Offside, 30 August
The support for AFC Wimbledon is like a 'Save the Whale' campaign.
In the 1980s Wimbledon were widely criticised for their long-ball game. Now, in their new incarnation as AFC Wimbledon, they have become the darlings of the British media. Just as it is obligatory to hate Manchester United, it is also de rigeur to love gallant little AFC Wimbledon.
AFC Wimbledon were formed by disgruntled supporters in June 2002, after a Football Association commission gave Wimbledon FC permission to relocate to Milton Keynes. Old Wimbledon, now dubbed Franchise FC by erstwhile fans, are currently playing in front of home gates of less than 3000, the majority of whom are visiting supporters. No ground, no fans, you might say. Meanwhile new-variant AFC Wimbledon are attracting twice that number, together with a sizeable media circus, to their home games in the Combined Counties League.
So what exactly is it about AFC Wimbledon that so appeals to the Guardianistas? One thing is for sure: it ain’t the football. AFC Wimbledon haven’t exactly set the Combined Counties League alight since the start of the season. As they are discovering, it’s a long hard road back to the Football League.
AFC Wimbledon are celebrated not for their performances on the pitch but because they have come to symbolise fan resistance to the corporate takeover of football. It is a bit like a ‘Save the Whale’ campaign, with the Wombles cast as an endangered species at risk of displacement from their natural habitat.
The proposed move to Milton Keynes, it is argued, is the beginning of US-style franchising whereby football clubs are bought, sold and relocated like fast-food outlets. ‘Franchising runs against all tradition – and all good sense, in the long run – and needs to be resisted by us all’, says broadcaster Tom Watt. ‘The day football chases pound notes – as in the tail wagging the dog – is the day the whole thing, as a national game with roots deep in our local and national histories, begins to come apart at the seams.’ (1)
Wimbledon fans have quickly learnt to couch their claims in the language of environmentalism (though this is not so much Nimbyism as Oimbyism – Only In My Backyard). When Wimbledon FC (that’s the evil franchise version) played their first game of the season they were picketed by AFC fans in t-shirts proclaiming: ‘McFootball – say no to football franchising.’
Marc Jones of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association declared that the breakaway club was ‘A cottage industry in the middle of a globalised trading estate. A corner shop perched between hypermarkets. A community football club in the midst of greed and desperation’ (2). Herein lies AFC Wimbledon’s appeal – an authentic local team playing for the love of the game rather than money. Wooden rattles, half-time oranges, the maximum wage, jumpers for goalposts, and the rest. Marvellous, isn’t it?
Of course, if I were a Wimbledon fan, I wouldn’t be too happy with having to travel 80 miles to watch a ‘home’ game – though I certainly wouldn’t choose to watch non-league football instead.
But the idea that the closure or relocation of a particular club violates football’s traditions ignores the fact that clubs have folded, merged, and relocated ever since the game was invented. In 1995, Meadowbank Thistle, a struggling Edinburgh club with very few fans, was relocated to the new town of Livingston. Thistle’s hardcore supporters were outraged, but the club, now renamed Livingston FC, flourished, acquiring a new and bigger fanbase and winning promotion to the Scottish Premier League in 2001.
Remarkably, Livingston finished third in their debut season in the Scottish top flight and qualified for the UEFA Cup. This is one example of football franchising that the traditionalists aren’t kicking up a fuss about.
There is an episode of the League of Gentlemen in which Tubbs, having found a road atlas, discovers that there is a world outside Royston Vasey that her husband (who is also her brother) has kept hidden from her. ‘You lied to me, Edward. There is a Swansea’, cries Tubbs. ‘And other places too. You kept them from me.’ ‘Yes I kept them from you’, retorts Edward. ‘To keep you clean and pure and local.’
This pretty much encapsulates what AFC Wimbledon is all about. Parochialism writ large (though probably without the inbreeding). Never mind the quality of football. The fans have finally got what they have been hankering after ever since the Dons left Plough Lane in 1991.
Welcome to AFC Wimbledon: a local club for local people.
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