Any powerful idea learns to use its biggest weakness. The Joker used Batman to manipulate Gotham, Capitalism used Communism to re-enforce the necessity of its own ideals, the business of football has used AFC Wimbledon to restore faith in the way it operates. The Dons started off as something different, but they’ve ended up the same as everyone else, its shiny exterior covering up the same putrid underbelly as the rest of the game.
I realise, that the mere implication that AFC Wimbledon are anything less than whiter than white may be difficult for you to stomach, but bear with me here, because beneath the media-induced glorious surface lurks a club that have left a trail of destruction in their wake, the irony of a bigger club damaging a smaller one clearly lost on them. (This seems a reasonable juncture to point out that a dislike of AFC is not a tacit support of MK Dons. My feelings towards them are not new, nor different from the multitude previously expressed by many, and as such I won’t go over them again.) But the club have been far from perfect, especially in its dealings with my club, Kingstonian, of whom AFCW are landlords, and this coming week sees a move that is symbolic in the course of this relationship, the destruction of the Ks home (The Dons away) stand, The Kingston Road End, the re-building of which will see it replaced with seats.
We all know about the (re?)birth of AFCW, and despite the damage done by the Dons there remains something subversive and inspiring about a club refusing to die and fighting against the system in order to survive and eventually thrive. But the circumstances by which they ended up at Kingsmeadow have been less heralded.
Intrinsically linked to the birth of AFCW are the troubled events surrounding Kingstonian at the turn of the millennium. After a successful spell in the conference under Geoff Chapple that saw a 5th place finish nicely supported by two FA Trophy wins, things began to go downhill. As enjoyable as the era was, the golden period was built upon financial mismanagement, and despite being a matter of seconds away from an FA Cup fifth round tie that may have balanced the books, the demise of Ks was inevitable.
After lurching from one economic calamity to another, the club ended up in the hands of one Rajesh Khosla, who was, in essence, an asset stripper. To cut a long, messy story short, Kingstonian’s situation continued to deteriorate, and the selling of Kingsmeadow would not only save the club, but also line Khosla’s pockets quite nicely. It’s at this point that the recently re-formed Dons stepped in. The timing was perfect for the phoenix club, who were searching for a ground at the time KM became available. While it seems a perfect fit, surely AFC of all clubs should have avoided dealing with a man whose raison d’etre was individual gain, whether it destroyed a club at not.
Rob Tolfrey’s Decisive Shoot-Out Save In Front Of The KRE: FA Cup .v. Margate.
The historical balance is a delicate one. The sale ultimately saved the Ks, but the majority of the money was never seen by the club, a legacy that hurts the club to this day, as its total lack of assets has long-term implications. While it’s entirely possible that Kingstonian may no longer exist (in its current guise) were not it for the intervention of AFC, the loss of Kingsmeadow, and the way in which the scenario now plays leaves the Ks powerless. Not only is their future entirely dependent on decisions made by the Dons, but their lack of finances leave them powerless in any negotiations over the future of Kingsmeadow.
This is significant. Long-term, the future of Wimbledon does not lie at Kingsmeadow for the simple reason that for a club whose identity is so rooted in geography that surely they would drown in a bath of irony if their existence continued in Kingston. The end-game has to be a return to Merton (or somewhere a lot closer), in which case the future of Kingsmeadow hangs in the balance. (A side-issue, but key concern here is the future of Tooting and Mitcham. Their ground is far more ideally placed for Wimbledon, with plenty of room to expand, watch this space…) If Ks cannot afford to buy it off them, there’s a chance it could be taken over by the council and knocked down/turned into flats/turned into Tesco/turned into a shrine for AFC Wimbledon. This would leave Ks homeless, and perhaps hopeless.
But as I say, there’s balance here. Ks play rent-free at Kingsmeadow, the overheads are low, very low, and as such the continued existence is entirely down to AFC. However, this existence is at the expense of the chance of longer-term thriving. No money is made for Ks through the ground, and while this is an experience of many who share grounds, there is a bigger issue. As long as AFC exist in Kingston, the Ks crowds will suffer. Necessarily high prices amongst all the teams in the Ryman means the disparity between Ks and AFC ticket costs are not large enough to ensure new fans come to Ks. Your new or neutral fan in Kingston or the surrounding area will be drawn to AFC through a combination of a higher standard of football, and the chance to see the media darlings in the flesh.
For Ks, the possibility of getting new fans, in an area with so much choice of non-league teams (Met Police, Tooting, Sutton, Carshalton and Hampton are all crowd-stealingly-close-by.) A recent chat with a barman in a Thames Ditton pub was a prime example of this. A football nut, he is always looking for an excuse to go to a game, even stretching to take in a Met Police reserve fixture. But on a free Saturday his destination of choice is Kingsmeadow, to see Wimbledon. This is exactly the kind of fan Ks, and all non-league clubs, need to find to secure their future, but for Ks they are fighting a losing battle. Ks’ attendances are down by a third in recent years (they were higher in the Ryman South), this is entirely down to the continued existence of AFC. Those 150 or so fans that Ks have lost would mean very little to AFC, but for Ks, they mean everything. This ensures that the reach of Ks, both in terms of influence and league position is limited. The team that found themselves in the upper echelons of the non-league game 12 years ago now sit in the middle of the Ryman Premier, on a less-than-average budget for the division.
On a smaller scale there are other issues. It has never been made particularly public, but The Dons have made things difficult for Ks to arrange cup games in the past. A recent London Senior Cup tie was not allowed to be played on the desired date, despite it not clashing with any Dons fixture, with no firm reasoning ever given. It’s safe to assume that there were reasons, but this is typical of AFC, their concern is purely about themselves. This is seen in fixture planning (or blocking), the marketing in Kingston of the club, the removal of much of the Ks identity from Kingsmeadow and the destruction of the KRE (which was done with no consultation with Ks board). A microcosm of Wimbledon’s attitude is shown in the loss of the friendly between the two sides. This was agreed upon as part of the original deal, with Ks making money from it, however in recent years, as AFC’s profile has outgrown the need for such a goodwill gesture, the fixture has disappeared. Ultimately, AFC’s presence in Kingston means that the biggest losers from the MK Dons scandal are Kingstonian.
Perhaps you are thinking that this is entirely justified, surely any club’s priority should be themselves? But for Wimbledon, this is different, they embody more than a sodding club, they’re an idea, the last vestige of our heritage, a club whose existence was born out of a desire not to conform to the path football was taking. Because of this, it seems entirely reasonable to hold Wimbledon to a higher standard than the rest of the game. They ARE different, they are unique. Scrap that, they WERE different, they were unique.
They had the chance to restore localism to the game, but instead they’ve built a fanbase where perhaps a third have no connection to Wimbledon (old or new), their ideals have dissipated at the chance to make money and become fashionable, far from taking the game back to its roots, they’ve created a hipster club at the expense of the teams still rooted in their community that surround them.They’ve acted no differently than any other club in their situation would have, and that is exactly the problem. Wimbledon are happy to be put on this pedestal by Sports Interactive, FourFourTwo and whoever else wants a piece of the action. Well, perhaps they need to justify their tag as the people’s clubs in their current actions, not just in their history. (Yes, yes, yes, they do things in the community, but MK Dons are streets ahead of them on that.) Until the pretence that Wimbledon are anything different to the rest of the game subsides it remains entirely justifiable to hold them to a loftier account than Carlisle or Northampton.
This isn’t a problem with AFC, this a problem with the monolith that football has turned into. Anything different, challenging, subversive is swallowed up and becomes part of the beast and turned into a marketing tool, just wait until Balotelli launches his own brand of PL-approved condoms. Football isn’t about community any more, it’s not about real hope, it’s not about anything real any more. It’s a pre-packaged escapism where you can buy the replica shirt on the way in and comply for 90 minutes, Wimbledon had the chance to do it differently, to re-imagine what that could look like. They had to chance to show concern for the wider game, to be something the game could rally around to dream again. Instead they conformed, they became part of the system. Their disregard for Ks history, home end and chance to thrive is telling. This week sees the death of a home end, but more than that, the death of AFC’s claims to offer anything different.
Jamie Cutteridge writes about Kingstonian and youth work and can be found on Twitter, here.
That odd yet glorious penalty shoot out in front of the KRE can be relived here.