How a once fledgling club cemented the viability of fan ownership in England
By Jim Keoghan | Photo courtesy of AFC Wimbledon
[J]ust over a decade ago, the supporters of Wimbledon FC were the victims of one of the cruellest and most controversial decisions ever delivered in the long history of English football. On May 28 2002, they were informed by the FA that it would allow Wimbledon FC to uproot itself from South London and relocate 57 miles north to Milton Keynes.
American sports fans will recognize this cold business of professional sports, but for English football this was a first. Although in the early years of the game, clubs had often moved within towns and cities, never before had a side been allowed to relocate such a distance.
In response to the club’s plans, the fans had campaigned in protest. One of those behind the unrest was life-long Wimbledon supporter Ivor Heller.
“To us, the move was an affront to what it meant to be a fan. Clubs are an integral part of the communities from which they emerge. They form part of the local identity. Owners should not be allowed to simply tear a club away from this. It’s putting finance above fans.”
A year-long fight, during which the fans picketed, leafleted, raised awareness in the media, and even occasionally turned their backs for the entirety of games, ultimately came to nothing when the FA decided to back the club’s plans. But despite this setback, the supporters refused to let their story end there.
“There was no way we were going to let the moneymen and the FA completely win,” Heller says.
This was 2002, a time of great change in English football. Financial losses and debt were becoming endemic within the sport. This was despite the fact that more money than ever was coming into the game.
The sale last week of Premier League TV rights for over £5 billion marks the high point of a trend that started back in 1992 when Sky TV paid £305 million for a five-year deal to televise top-flight fixtures.
But rather than help the game, ever more generous settlements encouraged clubs to take financial gambles in order to either stay in the Premier League or reach it from the lower divisions. It created a culture of risk in which clubs were constantly over-reaching themselves, the effect of which was a growing rate of bankruptcies and the accumulation of unprecedented levels of debt.
At the same time, a new model of ownership was starting to appear. It was one that sought to harness the growing activism among supporters and turn it into a movement that would take ownership from the boardroom onto the terraces.
Punk football, the sobriquet adopted by the supporter ownership movement, had been around as a concept since the early 1990s, when fans of Northampton Town had formed a democratically structured shareholding trust to buy a stake in their ailing club. But despite the arrival of this revolutionary model, it never really caught on during the remainder of the decade. Northampton were not a big club and what was happening there rarely troubled the headlines.
This was to change during the early years of the new millennium. A few years earlier, in 1997, a new Labour Government had entered Parliament, one that had committed to reforming football when in opposition.
Along with a new approach to improving community engagement, racism in the game and the way in which football opened its doors to the disabled, the Labour Government also addressed the issue of ownership.
The Northampton Town model had been noticed by elements within the party and was viewed as the perfect way for fans to have more say in the game and address some of the issues that were beginning to cause concern among them, such as rising ticket prices, financial instability and a growing disconnect between the terraces and the boardroom.
In 2000, Supporters Direct was established to help promote, create and support trusts similar to that set-up in Northampton. Despite an initial plan that saw a handful of trusts being created it was soon evident that demand was much greater than had been anticipated and supporter organizations proliferated across the game.
For the fans, such trusts appeared to represent the answer to many of football’s problems. By placing supporters within the ownership structure, not only could fans provide struggling clubs with financial assistance, they could also ensure that these clubs were run in a more sustainable manner and in harmony with the views on the terraces.
Although trusts expanded in number, what punk football lacked initially was a ‘star’, that person, group or organization that pricks the wider consciousness and popularizes whatever the movement is peddling. That they eventually got this was due to the tenacity of those Wimbledon FC fans who refused to view the club’s desertion as the end of the matter.
A few months after the date of the FA’s decision, around 2,500 former Wimbledon FC fans gathered together on a blistering summer’s afternoon to watch Sandhurst Town, residents of the Combined Counties Premier Division (the ninth and lowest level in the national pyramid), take on the newest arrivals to the division, AFC Wimbledon.
After all, it is one thing to discuss a concept like fan ownership over a few beers, but quite another to wake up the next day and turn it into a reality.
“The club had been put together over the course of four mad months during which the abandoned supporters of Wimbledon FC had decided to create a punk football club all of our own, one owned and run by the fans. It was us sticking two-fingers up to the FA,” says Heller, who today is the club’s Commercial Director.
Through the hard-work of a few thousand supporters, AFC Wimbledon morphed from a mere idea dreamed up by a handful of die-hard fans to become a fully-functional football club, complete with a stadium and its own squad of players.
This club was, and continues to be, owned by the Dons Trust, a shareholding Industrial and Provident Society, within which members enjoy one vote, regardless of how much they invest. It is this democratic element that lies at the heart of punk football, a concept as far away from the private model of ownership as is possible. Punk football shares much in common with the supporter ownership models that exist in Germany, Sweden and in parts of Spain and which lie behind many of the greats of European football, such as Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
Had AFC Wimbledon remained mired in the lower leagues then it’s likely the club would have faded from view and become a minor footnote in the game’s history. But they didn’t. A 2–1 victory in their opening match proved to be a sign of things to come. Since their founding, the club has stormed upwards and today compete in League 2, the third-tier of the English Football League; an amazing achievement. Satisfyingly for those involved, AFC now reside just one division lower than the club that deserted them for Milton Keynes (the rebranded MK Dons).
The AFC Wimbledon story is a remarkable one. After all, it is one thing to discuss a concept like fan ownership over a few beers, but quite another to wake up the next day and turn it into a reality. That the fans did has been to the benefit of football in England. The decision to not give up and instead create a club of their own not only helped expand the plurality of ownership models evident in the game but also provided a clear example that common-ownership by the fans and success on the field can go hand in hand.
It is also a story that gave the cause of supporter ownership a massive boost. There was nothing like success, particularly when followed closely by the national media from the outset, to raise the profile of punk football. AFC Wimbledon became the poster boys (and girls) for the fledgling movement, the exciting, living example of supporter ownership.
Today there are 104 trusts in English football, 73 of which are in either the top-flight or the Football League. Although not all own shares, some do. And there are even those at clubs like Exeter City, Portsmouth and FC United of Manchester that have achieved that rarest of feats, majority control. Punk football is now rightly seen as an established alternative to private ownership. That this has become the case is in no small measure attributable to the supporters of AFC Wimbledon, those few thousand fans who turned one of English football’s darkest moments into something amazing.
Jim Keoghan is the author of Punk Football, a book that looks at the development of supporter activism in England and explores the movement that has seen fans make the transition from the terraces to the boardroom. Punk Football is available here. Keoghan is also a long-suffering Evertonian, retired left-back and terrible FIFA 15 player. Follow his tweets @jimmykeo.