AFC Wimbledon may be celebrating reaching the Ryman League, but it hasn't been much of a party for the minnows turned whales, as Robert Jeffery explains
An unbeaten season culminating in a league and cup double. Capacity crowds producing a pulsating atmosphere, home and away. The goodwill of fans the world over and the fawning plaudits of the media. Of such things footballing dreams are made. You’d think that AFC Wimbledon fans, the recipients of all the above and more, would be happy with their lot.
Not a bit of it. Landing the Premier Challenge Cup with a 4-1 crushing of North Greenford United (and invoking memories of 1988 all over again) was an all-too-brief climax to a season of turmoil and bickering, and a summer of upheaval has only intensified the angst. After years of pain and deceit at the hands of numerous duplicitous businessmen, we have, quite simply, forgotten how to be happy.
It’s two years now since AFC were formed, the offspring of Wimbledon’s defection to Milton Keynes, and the momentum has never stopped gathering. A late surge in that first season failed to secure the Combined Counties League title, but the team romped to promotion by 27 points in May. Almost 4,000 were at Woking’s Kingfield Stadium to see the double sealed, as Franchise FC, 70 miles up the road, moved us nearer emotional closure by changing name and strip (we’ll have the trophies back when you’re ready, Mr Winkelman). This should, then, be a time for celebration, not brow-beating. But scratch beneath the surface and there are more issues on show than the average hour of Jerry Springer.
First, and most controversial, is the departure of key players (and a manager) under a cloud. Terry Eames, AFC’s inaugural boss, was dismissed in February for telling “clear and direct untruths to the board about his actions” in relation to promises of unauthorised bonuses to players. The rumblings of discontent can be traced back to the evening when chairman Kris Stewart read a detailed press release on the subject over the PA at the end of a match, to a chorus of boos. By the next day, the message boards were buzzing with supporters threatening never to return and openly questioning the leadership of the Dons Trust, the fan-run body that owns the club and oversees footballing activities. Before long, the dissenters had died down and the talk was of moving forward, but a pattern of rabid self-flagellation and overreaction, ultimately achieving nothing, had been set. The board was perfectly right (and it would be hard to find a more democratically-run or accountable football club anywhere), the process was carried out professionally and the end justified the means. But then hindsight is a wonderful thing…
After Eamesgate there has followed a string of unfortunate, but ultimately correct, decisions that have been greeted in the same manner. Nicky English, Eames’ assistant-turned-caretaker-manager, secured the double and was seen as a shoo-in for the permanent role. The post was advertised and highly rated Hendon manager Dave Anderson was installed. Within a month, he declined to award record-breaking top scorer Kevin Cooper the contract he wanted; the player left for Carshalton. Danny Oakins, another crowd favourite, was also deemed surplus to requirements, while Anderson brought in backroom staff and (to date) three players from his former club. At any other non-League team, such behaviour would be seen as perfectly reasonable, but for a set of fans who until two years ago were following the money-rich upper echelons of the game, the concept of players coming and going en masse has been impossible to adjust to.
At the heart of these problems lies the belief that there is an “AFC Wimbledon way” of doing things, that all prospective signings should “get” the ethos behind the Dons’ inception and that the club, in turn, should encourage loyalty and not discard members of the squad who have written their way into Womble folklore. It isn’t hard to see how such views might clash with those of a manager who has stated that not gaining promotion at the first attempt will be a failure.
Don’t assume, either, that AFC have been welcomed with open arms by the non-League community in its entirety. A gleaming new stand at Merstham FC is just one of many legacies of boosted coffers and record gates at CCL grounds over the past two years, but not every club is rejoicing. The purchase of Kingsmeadow (which AFC shared with Kingstonian in their first season of existence) got the Ks out of a financial hole and allowed them to continue playing in their home, but also dismayed some fans who fear their club will be overshadowed, or even entirely swallowed, by the AFC juggernaut. Even if a home in Merton is one day forthcoming for the Dons, it is difficult to imagine Kingstonian ever purchasing “their” ground back.
There is also, inevitably, a minority of AFC’s support who enjoy patronising their less financially profligate opponents. Statements about being “too big” for the CCL, or the Ryman League Division One we are competing in this year, may in part be true, but do little to endear the club. The infamous terrace anthem, The Champagne Song – which lists off insults about opponents’ wives, mothers, pets and clothes – is meant as light-hearted fun, but takes on a more personal edge at, say, Banstead Athletic than at Anfield.
“It’s like taking a whale and dumping it in a garden pond,” says Peter MacQueen of the Womble Underground Press fanzine. “Fans who have spent decades being supporters of a ‘small’ club are suddenly getting a taste of what it must be like to spend your Saturdays in the Stretford End. Players who don’t perform get ripped to shreds with little regard for the fact that they have day jobs to go back to. Opposition goalkeepers are berated with all the ferocity you would expect to see at a professional match with players earning thousands a week. We have latched on to players like heroes of yore, built them up and worshipped them despite their amateur status. When players like Cooper depart, our fans have reacted like Tottenham fans watching Sol Campbell go to Highbury. It’s something we will have to get used to.”
And that’s without mentioning the predictably ugly scenes that saw the abandonment of an unstewarded cup tie in Bromley in March. Again, it is impossible to blame the club or 99 per cent of their impeccably behaved support, but “unfortunate” is a word that cropped up rather a lot last season. Transplanting a set of supporters nine divisions below their “natural” level has arguably turned out to be the hardest aspect of running AFC Wimbledon.
There have been some great times – the cup final, a yellow-and-blue parade through Wimbledon town centre, a sell-out play about the club’s birth – and there will be more. AFC stand as a model for truly democratised and inclusive clubs, and in years to come other sets of fans will follow the same route and face the same problems. What they must decide is whether they would rather be successful or be “right”. Because, as we are discovering, you can rarely be both.
From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month