Thursday, 19 May 2011

Ship of Theseus FC

Owen turned out a great chapter on Milton Keynes – its strange car-crash of signals and associations, its uniquely (for Britain) schizophrenic soul caught between ‘its utopian promises and its bland, kitsch Thatcherite reality.’ In New Ruins, he tries to reclaim the 'old new town', the planned, rational metropolis of the future, from its later peculiar adoption as 'city of the eighties', with all the dispiriting implications that might suggest.

One consequence of this trend at the time was that MK always seemed to be mooted as a ‘deserving’ location for a professional football club. At the time, football was at the nadir of its media popularity, struggling with its first period of New Realism. Always-‘inevitable’ mergers (Fulham Park Rangers, Thames Valley Royals) and closures were mooted in all of the old footballing centres, at least when assorted Conservative MPs weren’t angrily suggesting shutting football down altogether. The unpleasantly tinged notion that London in particular had ‘too many football clubs’, and that there was dead wood that deserved to be removed, was a frequently aired notion entirely in synch with the spirit of the times.

I mention all of this (believe it or not) in the context of Saturday’s Conference playoff final game between Luton and AFC Wimbledon. It’s another car-crash of associations. Not least because, among the many brainwaves that realistic businessmen came up with in the Eighties, any club based in a cramped city-centre ground within a fifty-mile radius of Milton Keynes could expect to be associated with a move there. The one that came closest to getting off the ground was… Luton.

(WSC – October 1986)

The difficulty identified by successive owners is that Kenilworth Road is landlocked - wedged awkwardly into the end of a street of redbrick terraces, with no room for expansion. The land is even now, post-recession, being eyed up by assorted local property dealers. It still has old-fashioned skeleton floodlights (so that there’s no need to ask for directions from the train station, despite the shortest route to the ground having been obliterated by a ring road and shopping centre in the Seventies) and from the outside seems to be constructed mainly of plywood and portakabins. It’s a nostalgic world far removed from the pedestrian-hostile new stadiums inhabited by clubs like Reading, imperiously disassociating themselves from the communities that made them.

Ground moves have always been mooted by Luton’s owners: David Kohler dazzled the press with talk of a ‘Kohlerdome’, then walked out of the club (leaving a financial mess) when he couldn’t get planning permission for his project. Luton struggled with an initial points deduction for entering administration, and two years later dropped out of the League after being given a 30-point cumulative penalty for re-entering administration and making improper payments. The unprecedented scale of the second deduction effectively made it a punitive relegation. As it happened, Luton were one of the stronger teams in the division, and some talked optimistically about achieving the 75 or 80 points they would have needed to avoid relegation. It didn’t happen, of course; heads dropped on and off the pitch.

So it’s possible to have a fair amount of sympathy for Luton, expelled from the League as a result of official greed and boardroom gerrymandering rather than events on the field. If only they were playing any other team they’d have my wholehearted support on Saturday. But their opponents are AFC Wimbledon - a team who can tell an even better hard-luck story. Luton may not have a League club nowadays... but Milton Keynes does. For all of the enthusiasm about American sports ideas that possessed this country in the 1980s (I’m just about old enough to remember C4’s deathly serious attempt to launch gridiron as a mainstream sport), the first franchising of an English football club didn’t take place until 2002.

I’m sure you’ve heard all of this before. It bears repeating. Wimbledon FC, deeply unfashionable and homeless for the better part of a decade, were finally relegated from the Premier League in 2000. At this point attendances slumped and the major shareholders began to make noises about the club's unprofitability (with then-chairman Sam Hammam suggesting relocations to ‘deserving’ communities in Dublin, Cardiff, Outer Mongolia, etc, before selling up and leaving with a cool £30 million in pocket). A music business promoter corralled a group of investors and PR men into presenting Milton Keynes as the club’s natural home. New chairman Charles Koppel, eager to be shot of the drain on his investment portfolio, quickly signed up.

The Football League initially rejected the proposal out of hand. Koppel appealed on the grounds that it should at least be given a fair hearing and treated seriously. An arbitration panel upheld this objection, so the Football League Board reversed its earlier decision, appointing a three-man Commission to examine the issues properly and make the judgement. Raj Parker (a lawyer known for representing corporate clients in commercial dispute resolution, previously employed by the FA in the aftermath of Hillsborough), Steve Stride (then a director at Aston Villa), and Alan Turvey (chairman of the Isthmian League, also at the time sitting on the FA Council) reached a majority verdict approving the move.

Time has not been particularly kind to the justifications rolled out in the accompanying Report. Primarily, the Commission were at pains to point out that the circumstances were unique and their decision was not intended to be a far-reaching precedent.

108: We do not wish to see clubs attempting to circumvent the pyramid structure by ditching their communities and metamorphosising in new, more attractive areas. Nor do we wish, more than any football authorities or supporters, for franchise football to arrive on these shores. We believe that giving WFC permission in this exceptional case will have neither of these consequences.

They were proved right, here; there hasn’t been a rush to franchised football in England. I’d like to say that was due to the huge amounts of criticism the MK move attracted, but let’s not overestimate how much attention the powers that be pay to that type of thing. What the lack of a slippery-slope effect proves is not that their pleas of unique exceptionalism were sincere, but that their concerns over the financial circumstances (and the viability of football in Merton) were either wild and hysterical or simply perjurious. Claiming that something is on the brink of collapse unless your particular flavour of reform is immediately steamrollered through is a very old politicians’ trick.

110: Mr Koppel has made it clear to us and publicly that WFC is committed to taking practical steps in relation to transport and maintaining WFC’s identity… it is committed to its name, ‘Wimbledon FC‘, its colours, its traditions. It is committed to retaining its identity.

The Report is cluttered with assurances about the preservation of Wimbledon’s identity and traditions. Koppel and Winkelman both explicitly vowed to keep the association with the Plough Lane club, and the Commission suggested that the FL take a very strong approach to enforcing these promises. Understandable; keeping the name and colours intact was the most obvious defence against accusations of introducing franchised football. Three seasons later, Milton Keynes Dons were playing in white shirts with a different club badge - it’s now probably fair to say that very young MK fans have no idea that their club was once based in South London. Those involved would probably defend themselves on the grounds that the fortuitous rise of AFC absolved them of any responsibility of conservation. Bullshit, of course. The fact that the old identity was dropped with such unseemly haste makes one wonder whether that wasn’t their intention all along, just as soon as they could reasonably get away with it. Attempting to pass the buck to AFC is disingenuous; a more recent squabble over the old club’s museum and trophy cabinet shows that MK do not in practice accept AFC as the true inheritors.

116: There is no doubt that WFC has got to its current league position through sporting merit and achievement, in accordance with the fundamental principles of the pyramid structure. In the event that WFC were to go into liquidation, player registration would revert to the Football League and another club, most probably Brentford FC, would take WFC’s place in Division One for next season, not on its own sporting merit but as a result of WFC’s predicament.

Well - the whole point is that the league and non-league pyramid is a codified expression of sporting merit. Promoting Brentford (the highest placed non-promoted club in the division below) could arguably have been seen as granting them an undeserved boon. On the other hand, Brentford and the long queue of clubs behind them all had far more claim on the grounds of ‘sporting merit’ than any newly formed club (which, as I hope we’ve established, MKD were always intended to be). Brentford moving up to the second tier, Dagenham & Redbridge brought into the League; football has survived bigger shakeups.

127: The interests of the fans are important, But the interests of most WFC fans would not necessarily be served by a decision which results in the liquidation of Wimbledon FC.
128: Furthermore, resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, ‘Wimbledon Town‘, is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so that they could go back to their position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football.

Except that the decision did result in the termination of Wimbledon FC. And the awarding of their place in the league to another club. How any of this served the interests of Wimbledon’s fans escapes me. At least paragraph 128 acknowledges a truth that the Board and Commission doubtless found unpalatable: that Wimbledon emerged from non-league and climbed the pyramid on merit. The route up through the divisions that was dismissed as ‘tortuous’, that Milton Keynes were so graciously spared, is a route that Wimbledon have now negotiated not once but twice. The fact that anybody involved with this decision can use the phrase ‘sporting merit’ without immediately bursting into flame is an argument that Richard Dawkins may want to consider adopting.

119: The current outlook for many clubs in Divisions 1, 2, and 3 of the Football League is distinctly bleak. They are caught in a player wages spiral that seems to be out of control. As we decide this case football league clubs are going into administration. The collapse of ITV digital and the drying up of the transfer market have contributed to the crisis. In the current financial climate, professional clubs need to encourage investors.
120: We believe that in the current financial climate the football authorities need to apply a flexible and supportive approach to the financial plight of clubs. To facilitate financial success, stability and development it is necessary to take a flexible and progressive view of policy considerations and apply them to the currently bleak financial world the clubs inhabit.

‘Encourage’ here used in the sense of ‘abandon all other concerns and kowtow to’. But seriously, folks. You can begin to approach sympathy for the decision makers when you reflect that their deliberations were made in the aftermath of the ITV digital collapse and ensuing panic. Yet - here we stand, with the Football League in rude 92-club health, even when the outside world has dropped into a major recession. 20:20 hindsight, perhaps, but it does rather make them look like short-sighted carpetbaggers lacking either the desire or the capacity to make reasoned judgements.

Finally, some further extracts of the report that are pure neoliberal realism. Further comment on these is fairly unnecessary.

109: We do not believe, with all due respect, that the Club’s links to 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.
111: We believe that it can be fairly stated that finding WFC a home in MK will add considerable value to a large community starved of First Division football.
118: Milton Keynes provides a suitable and deserving opportunity in is own right where none exists in South London.

Does the fact that Wimbledon were in a two-year attendance slump (fairly understandably, given their continuing lack of a home ground and the heroically delayed relegation) really mean that they forfeited their right to exist? Who makes the decisions about how ‘suitable’ or ‘deserving’ a particular club or town is? Congratulations: now you’re doing politics. Sport is seldom just sport.

MK Dons have established themselves as a steady third-tier club with a tidy stadium and a respectable (if inch-deep) support. It’s more than many older clubs can say for themselves, but hardly the glorious future that the likes of Winkelman would have conceived in 2001-2. The immodest bid to host World Cup games in 2018 illustrated the gulf between MK’s aspirations and their present quotidian reality. AFC Wimbledon, meanwhile, are one of the current success stories of non-League football, but they’re still travelling to their ’home’ games halfway across South London, as has been the case since 1991.

AFC's presence in the League would be a permanent and salutary reminder that football’s authorities cannot be trusted with major decisions; that their judgement is unreliable and their much-vaunted ‘business acumen’ is wrong far more often than right. The AFC Fans Trust has been able to run a successful club in circumstances that were dismissed as impossible. If don't particularly care about football and have bravely slogged through all of this, there's your payoff.

C’mon you Dons.

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