Passion, Progression and the Future of Fan Ownership: Now Is The Time For AFC Wimbledon
With a play-off semi final looming, AFC Wimbledon could be headed for League One. This comes after five promotions in their 14 years of existence – success facilitated entirely by the fans.
All photos by Will Magee unless credited otherwise
In May 2002, Wimbledon Football Club were given permission to relocate to Milton Keynes. Despite fierce resistance from fans, considerable dissension in the media and the opposition of the FA, Football League and Merton council, an independent commission gave the club's directors the green light to follow through on their controversial plans. At the time, chairman Charles Koppel claimed the club was losing £20,000 a day, and could only survive if it was moved to a larger stadium. Having accrued substantial debts over the course of the previous decade, the board argued that the club's continued existence was under genuine threat.
This argument was accepted by the commissioners. For the majority of fans, however, a move to Milton Keynes – and a rebrand as the MK Dons – was as much the death of the club as total liquidation.
Supporters wasted no time in making their feelings known. With Wimbledon playing at Selhurst Park at the time, attendances plummeted to an all-time low. Protests were near incessant, pickets were formed, while hundreds of fans petitioned the footballing authorities in an attempt to block the move. Nonetheless – while still voicing their disapproval – the FA stated that the commission's findings were final.
A month later, supporters had formed AFC Wimbledon. The break with the old entity was final, and a new, fan-owned club was born.
Founded and funded by Wimbledon supporters, the administration of the club was entirely down to the fans. While some had experience of running successful businesses, none of them had run a football club before. Off the pitch, theirs was a steep learning curve. Meanwhile, they still needed to assemble a team.
Open trials were held at short notice on Wimbledon Common, with over 230 would-be players turning out. It was from these modest beginnings that AFC Wimbledon first became a football team proper. With a squad of successful trialists, they prepared for their inaugural season in the Combined Counties League. While the old Wimbledon had been a Premier League side as recently as 2000, its successor went into the 2002/03 season playing in the ninth tier of English football.
The club has been promoted five times since then. While still drawing crowds several thousand strong, the team won the Combined Counties League at the first attempt. From there, they rapidly scaled the non-league pyramid. On 21 May 2011 – less than a decade after the team first came into existence – the Dons won the Conference playoff final, making them the first club formed in the 21st century to reach the Football League.
With their success on the pitch proving quite astounding, developments off it needed to keep pace. As the Dons climbed the leagues, the fans serving as directors and executives were compelled to learn on the job. If the step up from the lower leagues to the Conference was a big one, the leap from the Conference to League Two was massive. Here, the fan-owned side would be competing against clubs with greater budgets, larger squads and far superior capacities to that of Kingsmeadow, the ground in Kingston-upon-Thames where the Dons play their football.
Despite a couple of difficult seasons in the fourth tier, AFC Wimbledon have maintained their status as a League Two club. That alone is testament to their resilience, their ability to adapt and thrive. Moreover, this season has seen them exceed expectations by a considerable margin. Under the guidance of manager (and former Wimbledon stalwart) Neal Ardley, they have finished seventh in the league. That represents the highest finish in the club's history. It also brings the opportunity to contest the playoffs, and the possibility of promotion to League One.
If the Dons were to secure promotion, they would be competing at the same level as clubs the size of Sheffield United and Coventry. The squad would have to undergo a significant transition, while the club would have to punch above its financial weight to survive. The Dons are used to overachievement, as evidenced by their rapid rise through the leagues to date. However, potential promotion isn't the only major transition they face at the moment. They are currently in the process of negotiating a move away from Kingston and back to Wimbledon, with the current plan to build a new 11,000 capacity ground near to their ancestral home of Plough Lane.
While a return to Wimbledon has been temporarily delayed by interference from City Hall, the aim is to start work on the new stadium as soon as possible. The reality is that the Dons have outgrown Kingsmeadow, with the ground able to accommodate just under 5,000 fans. A move to Plough Lane would increase matchday revenues, help the club to grow commercially and, most importantly, return it to its spiritual heartland. There is change on the horizon for the Dons, and momentous change at that.
In the scorching Saturday sun, on the hottest day of the year so far, I made the trip to south-west London looking to get a clearer picture of things to come. The first impressions for a newcomer are invariably positive, with a welcoming bustle about the place long before kick off. People greet each other warmly outside the main bar, club officials mingle with supporters in the midday heat, while some fans get ready to do their matchday duties. Aside from a few full-time staff, the club relies on its strong volunteer culture. This is the promise of fan ownership made manifest, and it's incredibly hard not to fall for its charms.
Those who work at the club seem to feel exactly the same way. When I speak to Kay Skelton, Executive Director of the AFC Wimbledon Foundation, she tells me that she regularly tears up when speaking about the club's success. The work of the Foundation in the local community epitomises the Dons' ethos; it now serves as one of the main providers of football coaching for kids in Merton and Kingston, supported by charitable donations from the support. While Kay wasn't an AFC Wimbledon fan when she joined the club, she's now inextricably invested in it. Like everyone else I speak to, she shows genuine passion for what the club represents.
The fan ownership model is certainly something to be proud of. In sharp contrast to the state of the old Wimbledon at the time of its dissolution, the board, directors and executives are now directly answerable to the support. The Dons Trust holds the controlling stake in the club and – with a democratically elected board and a collective approach to decision making – it gives each and every one of its members a say in AFC Wimbledon's future. All of this is vital to the club's identity. However, fan ownership is not without its own difficulties.
When it comes to competing with teams funded by massively wealthy individual benefactors, a fan-owned club is at an inevitable disadvantage. While a potential move to Plough Lane would improve the Dons' revenues, it's unclear how far a club can realistically go without further financial backing. The team's unexpected promotion push invites some discourse as to the future of the current model. Is fan ownership sacred? Do the fans accept that, at some point in the future, the club's rapid rise may come to a natural halt? Will outside investment ever be welcome? These questions are bound to be debated in coming years, especially if promotion is secured.
If there's anyone who knows the value of the fan ownership model, it's Ivor Heller. One of the founding members of the club and now a part-time Commercial Director, he's seen the Dons transition from non-league hopefuls to a professional success story. When I ask him about the future of fan ownership, he tells me: "When we started the club there were plenty of people who said we were crazy, that we were never going to make it, that fans couldn't run a club.
"But the people who started the club had all had successful careers, and all knew that a football club needs to be run as a business. Once we got started and made a success of it, people then turned round and said we'd never be able to go anywhere because we didn't have multi-million pound backing. We didn't agree with that, we thought we could go somewhere because this football club – this business – is about the many not the few. If the many all pull together and pull in the right direction, of course you can go somewhere.
"First of all, the perceived glass ceiling was the Conference South. We smashed through that in a season. Next it was the Conference. That took us two seasons. Now we're in the Football League it's taken us a little longer, but we may well smash through this ceiling as well."
When I ask if there's any sense of trepidation about the financial disparity that the Dons might experience in League One, Ivor says: "We might be one of the smaller clubs financially, but we wouldn't be the smallest. I've never held with the idea that we're not ready.
"When is anybody ready for anything? When we got into the Football League, we weren't ready. The skip from League Two to League One is nowhere near as big as the skip from the Conference to the Football League. I'm far from worried about it – I think we'll take it in our stride."
Erik Samuelson, the club's Chief Executive, is equally assured when it comes to the ability of the fan ownership model to withstand the rigours of the third tier. He tells me: "From the very beginning, we've never been the highest spenders in any league we've been in. I've looked at the numbers and I reckon we'd be somewhere between 18th and 21st in League One for wage spending.
"I always expect our manager to outperform where we are in that league table. Likewise, I think you'll find that two of the teams near to the top of League One right now – Walsall and Burton – have two of the very smallest budgets. If you get it right, and you get a bit of following wind behind you, you don't need to be the big spenders to get promotion."
When I ask if Erik could ever envision a time when an individual investor might inject extra funds into the club – or whether the fan ownership model should remain unimpeachable – he says: "I think what might happen is that we'll get into League One, sooner or later. We'll challenge for the Championship, and maybe get there.
"Once you get into the Championship, you're in a different world entirely. The finances are very, very different indeed. If we get there and we really can't survive at that level, then a combination of things will have to happen [for the model to come into question]. First of all, the fans will need to be sufficiently dissatisfied, and not content for us to be a bottom-third-of-the-Championship type team. Secondly, by the time we're in the new stadium with much bigger crowds, one of the big challenges for us will be to maintain this culture.
"The further away we get from 2002, the harder we have to work to make people understand why we set up the way we did, what the benefits are and what the risks are of going a different route.
"As the fanbase changes and younger fans come through, it may be that they decide that success is more important than ownership. Still, you would think of all the clubs to understand the value of fan ownership we would be the first."
Before their playoff preparations can begin in earnest, the Dons still have to play struggling Newport on the last day of the regular season. Supporters are now arriving in droves, while the car park outside the main bar has become a pub garden of sorts. Kids play impromptu games of football out on the tarmac, while their parents share a drink and chat in the sun. By the time kick off comes around, 4,427 fans are packed into the leafy confines of Kingsmeadow to cheer the team on.
Just before the match starts I talk to Mick Buckley, a lifelong fan who now sits on the AFC Wimbledon board of directors. Speaking about the fans' perspective on the current model, he tells me: "I think a lot of football fans up and down the country feel frustration at the acts of their owners. We felt a lot more than frustration, because our former owners chose to move away from us. Now, we're deeply committed to the model because we want to control our own destiny.
"It took a pretty tragic event to mobilise our fans to do what we've done. I think for us it works really, really well. Football clubs were traditionally community assets, and at some point they were monetised, privatised and owned by individuals.
"Now, there are people here who want to own a football club because of their political viewpoint, there are others who want to be part of an ownership structure to make sure we never get taken over again, and there are others who come just because they want to watch football."
In a strong end-of-season performance, the Dons go on to beat Newport thanks to a late penalty. Almost everyone stays to applaud Ardley and his players as they walk their lap of honour, before some of the squad join supporters in the bar after the match. The sense of togetherness at the club is palpable, both on the pitch and off it. It's little wonder that people want to preserve the fundamental atmosphere, even if there is a conversation to be had about the future of the ownership model.
When I speak to Andy Dixon, a contributor to the SW19 fanzine and a Wimbledon fan of 32 years standing, he gives me a slightly different perspective on fan ownership. While making clear that he feels the current model has been "fantastic" so far, he says: "Certainly looking forward – if we did get up into League One, and then further – we'd need significantly more money to compete."
"I think there's a little bit of paranoia amongst an element of the fanbase, left over from the Milton Keynes debacle. There are some who want to maintain 100% control of the club, while there are other sections of the fanbase who would be happy to give up a percentage of the club while still holding the majority interest, so nothing like that could happen again."
Matthew Breach, Chair of the Dons Trust Board, agrees that there are some financial drawbacks to fan ownership. However, he thinks it keeps the Dons responsible in a way that other clubs are not. "The single biggest issue [with fan ownership] is that we don't have any one person coming along and giving us lots of money," he tells me when we chat on the phone. "That's a drawback in the sense that we're competing with other teams that do that, but it does bring financial discipline with it.
"We can't run any sort of loss that we haven't got back up for, and we can't get the money out of thin air. We're run on a prudent financial model, and that's really the way that everyone should be run. If everyone was treating Financial Fair Play the way it's supposed to be treated, it would make a huge difference to us. Unfortunately, there are many clubs who are doing things on the fringes of that. It's quite difficult for us to compete like-for-like."
Despite such difficulties, fan ownership is still the number one priority as it stands. Matt tells me: "We did a comprehensive review of the whole fanbase about three years ago, and they came up with three key priorities. Number one was to stay supporter owned. Number two was that we needed to get back to Wimbledon. Number three was that we should be as successful as we can, given the first two criteria. I don't think anything's changed from that at all, so that's what we're trying to do."
Whether or not the club is able to compete at the highest levels, the sense of responsibility at the heart of the fan ownership model is what makes it so attractive. Some might want the club to remain 100% supporter owned, others may be willing to compromise on that to some degree, but all agree that AFC Wimbledon is a club that will never be allowed to revisit the dark days of franchising and financial brinksmanship.
In the lottery of the League Two playoffs, they have as much a chance of promotion as their rivals. As a self-sufficient, financially responsible club run for and by the community it serves, it's almost impossible not to want them to succeed.