On 28 May 2002, an FA-appointed independent commission decided by two to one that Wimbledon FC should be permitted to leave London and head north 60 miles, to the new town of Milton Keynes. One line from the report leapt immediately into infamy: the assertion that keeping Wimbledon in Wimbledon would not be in “the wider interests of football”. And returning to the decision years later, it is interesting to note how the commission understood those wider interests. In part, it professed to be worried about another team, likely Brentford, taking Wimbledon’s place in the league pyramid. But that alone would not do. The case for moving to Milton Keynes is made in terms not only practical but explicitly moral.
Reread the summary decision, and you will learn that “Milton Keynes provides a suitable and deserving opportunity”, and that Peter Winkelman believed Milton Keynes “merited having a football club”. As we come to the decision, we hear that Milton Keynes has been “starved of First Division football”, and the case for moving is “unquestionably deserving”. That “unquestionably” sits rather awkwardly with the fact that the committee itself could only come to a majority decision, but summary reports are written by the victors.
Peter Winkelman, the chairman of Stadium MK, signs autographs for Wimbledon fans before the First Division game against Burnley at the National Hockey Stadium, before Wimbledon’s first game at Milton Keynes in August 2003. Photograph: Chris Young/PA
This moral throughline is interesting not only because it tells us that Winkelman absolutely nailed his pitch. It implies that the practical benefits identified by the committee did not add up to a sufficiently persuasive case in themselves; that the committee didn’t feel able to say: “Look, this will save the business, and the balance of expert opinion is that going back to Plough Lane is completely impossible, and that’s your lot.” Or, perhaps more likely, that it might not be a good idea to be seen to say just that. That, after all, might have served as effective permission “for franchise football to arrive on these shores”, an outcome the commission repeatedly states it is desperate to avoid. It needed to construct a positive, nonbusiness case for the move; only then could the extraordinary decision be justified.
What could it mean for a town to deserve a football club? That a potential fanbase existed in Milton Keynes seems fairly inarguable, even if a little exaggeration can be detected in the club’s case. Winkelman claimed and the commission accepted that Milton Keynes was the biggest urban concentration in Europe without a professional football team to call its own, and the committee noted in its decision that the “potential fanbase is huge. Eight million people live within one hour’s drive, and 2.2 million within half an hour’s drive.” It neglects to mention, however, that this hour’s drive includes a number of locations already well-provisioned with professional football clubs: Coventry, Northampton, Cambridge, Oxford, Luton, Watford, Wycombe, Barnet … indeed, an hour’s drive south and kind traffic would have put you within walking distance of White Hart Lane or Highbury. Arguing for the move, Wimbledon’s owners asserted: “Most fans spend over an hour getting to see matches in big cities.” They don’t clarify why any fan already travelling that hour from Milton Keynes to any other club would simply throw their preferred team over the moment a new one arrived.
New supporters travel to Vicarage Road for the game against Watford on 17 August 2002 on a specially chartered bus from Milton Keynes, paid for by Peter Winkelman. Photograph: Paul Gilham/Action Images
But even if we allow for potential interest, and for an unusually un-footballed catchment area, there is more to deserving something than simply lacking it, wanting it and being able to make use of it. There is a normative heft to the idea, a sense that things ought to be this way. That a wrong is here to be righted. And to make this case the commission held up the possibility of a new Wimbledon elsewhere against Wimbledon as it existed at that moment. Then it found south London wanting.
Hindsight again rather renders this ridiculous, but one of the key criteria advanced by the committee is the idea that “WFC’s links or roots in its community are of a nature that can be […] retained by WFC and MKSC [Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium], albeit in a new location”. The committee states that it “does not believe, with all due respect, that the Club’s links with the community around the Plough Lane site or in Merton are so profound, or the roots go so deep, that they will not survive a necessary transplant to ensure WFC’s survival”. The horticultural metaphor there is suggestive: the roots are shallow, the soil is thin, and there isn’t much sunlight; the club must be repotted or it will die.
The evidence advanced for this shallowness of roots appears to be based largely on the submissions of the club’s owners, who presumably had access to the relevant data. What is unusual about WFC fans is they do not seem to come from a single geographical area. Indeed, most WFC fans do not live in Merton or Wimbledon. Twenty percent of current season ticket holders live in Merton and 10% in Wimbledon. [WFC’s] relatively low Merton residents supporters base and its time at Selhurst Park do not suggest that it is the “heart and soul” of its community.
Wimbledon fans protest against the proposed move to Milton Keynes during their 3-1 win over Birmingham City at Selhurst Park in August 2001. Photograph: Phil, Cole/Allsport/Getty Images
The moral calculus is made explicit in one of the appended schedules to the summary decision, a letter from an anonymous fan to Charles Koppel entitled “A Supporter for Milton Keynes”. This fan describes themselves as having been converted from an anti-Milton Keynes position by the arguments of the board, and states: “The people of Wimbledon do not deserve a football club and the apathy they show to the Club is unbelievable. I drive two hours to get to every home game and have been doing so for as long as I can remember. If Wimbledon wants to reach the Premiership again and to stay there then this can only be achieved with a move to Milton Keynes. I would hate to lose the name because of the history and tradition associated with it but I do wonder if Wimbledon Town deserves to have a football club.”
The commission doesn’t go quite that far, but it does extrapolate from the alleged lack of interest in that particular moment that there is no prospect of improvement. The burden here is placed almost entirely on the fans: they are expected to travel out of their way to a ground that isn’t theirs, to watch a poor team play poor football, and to hand over money to evidently uninterested owners who are actively trying to move their team away … and when they balk at any or all of that, it is taken as evidence that they don’t really deserve a football team.
The underlying presumption is that football fans should offer nothing beyond unthinking, unengaged, almost reflexive devotion, and the absence of such demonstrates the absence of support both actual and potential, present and future. We should note that while Wimbledon’s attendances were small by the standards of the old Division One and then the Premier League, they were hardly insignificant: their last season in the Premier League had an attendance high of more than 26,000 and an average of about 17,000.
The Wimbledon keeper Neil Sullivan saves from Chelsea’s Dennis Wise in the Premiership in August 1999 in front of a crowd of 22,167 at Selhurst Park. Photograph: Ben Radford/Getty Images
Beyond this claim about fans’ dedication, there is another general principle being advanced: an idea of what football clubs should look like and what they should be trying to do. On the one hand, Wimbledon as they were: homeless, in debt, undersupported, unapologetically unglamorous, and burdened with fans that as far as the commission was concerned either didn’t really care or were content to shuffle back to the anonymity of the lower leagues. On the other, the Wimbledon that could be: the heart of a grateful community; partnered with Asda and Ikea; playing inside a shiny new stadium; and always twirling towards the Premier League. Is a football club really a football club if it isn’t trying to be the biggest and the best?
And so the commission had found the formula that would allow it to ignore the wishes of most of the club’s fans, the previous decision of the Football League, and the longstanding principles of the game’s overarching structure: a place that apparently doesn’t want its club; another place that notionally deserves it; and a financial and logistical pickle sufficiently alarming that a move from the former to the latter can be presented as the only workable option. The practical case made a certain amount of business sense, of course; nobody was pretending that Wimbledon weren’t in serious financial trouble or that there was a painless and cheap path back to Merton. But it’s the moral argument that allows the committee to not only reach its conclusion, but to then, audaciously, plead for its necessity: “To refuse permission we believe would be stretching the overarching principles too far, and would be more than is reasonably necessary … These principles, which are a fundamental feature of the English game, will not be violated by permission being granted in this case, which we regard as unique and unquestionably deserving.”
In light of these fundamental features of the English game, let us return again to the idea of “the wider interests of football”. For (two-thirds of) the commission, these were served by Wimbledon FC taking what the owners claimed to be its most likely path towards financial solvency in the short term, and then sporting competitiveness in the medium to long term, here understood as trying to reach the Premier League. No fan would really complain about either state of affairs – though it is noticeable that fans of teams regularly promoted to and relegated from the Premier League often find the seasons competing at the top of the Championship far more enjoyable than those spent struggling at the bottom of the Premier League – but it is clear that the important alignment here is between the interests of football and the interests of football club owners.
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The commission dismissed the counterpoint: that the club should stay in the place of its origins even if it had to undergo financial and competitive collapse. Kris Stewart, chair of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (Wisa), was asked by the commission if he could choose between life in Milton Keynes and death in Wimbledon, and replied that “he regarded both as death”. Stewart’s lament that preceded the foundation of AFC Wimbledon – “I just want to watch football” – comes with implicit but fundamental conditions: in Wimbledon, with Wimbledon, as Wimbledon.
AFC Wimbledon fans with a banner referring to the 2002 report at a Carabao Cup game against MK Dons in August 2019. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images
This point of view considers the wider interests of football to be served by each club having its place within the community that founded it, connected to and available to the people that nurtured and created it, whether that club is in the Premier League, the Isthmian Premier League, or bouncing around between the two. A further implication: it is better for a club to fail as both a financial and as a sporting entity, than be rebuilt in the knowledge that things may never be quite as good again, than it is for the club to leave its community.
Underground, Overground: The fault lines of football clubs. Photograph: Halcyon Publishing
An actual conflict of the scale, intensity and existential import of that which consumed Wimbledon is not an inevitable consequence of this tension and, in most cases, the practical interests of the fans and the owners tend to point in the same direction (even if a good number of fans feel isolated from their club’s operations). But nevertheless, we can see here two distinct and at least potentially incompatible answers to the question of what a football club is, and what it is for. And the ultimate implication of the fans’ position is that a football club isn’t really for trying to win football games at all; at least, not if those games aren’t being watched by fans. Victories may be the moment-to-moment preoccupation of the team and the game-by-game desire of the supporters – football would make no sense otherwise – but there are important preconditions.
This is an edited extract from Underground, Overground: The fault lines of football clubs, by Andi Thomas, Halcyon Publishing