It's a fan thing

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pete Green

10 January 2003

As Grimsby fans - and therefore as progeny of the stroppiest, mardiest, most miserable town in England - we are quite used to seeing clubs in lower leagues draw bigger crowds than us. We scoffed at Lennie Lawrence's "now this is a real club" boasts even as we envied the spending power that Cardiff's five-figure attendances afford him. We watched with bemused curiosity as that lot on the north bank packed 25,000 into their new ground on Boxing Day to see the grey, patchy, porridgey football that is the staple diet down in Division Three. But even we would be surprised to see a club six relegations below us pull in more fans than populate Blundell Park every other week.

This, however, is precisely what has resulted at Wimbledon, where the FA's meek acceptance of chairman Charles Koppel's plan to relocate to Milton Keynes has so outraged fans that their boycott saw just 23 of them trudge up to Cleethorpes when the team played Town back in August, and culminated in a total attendance of just 849 at Selhurst for their clash with Rotherham two months later - a record low for second-flight football.

The boycott has been a huge success in keeping Koppel's shameful actions in the glare of the national media spotlight - but Dons fans aren't content to leave it at that. A meeting of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association (WISA) in May led to the formation of a new club, AFC Wimbledon. The following month former WFC defender Terry Eames was appointed manager, and almost 250 players turned up to trials. A groundshare was quickly agreed with Kingstonian FC and the new club admitted to the Combined Counties League, the champions of which can gain a place in the two-tier Ryman (Isthmian) League, which in turn feeds into the Conference. If AFC Wimbledon won every single game they played, it would still take four years to reach the Nationwide third division. But 4142 fans packed into Kingsmeadow for their first home league game against Chipstead - at a level of football where the attendances seldom hit three figures.

Back in Town's division, 'Wimbledon' are reporting average gates of around 2500 - but even this figure is thought to be falsely inflated. Now that Dons fans once again have a club of their own to support, I would like nothing better than to see the good people of Milton Keynes carry on supporting Luton, Peterborough, Northampton and, hey, even the existing Milton Keynes City FC - and for the whole bastardised franchise version of WFC to fall apart entirely when the move finally goes through. This is not out of anger and spite - OK, not just out of anger and spite - but like thousands of fans of other 'struggling' clubs, I worry about the precedent set by the MK move. How is it to be seen as anything other than a green light for business people to start buying clubs and shoving them around the country willy-nilly? Failure for Koppel's 'MK Dons' would go a long way to warning anyone off reprising his deplorable antics at another club.

So after a shaky first month or so, AFC Wimbledon hit a tremendous run of form and currently lie second in the Combined; but league leaders Wallingford look unstoppable, eight points ahead at the time of writing with a game in hand. Notwithstanding the Dons' tremendous support, though, this is an incredible achievement for a club that has existed for just a few months. Whether the fairytale will go on and the AFC will surge up through the leagues as their fans foresee remains to be seen, but it's hard to be pessimistic about such a feelgood story of fan power. As Terry Burton - sacked by Koppel as Wimbledon manager last summer after expressing doubts about the Milton Keynes project - comments: "If that's where the fans are, that is where the club is."

There are those, however, who might say: what's the big problem with the move anyway? Wimbledon didn't have a ground and didn't have that many fans to start with, surely? OK - look at this way. Franchise football a la Koppel bothers me in the same way people bother me who have lived their entire lives on Wybers Wood or Brereton Avenue and walk around in Liverpool shirts. The bond between club and supporter is more complex than the straightforward consumer arrangement between, say, you and your mobile phone company. Unless you are trying to compensate for some sort of pitiably diminished life, you don't choose your club on the basis of quality, value for money or fashion. You support the club that represents you, usually on the basis of where you grow up. Accepting its inadequacies is part of the deal: for better, for worse. Jumping ship because some other club is doing better would represent the very depths of treachery. We hold these truths to be self-evident.

But it's a two-way thing. What the business people taking over the game fail to see is that football is different from processing food or publishing porn, or whatever industry they made their pile from. Even if they buy every share in a club they can lay their hands on, that club is still not theirs - and certainly not theirs to relocate. They are simply running it on behalf of the fans and the community who are its true owners. If the local populace are reluctant to come and see the team, if it's difficult attracting players to the area, if the club can't find anywhere to build a new ground, you can't just stick a pin in the map and try another town. What you do - indeed, all you can do - is carry on, and try harder.

At Cod Almighty we've discussed the boycott and what to do about this weekend's game. I've wondered whether we should take an official line, calling for GTFC supporters to join in and stay away from Selhurst on Saturday. But our match reporter Tony Butcher is determined to attend every fixture this season; and since we intend to publish his account of the Wimbledon game, it would be hypocrisy for Cod Almighty to tell other fans to stay away. A couple of the CA team are considering a visit to see AFC Wimbledon play away at Cobham instead. And me? Conveniently spared the moral dilemma - I've just been made redundant and need to save the cash.

Ultimately, it's a matter for the consideration and conscience of each individual fan. But think five or ten years down the line, and if they still can't find a decent team to put in that swanky new ground in Hull then don't be too surprised if they end up looking across the Humber for one.