Carson: ‘Not in the wider interests of football’
Alex Carson | Friday, January 15, 2016
Let’s start with a history lesson.
It also happens to be one of England’s greatest sporting tales.
It’s a story of a soccer club founded in a London district known much more for its tennis than its association football. In 1889, Wimbledon FC was founded, then known as Wimbledon Old Centrals, starting a history as an amateur club that lasted for more than seven decades. The Dons, as the club was known, became one of England’s better amateur clubs, winning the FA Amateur Cup in 1963, before winning election to the professional, storied Football League in 1977.
And that’s where their Cinderella story truly started. Two years later, the Dons won promotion to the Third Division, only staying for a year before suffering relegation.
Six years later, Wimbledon had won three promotions to get to the English top flight, just nine years after entering the league for the first time.
But Wimbledon’s story didn’t end there. Two years after reaching the First Division, they met the biggest, most storied club in English football at the time in the FA Cup Final: Liverpool. Wimbledon’s “Crazy Gang,” as they were known, pulled off one of the top wins in Wembley Stadium history, downing the star-studded Reds, 1-0.
In 11 years, the club had gone from a non-League side to the winners of the world’s greatest knockout competition.
A year later, however, the story started to take a turn for the worst. When Liverpool met Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semifinal next year at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium, 96 fans in the Liverpool end were crushed to death on a standing terrace.
The findings of the Taylor Report, the United Kingdom’s enquiry into the disaster, recommended that all first- and second-tier clubs remove their standing terraces, replacing them with all-seated stands.
The result was that Wimbledon had to leave Plough Lane, a place they’d called home for 79 years, moving into a ground-sharing agreement at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park. Despite the move, the Dons were one of the founding members of the Premier League a year later, and stayed in the division until relegation finally hit in 2000. The club had competed against the odds, won the FA Cup and stayed in the division much longer than expected.
But the ground share at their South London rivals crippled the club financially. A move to Dublin was floated in the late 1990s, but in 2001, Wimbledon’s new owners submitted for an unprecedented move to Milton Keynes. Unlike in the United States, where relocation was common, it’s effectively unheard of in European soccer — the clubs belong to their communities, often neighborhoods, not sitting there as a franchise.
After much consideration, a special panel from England’s Football Association approved Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes in 2002. In the report, the panel suggested that Wimbledon supporters forming what’s known as a phoenix club, one that carries on as the spiritual successor of a since-folded club, was “not in the wider interests of football.”
But the supporters were not to be stopped. That year, Dons fans formed AFC Wimbledon as a fan-owned club, starting once more at the bottom of England’s football hierarchy. In the final season before Wimbledon FC moved north to Milton Keynes, the ninth-tier phoenix club outdrew the original, second-division one.
In a bit of symmetry, nine years later, AFC Wimbledon had won back the Dons’ rightful place in the Football League. They were promoted five times in those nine seasons, playing at another site that isn’t their home: Kingsmeadow.
Last month, AFC Wimbledon got initial approval from local authorities to construct a stadium on Plough Lane, just a stone’s throw from the club’s old home. If the project continues to move forward, it would finally signal a return to Wimbledon’s football home.
But why am I, as a random American so concerned with a team in England’s fourth tier? Simple. It’s a brilliant Cinderella story of what happens when fans come together to overcome of the often-toxic, money-hungry culture that world soccer has become.
And so a month ago, I became a member of the Dons Trust, the group that owns the majority of the shares in the club. I’m proud to be aboard. Because sports are about fans.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.