Archive for March, 2008

Baggage Handling

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

“Football supporters in general have to understand that if they want professional football in their town, they have to accept it has to be done on a commercial basis.” John Batchelor, former owner of York City, 2008

It is almost 20 years since Wimbledon FC managed the unthinkable and beat Liverpool to the 1988 FA Cup. This was, it is worth noting, during a time when the Reds would hoover up trophies like a present day Premier League footballer would deal with a cistern full of narcotic stimulants. The cup final win was a pretty neat microcosm of their whirlwind rise from Southern League to Division One in nine seasons. They were elected to the League in favour of Workington - such windy northern outposts were sliding out of fashion with the Football League club chairman of the day (see also Southport and our good selves) - and by 1986 were playing in the top flight. They were perhaps best known for their footballing style, euphemistically referred to as either ‘uncompromising’, ‘direct’ or ‘route one’. This was not a club known for its swift passing and flowing play. Vinny Jones played for them, which says it all.

Their later years were dogged by the various responses to their financial difficulties - they had the lowest crowds in the top division and had to rent Crystal Palace’s ground after Plough Lane was deemed unfit - most of which seemed to involve getting the hell out of South London. Moves to Cardiff, Belfast and Dublin were mooted before Peter Winkelman stepped in and facilitated a move to the footballing hotbed that is Milton Keynes. The subsequent split has been well documented elsewhere, but last year came a significant gesture from the new Dons to the old. In 2007, MK Dons handed back a number of historical artefacts (including a replica of the FA Cup) not to AFC Wimbledon, who are themselves still exiled from their natural home, but to Merton Borough Council. In doing so, they relinquished themselves of all claims to Wimbledon FC’s records and history.

On the surface, this seems like The Right Thing To Do, a belated recognition that the true legacy of the Crazy Gang lies anywhere but the horrifically named Stadium MK. But there is a subtext to all this. Now that MK have scrabbled together a fanbase - they have had to drop to the fourth division to make themselves into a winning team, but their crowds are creeping towards 9,000, 46% up from last season - it’s a very easy thing for them to do. To some extent MK Dons are saying ‘We’re on our own two feet now, we don’t need these trophies and this history. While we’re at it, we don’t care much for this other baggage that goes with it. All this rubbish about climbing the ladder and paying our dues - sod that!’ Winkelman has got what he wanted, which was a Football League club in an area as yet untapped by the football industry. He’s got this by eschewing the traditional route of rising the pyramid, developing a professional squad and all the heartbreak that goes with ground grading committees and last minute play-off defeats. Milton Keynes has had teams bearing the new town’s name; the last of which, Milton Keynes City, folded - funnily enough! - at the same time Wimbledon/MK Dons relocated to the city. Winkelman would have more credibility if he at least tried to bring success to an existing team from the area.

When asked in the build-up to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final, at the end of March 2008, what significance the 20 year anniversary of the Wimbledon FA Cup win had for the MK Dons, Winkelman answered along the lines of ‘it’s important only as far as any club can be inspired by the Wimbledon story’, shying away from the fact that he has bypassed a lot of what the original Dons went through to get his new club on the League ladder.

It is this attitude which informs people like John Batchelor - last seen swanning aroung York in his sports car, changing his club’s name to York City Soccer Club because this made the club more “marketable” - whose latest scheme (calling it harebrained would be to insult our long-eared friends) involves transforming struggling Mansfield Town into Harchester United, the fictional side who feature in Sky One’s Dream Team football drama. I’m not that well researched to be able to tell you anything about the latter outfit, but it’s a fair assumption that what viewers like about Dream Team is the escapism that it offers, perhaps to distract from the tribulations of their own team’s day-to-day. If Harchester become a reality, are primetime audiences going to find the same kicks from derbies against Chesterfield (or, more likely, Alfreton)? In any case, at least Winkelman has finally learned that creating a winning team is the only way to build a fanbase… sorry, make a club more marketable. Fancy gimmicks, name changes and TV tie-ins are signs of desperation from a man clearly committed to being a football big shot, but one who doesn’t know one end of a football from the other.