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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/08/02, 3pm
Watford
versus
Franchise FC
 
Who's next?
By Kevin Rye, WISA

On the 28th of May this year, a panel of three voted 2-1 in favour of allowing Wimbledon FC to relocate to Milton Keynes. Long suffering supporters had been dealt the final indignity: the loss of their club. Since 1991 we had been forced to troop over to Selhurst Park to watch our 'home' games. Our owner since 1981, Sam Hamman, moved us from our Plough Lane ground as it 'was unsuitable for redevelopment under the new requirement for all-seater stadia'. It turned out that this claim wasn't exactly true, and the site was sold in the mid-1990's to supermarket chain Safeway. It emerged later that Hammam - the football world's greatest self-publicist - took the 8 million profits for himself and not the club. Not bad for an original 30 000 investment.

Over the years he had rejected sites all over our home borough of Merton; Beddington Lane being one of the many - mainly because he wanted paying for it. He even had planning permission for a site just a few minutes down the road in Wandle Valley South back in 1988 but, for some reason, allowed it to lapse.

Here was a club admired across the world for its achievements, taken for a ride by someone with more interest in the value of land than of stability and financial security for a club with such a proud history. But that was just the beginning.

A change of owner came in 1997 when Kjell Inge Roekke and Bjorn Gjlesten, two Norwegian playboy multi-millionaires, bought 80% of the club for 25 million from 'Uncle Sam'. Excitement burst forth at the stories of their wealth and promises of a stable future. We had just had one of our most successful seasons in the top-flight; two semi-finals and eighth in the league. The squad was exciting, if a little lacking in depth and we were, so it seemed, on our way. Of course, it failed to dawn on most of us that the spectre of a move to Dublin still loomed large on the horizon and it's only really been in the last year-or-so that most of us have put two and two together. To complete introductions, Charles Koppel, failed businessman extraordinaire and friend of Gjelsten, came on board in 1999.

By July 2001 - after 'merger' talks with QPR had collapsed (mainly because fans had got wind of it) - the deal to create the first football franchise in England had been signed. On August 2nd Charles Koppel (the Norwegians now backseat drivers) told us in a letter that a 'local solution' was not feasible and that the only way for the club to survive was through 'relocation'. Shocked? No. Sam Hammam set it in train with the move to Selhurst Park; he made a decision for the 'good' of the club without ever asking the most important people; fans. As Nike say, 'Just do it'.

Yet still we had faith that the right thing would triumph: WISA kicked into action to oppose the franchising of our special little club. Yet we also came up with initiative-after-initiative to help the owners find a local solution. No support in Merton? We'll commission ICM to carry out a poll that tells you that 86% want us back. No viable stadium site in Merton? We'll design a stadium for you that fits on Plough Lane. Need financing for a development? We'll work with the council to secure it. Three rejections of the move - two by the Football League and one by an FA arbitration panel - and numerous dirty tricks by Koppel left fans in limbo; relations were at an all time low. Fans, lead by WISA, were boycotting all official merchandise - to the extent that our fans-produced programme, 'Yellow and Blue', was outselling the official 'Pravda' (as it came to be known) by three-to-one. Fans United day, the Walk for Wimbledon, the 'It's a community thing' postcard campaign; everything we did to try to be positive, to try to show the club that we could secure a viable future in Merton simply fell on deaf ears or was met with even more underhand tactics. Koppel even turned up to a local residents meeting called by people opposed to any return by Wimbledon (those in favour were turned away) and was taped offering media advice to oppose any return by Wimbledon to Plough Lane. A motion was even composed by the club's legal advisor, Dan Tench, to that effect and the club's PR company - Brunswick - was used as the contact point on a press release. The majority shareholders - Roekke and Gjlesten - rolling in money, were not for turning; Roekke in particular was known to be actively ignoring advice from business associates who were telling him to bail out.

Back to the 28th of May and at the Fox and Grapes - the pub that the original Wimbledon Old Centrals from 1889 used to use as their dressing rooms before games on the Common - is full of mourning, tears and anger. Yet in the midst of all this, the germ of an idea that is now AFC Wimbledon takes shape and within 6 weeks the 100% fans owned club has a place in the Combined Counties League - just one below the 1st Division South of the Ryman League. Its first friendly at the home of Sutton United FC is delayed for half an hour to let everyone in and eventually plays in front of bumper 4700 crowd. The club has since taken an average of 1000 away to pre-season friendlies at Walton and Hersham, Borehamwood and Enfield Town.

The Franchise FC - the new moniker for Wimbledon FC - is now the subject of an FSF/WISA call to boycott their home matches and for the first match of the season - usually a well attended occasion - draws an 'official' attendance of 2476 - a post-war low in the First Division. Garth Crooks on BBC's Football Focus, present in the ground whilst outside over two thousand demonstrate outside, accuses the club of "creative accounting", saying that if there were more than a thousand (total) he'd be shocked. The club are even 'giving' season tickets away.

So what's the deal? Why, when the club still plays at Selhurst Park, are we starting up a new club? What is the FSF 'Say NO to Football Franchising' campaign actually about? To answer the first, our club ceased to be the day that Steve Stride of Aston Villa and Raj Parker, a lawyer, voted in favour of my club being snuffed out on the whim of a property deal in Milton Keynes. The club I supported from the late 1970's, left homeless and destitute by Sam Hammam, has been murdered by faceless businessmen with no care for its carefully nurtured roots and history. It has been sacrificed so that ASDA/Walmart, IKEA and a little known record producer, Pete Winkelman, can have a nice set of retail developments and a little toy - a football franchise - to play with. Oh, and the club's shareholders stand to make a reported 75 million from the deal.

As for the campaign, fans across the country have made it clear that they want to send this idea back to the loony-bin with ID cards and electrified fences. 'Say NO to football franchising' is about more than just the death of one football club; it's about stopping this hell ever occurring again and about who owns football; AFC Wimbledon shows that fans can take some control of their clubs - although we did do it the hard way.

In short, we're not unique. This could happen to anyone. It just so happened that Wimbledon set the precedent and now the door is open. Who's next?