Owners and purchasers of football clubs mess with the heritage of English football clubs at their own peril. The heritage belongs as much to the fans and the communities that provide the fan-base, as to the clubs themselves.
On 28 June 2007, the London Borough of Merton and the English League Two club Milton Keynes Dons agreed that all replica trophies and memorabilia of Wimbledon FC would be handed over by the club to the borough. The trademarks and domain names of Wimbledon FC will also be transferred to the borough.
By the time Wimbledon FC had moved to Milton Keynes in September 2003, and changed its name to Milton Keynes Dons in August 2004, the fans of Wimbledon FC had established AFC Wimbledon in Wimbledon’s historical and geographical home, the borough of Merton in south-west London.
AFC Wimbledon, formed in May 2002, after the English Football Association controversially allowed Wimbledon FC to relocate to Milton Keynes, rose rapidly through the amateur and semi-professional leagues in England below the first four tiers of English football. By 2005-06, AFC Wimbledon they had risen to the seventh level of English league football. Between February 2003 and December 2004, AFC Wimbledon set an all-time record for any level of league football in England by remaining unbeaten in 78 consecutive league matches. Average home crowds regularly exceeded 2,500, comparable with several clubs in the fourth tier.
On the other hand, Milton Keynes Dons were relegated to the fourth tier of English football at the end of the 2005-06 season, a rapid decline from the club’s heyday between 1987 and 2000, when it spent 14 consecutive seasons in the top tier.
Of course, in those days, “Dons” was an abbreviation for “Wimbledon”, the name under which the club entered Division Four in 1977. Within 10 years, the club, then owned by Lebanese businessman, Sam Hamman, were in the top flight, competing with the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United.
In those days, the team was known as the “Crazy Gang”, a name worn as a badge of honour by players such as Denis Wise (now manager of Leeds United), Lawrie Sanchez (former manager of Northern Ireland and now manager of Fulham), Vinnie Jones, and John Fashanu. The nickname engendered a siege mentality within the club, which combined with a physical, no-nonsense long-ball game, saw the club finish regularly in the top half of both the old Division One and later, the English Premier League.
Most famously of all, Wimbledon beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final (thereby preventing Liverpool from doing the double for the second time in three seasons).
However, despite the achievements, Wimbledon’s home attendance at its cramped Plough Lane in south-west London remained by far the lowest in the top flight. With the Taylor report recommending all-seater stadia, Wimbledon left Plough Lane in 1991 and began 12 years of ground sharing with Crystal Palace, another south London club. With the club unable or unwilling to find a new home in south-west London, Hammam began to consider moving the club out of London altogether, to a location with the potential for bigger crowds, a radical move opposed by both the fans and the football establishment. Milton Keynes, Cardiff and Dublin were all in Hammam’s reckoning.
Unlike American sport, where sporting franchises are able to move to a new city with relative ease, English clubs have strong links to the communities in which they are based, and since the earliest clubs were formed in England the 1860s, clubs moving out of the town or city in which they were formed had hardly ever occurred.
In 1999, Hammam sold Wimbledon FC to two Norwegian businessmen. The following year, with still no prospect of finding a new home in south London, Wimbledon were relegated from the EPL, bringing to an end 14 years in the top flight.
In the late 1990s, Peter Winkelman, a property developer and former music producer, had been looking to bring a league club to Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes is 45 km north-west of London, and was a new town created in 1967. By 2001, the population had reached about 200,000, a suitable catchment area for a league club. Despite the vehement opposition of fans of the club and football supporters throughout England, Winkelman obtained approval to move Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes, and subsequently bought over the club.
While the Football Association considers Milton Keynes Dons to be the legal continuation of Wimbledon FC, the fans of AFC Wimbledon, and many football supporters throughout England, consider AFC Wimbledon as the continuation of Wimbledon FC in spirit.
With the agreement reached between Milton Keynes Dons and the Borough of Merton, the legal reality has been clouded over, and the spiritual sense of continuity with the fans and the community reinforced. It is expected that the borough will hand over the replicas and memorabilia, and transfer the trademarks and domain names, to AFC Wimbledon.
With Milton Keynes Dons moving into a new 22,000 capacity all-seater stadium for the start of the forthcoming season, and the appointment of the former England, Manchester United, Inter Milan and Liverpool midfielder, Paul Ince as the manager in June 2007, there is a further sense that having returned the heritage of Wimbledon FC to AFC Wimbledon, Milton Keynes Dons can make a “fresh start” in the league, without the baggage of a “borrowed” or “stolen” heritage.
And the fans of Wimbledon FC before the club moved to Milton Kenyes now have their heritage back in south-west London.
Far lesser issues can trigger the unhappiness of football fans. Many Everton fans are against the club’s plan to move to a new stadium in Kirkby. Although Kirkby is in Merseyside, it is just outside the city limits of Liverpool, the city with which Everton is traditionally associated.
Lesser transgressions such as these, while giving rise to heated debate amongst fans at the time they arise, are often forgotten once a decision is made, and the club gets on with the business of playing football.
Another recent example of fans unhappy with a proposed transaction, but who have now come to accept the outcome, was the hostile takeover of the club by the American businessman, Malcolm Glazer. Many fans felt that the Glazers would not appreciate, or would undermine, the great traditions of the club. In 2005, many disgruntled fans formed FC United of Manchester (FCUM). The club started the 2005-06 season at the tenth level of English football. After promotion in successive seasons, the club will start the new season at the eighth level of English football. Its average home attendance in 2005-06 and 2006-07 was 3,059 and 2,581 respectively, again, comparable with several clubs at the fourth tier of English football. Clearly, FCUM succeeded in attracting many disgruntled Manchester United fans in the Greater Manchester areas.
However, unlike the rapid decline of Milton Keynes Dons once the fans formed a new club, Manchester United has strengthened its position in the league since the formation of a “rival” club by disgruntled fans, winning the title last season. For one thing, unlike th former Wimbledon FC, Manchester United has a broad-base of fans, not only in Britain, but throughout the world. More importantly, the new owners did not interfere with the traditions and heritage of the club as much as had been feared by the fans who set up FCUM.
Ultimately, the fans and the communities that provide the fan-base of the clubs have as much of a say in preserving the traditions and the heritage of English football clubs as the owners of the clubs.