to the short-lived Wimbledon-QPR tie-up earlier this year. The day after the move was announced, the Guardian attributed sup­portive com­ments to unnamed “Wimble-don sources” a‑nd “Foot­ball League sources” and con­cluded that the move “ends years of speculation about possible sites for relocation”.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. What is different now is that fans are organised enough to turn around such lickspittle reporting much quick­er. With­in hours of the announcement, a cam­paign headquarters was set up with sup­porters don­ating office equipment, money and sup­plies. WISA representatives were on the radio, TV and internet denouncing the clubs’ pro­posal. People were calling radio stat­ions, writing to newspapers and bom­barding the League with emails, let­t­­ers and phone calls. By the next day the papers were full of the “mounting op­position” to the move.

As a result of Football League board’s un­­animous opposition to the proposals (so much for the anonymous “sources”) there still remains a degree of apathy among some Dons fans. Many still be­lieve the club will “do the right thing” and change its mind. Will they keep the pres­sure up on the club? Time will tell but, speaking as a previously apathetic sup­port­er myself, I suspect that this worm has turned.

From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month