When I was younger I used to support a football team that no longer exists, called Wimbledon FC. They played at Plough Lane, a small, ramshackle ground in an ugly bit of South London (some way off from the Wimbledon where the tennis happens), and they played a rough, rumbustious style of football that didn’t endear them to outsiders but warmed the hearts of their fans, especially when it enabled them to turn over fancier, more fastidious teams, who often seemed to perform at Plough Lane as though they had clothes-pegs on their noses. I didn’t choose Wimbledon because of any local connection (I grew up in North London) but because I had seen them on TV in the mid-1970s, where they featured as non-league FA Cup giant-killers, or at least giant-stunners, holding the mighty Leeds United to a goalless draw before losing 1-0 in the replay. When Wimbledon were invited to join the Football League in 1977 as part of the old Fourth Division – this was when teams had to wait to be asked into the league rather than being promoted automatically – I started to count myself a fan, and to make the long journey to the end of the District Line to watch them play against sides like Rochdale and Darlington. After only two seasons in the Fourth Division they managed to win promotion to the Third, but the next season they were relegated back down. The same thing happened over the following two seasons, a promotion immediately followed by a relegation. By the early 1980s, Wimbledon, with regular crowds of just a few thousand and a team of solid but unspectacular players, seemed to have found their level, about two and a half divisions below the summit of English football.
Then something completely unexpected (at least by me) happened. Wimbledon’s promotion in 1983 was followed straightaway not by relegation but by another promotion, and after just two seasons acclimatising themselves to the Second Division, they got promoted again, to the First Division. Suddenly I found myself going to Plough Lane to watch Wimbledon play teams like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. League football occasionally throws up extraordinary rags-to-riches stories like this, but as a fan, even while you relish your good fortune, you know it can’t last, just as you know the riches are largely illusory, and will be frittered away. Carlisle United had done something similar a decade earlier, rising in quick succession from the Fourth to the First Division, before just as rapidly making the journey all the way back down again. I felt sure Wimbledon would follow this path. True, attendances at Plough Lane went up sharply and it sometimes became very hard to get a ticket (when I first started going you could walk from one side of the home terrace to the other in order to get away from any trouble without difficulty, though trouble at Plough Lane was pretty rare). But the demand was usually from supporters of the away team, who often outnumbered the home fans, and the ground’s tiny capacity – just 15,000, of which only 2000 were seated, the rest standing – made it all too easy to fill. Wimbledon, for all their determination to make life as uncomfortable as possible for teams grown fat on the high life, simply couldn’t compete with the giants of English football, who would eventually send them back where they belonged. I waited for this to happen with what I thought was perfect equanimity.
But I was wrong. Wimbledon thrived in the First Division, and stayed there for a scarcely believable 14 seasons. In 1991 the club had to move to Selhurst Park and share a ground with Crystal Palace, once it became clear that Plough Lane could not be adapted into the sort of all-seater stadium required in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. A year later the First Division turned into the Premier League and the money really started to flow into the big clubs, making Wimbledon’s position, without even their own ground, ever more precarious. Yet still they survived, although to this day it remains hard to know how they managed it, without any obvious means of support. Like all smaller clubs they had to sell on many of their best players (including the outstanding Nigel Winterburn to Arsenal), but eccentricity or notoriety meant that others remained with the side long after they became the focus of attention. One was John Fashanu, an astonishingly crude player and an extremely articulate man, who went on to achieve further fame as a TV presenter and further notoriety when he was implicated in a match-fixing scandal from which he was eventually acquitted (he currently presents the Nigerian version of Deal or No Deal). Another was Vinnie Jones, the cartoonish hard man of the team who has since managed to make a good living in Hollywood playing cartoonish hard men in gangster movies (which indicates he wasn’t as dumb as he looked). Fashanu and Jones were two of the most heartily despised players of their era, and they both played in the match that captured the essential absurdity of the Wimbledon story, for fans and non-fans alike: the 1988 FA Cup final, in which they faced Liverpool, then the best team in England, and beat them 1-0.
I had to watch that game on TV, having tried and failed to buy tickets from touts outside Wembley Stadium (there were far too many Liverpool fans, willing to pay ludicrously inflated prices). But I was at the semi-final a few weeks earlier to see Wimbledon beat Luton Town 2-1 at White Hart Lane, and that was the most fun I have ever had at a football match: a raucous, hilarious, ecstatic confrontation between two overachieving sides whose supporters could barely fill Tottenham’s ground between them. When Wimbledon went on to win the final, I expected to feel something similar, and by rights even better. But I didn’t. Instead, after the shock had worn off, I realised I was a little disappointed, because for Wimbledon to actually win the FA Cup, with their clumsy, crass brand of football, barely a decade after they had arrived in the Football League, came uncomfortably close to making a mockery of the whole thing. Deep down I felt sorry for Liverpool, who deserved better than to be mugged by such a nasty little side, in a way I hadn’t felt remotely sorry for Luton Town, who were really no different themselves.
Over the next few seasons I started to lose interest in Wimbledon, going to fewer and fewer games, and when they moved to Selhurst Park I stopped going altogether. If people asked me who I supported I began saying no one, or that I used to support Wimbledon. When they asked why I stopped, I would sometimes say that after Wimbledon won the FA Cup there didn’t seem much point in carrying on, but I realised how precious and stupid this sounded, so I gave up trying to explain. To tell a real football fan you have lost interest in your team for whatever reason, never mind because their success so far exceeded your expectations as to make you feel uncomfortable, is the same as saying you were never a real fan in the first place. It’s like telling a smoker that you found giving up cigarettes easy and were relieved to be shot of them (something I also discovered around the same time), which simply means you never really were a smoker, even while you were puffing away.
Still, I was glad I never was a real football fan when I saw what happened to Wimbledon. The new financial realities of English football – to those who have shall be given more, and for the rest there will be the scraps to fight over – finally caught up with them in the 1999-2000 season, when they were relegated from the Premier League. Unable to get either the planning permission or the financial backing to build a new stadium for the club in South London, the owners floated the radical solution of relocating somewhere else entirely, from where they could expand their fan base and secure the club’s future. To the outrage and consternation of Wimbledon’s supporters in South London, the place they eventually chose was Milton Keynes, a fast-growing town in the middle of England without its own League football team. The Football Association, who might have been expected to block the move, waved it through (though the then chief executive of the FA, Adam Crozier, called it ‘an appalling decision’). Unsurprisingly, once it became clear the club was planning to abandon its local fans, attendances collapsed and Wimbledon’s financial position became a whole lot worse. In 2003 the club went into administration. The following year, playing their home games at the national hockey stadium in Milton Keynes, the team were relegated again, to what was now called League One, but was in reality the old Third Division. At this point, Wimbledon FC was bought by a music promoter and resident of Milton Keynes called Pete Winkelman, who changed the side’s name to MK Dons. In 2006, MK Dons were relegated once again, down to League Two, the old Fourth Division that Wimbledon had joined less than thirty years earlier.
Fans of other teams from across the country, many of whom had spent the best part of two decades loathing Wimbledon, suddenly got a glimpse of their own possible futures in the club’s demise, and started to protest about Wimbledon’s fate. No League football club had ever been taken away from its fans by its owners like this, though it had often happened in the United States, where franchises can be moved across the country by owners searching for new and more lucrative markets. One of the most famous of all baseball teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers, became the LA Dodgers in 1957, just after their near neighbours the New York Giants became the San Francisco Giants, whose not-so-near neighbours they now are out in California. Compared to these transcontinental upheavals, the relocation of little Wimbledon seventy miles north hardly registers, but it seemed to hint at the coming Americanisation of English football, with traditional loyalties suddenly at the mercy of carpetbagging businessmen, for whom a club might be a name but nothing more. Who would be next to find their beloved local team disappearing over the horizon?
Looking back four years on, it’s clear football fans were right to be worried, but they were worrying about the wrong thing. Geographical relocation has never been much of an option for English football teams because there aren’t many parts of the country that don’t have a team already (baseball moved west and south in the 1950s and 1960s to follow the tens of millions of people who were moving the same way). Milton Keynes was almost unique in representing a largish population centre, with good infrastructure and transport links, and no team to support within 25 miles (Luton Town is the nearest). There are parts of England, particularly the South-West and East Anglia, whose populations have grown in recent decades and where league football clubs are pretty thin on the ground. But these population movements have been relatively small-scale and well dispersed, so it’s not obvious which towns need a professional football team that don’t have one already. Where would a club looking to make a fresh start move to? Falmouth? St Ives? Camborne? It hardly seems worth it. Outside England is a different matter; before settling on Milton Keynes, Wimbledon’s owners seriously considered the possibility of relocating to Dublin. But nothing came of it, not least because the English and Irish FAs couldn’t agree on the way to treat the anomaly of an Irish club in the English league.
Nevertheless, despite the inherent difficulties of detaching English football teams from their geographical locations, the carpetbaggers have arrived. A year before Pete Winkelman acquired Wimbledon FC, another successful businessman, Roman Abramovich, bought a neighbouring club, Chelsea FC, and began the process of turning them into an international powerhouse, all the while treating them as his personal plaything. Since then, almost all of the biggest teams in England have acquired foreign owners: Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa have Americans in control; Arsenal are being fought over by the American Stan Kroenke and the Uzbekhi tycoon Alisher Usmanov; West Ham belong to Icelanders, though at the moment that probably means they are in the hands of the creditors of the Icelandic banking system; Portsmouth appear to belong to the Russian Aleksandr Gaydamak (though no one can be quite sure); and now Manchester City has been acquired by Abu Dhabi United Group for Investment and Development, making it the wealthiest club in the world, or at least the club with the wealthiest backers, which may not be the same thing. None of these teams has needed to move to follow the money. Instead, the money has come to them.
What these new owners seem to want from English football is a stake in a glamorous and dynamic business with vast global appeal. This means many Premier League football teams have been relocated in recent years without having to change their physical base (though some of the more foresighted ones, like Arsenal, have shifted a few hundred yards down the road to bigger and plusher stadiums): they have simply moved into the global economy, where they can be marketed as international brands. Indeed, for the purposes of marketing, local roots are important: clubs like Manchester City, with its passionate fan base, are an excellent vehicle for owners with ambitions that extend way beyond Manchester. Frankly, it looks much better on TV to have a stadium full of fans who really seem to care, rather than one in which the fans have started to treat the club as a lifestyle accessory in much the same way as its owners (this has been Chelsea’s problem, which is one reason they are struggling to match the global appeal of the clubs from the North-West). International finance wants the whole package when it comes to an English football club: the sense of history, the full-throated supporters, the feeling of excitement. The name is by no means the essence of the brand, and may even be the one thing that is dispensable, or at least adjustable. When the new owners of Manchester City first paraded their acquisition, they posed with sky-blue City shirts that said Abu Dhabi United across the back. The truth is, it’s more likely that a team called Abu Dhabi United will end up playing in Manchester than that a team called Manchester City will end up playing in Abu Dhabi. The first star player to be recruited with Arab money, the Brazilian Robinho, bought from Real Madrid for a scarcely credible £32.5 million, summed up this new reality when he announced on his arrival in Manchester how pleased he was to find himself at Chelsea. Frankly, it doesn’t much matter if the players don’t know where they are, so long as the fans are there to welcome them. What these new owners want is a club with a clear sense of identity, around which they can construct their own elaborate fantasies.
So the supporters still count for something. The awful prospect that opened up after Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes, of impatient owners retaining bits of a club’s name but trading in the fans of one place for a more docile set somewhere else, has receded. Liverpool, for example, desperately need a new stadium, but they also desperately need that new stadium to be somewhere in Liverpool. Even the club’s American owners seem to understand that a move to Dublin, say, is out of the question, though Liverpool FC could fill a stadium in Dublin at least as easily as they could fill one on Merseyside. Instead, the likeliest outcome for owners who wish they could escape from the hold a particular geographical location has on a club, is that they simply walk away, and hand the club back to its supporters, or at least what’s left of it. Newcastle United, which was bought last year by the sportswear tycoon Mike Ashley, who had until that point been a Tottenham fan, is now once again on the market, with Ashley’s representatives touting the club around the Middle East and Africa, looking for someone to take it off his hands. Ashley has fallen out with the Newcastle fans, whom he had spent the last 12 months trying to placate by sitting with them at away matches, wearing the team shirt to games, sacking the unpopular Sam Allardyce as manager and replacing him with local hero Kevin Keegan. But all he succeeded in doing was inflating expectations, along with the club’s wage bill, so that now he can’t afford to keep the club going, and can’t risk going to games for fear of having the shirt ripped off his back.
In his desperation, Ashley has recruited the former Wimbledon boss Joe Kinnear as interim manager, someone who once performed the gravity-defying feat of keeping Wimbledon in the Premier League, but who now looks like a relic of a more innocent, although a cruder, age. At the time of writing, Newcastle are third from bottom of the Premier League, and it’s perfectly possible in the current economic climate that Ashley will fail to find a buyer, or have to offload the club on the cheap, with the result that the team fail to pick up form and find themselves being relegated at the end of the season. At that point, anything is possible. The last few months have shown that big institutions, with strong local roots and a seemingly loyal customer base, can quickly shrink to almost nothing, as happened to Northern Rock, who had been the main sponsors of Newcastle United for many years. Having ambitions bigger than your pockets these days can do a lot of damage in a very short period of time.
Of course, as Ashley himself has suggested, Newcastle’s problem may simply be that their carpetbagger wasn’t rich enough, a multi-millionaire in a world of multi-billionaires. The owners of Chelsea and Manchester City are unlikely to walk away because they can no longer afford to keep their clubs going (though the heavily indebted owners of Manchester United and Liverpool may well be forced to do so). But Roman Abramovich might still tire of the diminishing returns he’s getting at Chelsea, both on and off the pitch, and decide to shift more of his resources into Russian club football, where the rewards are potentially greater. The Abu Dhabi United Group could come to feel that Manchester City is, in the end, just too Mancunian for their tastes, and instead decide to build up the football economy in the UAE, perhaps by offering passports and riches to players who can make the country a competitive force in international football. What happens then? Chelsea and Manchester City will still have their fans, but the fans will no longer have clubs whose finances and status reflect their local levels of support. Instead, they will be left with clubs that have been blown out of all proportion, and teams that start playing as if the air were leaking out of them, as Newcastle are playing at the moment. If clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City are lost to their loyal fans, it won’t be because foreign owners come along and steal them; it will be because those owners hand them back and the fans have to watch the clubs go pop before their eyes.
The transformation of Wimbledon FC into MK Dons already seems to belong to another era, when clubs were still chasing the money rather than waiting for it to fall into their laps. This season, feeling the absence of a team to support, and realising it’s easier to get from where I currently live in Cambridge to Milton Keynes than it ever was for me to get to Plough Lane, I have started going to watch the occasional game at stadium:mk, the brand-new, 22,000-seat, all-purpose arena where the MK Dons now play. Last season, managed by Paul Ince, who has since become the first black British manager to get a job in the Premier League at Blackburn Rovers, MK Dons got promoted to League One, where they are now managed by Roberto di Matteo, a glamorous Italian who used to play for Chelsea. Di Matteo looks a bit out of place in his lovely charcoal-grey suit, standing on the touchline of stadium:mk, trying to coax a performance out of his team in a ground that is usually two-thirds empty. Still, MK Dons seem like a well-run club, and they are probably on the up. Attendances are slowly increasing, and the team has established a solid fan base in the local community. Much of the rancour surrounding the move from South London appears to have dissipated.
Of course, it hasn’t really dissipated in South London, but in 2002 diehard fans of Wimbledon FC created a new club in its place, AFC Wimbledon, who are also on the up, having progressed through four tiers of non-league football into the Conference South, now only two divisions below the Football League proper. It’s not impossible that MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon could find themselves playing each other in a few seasons’ time. Equally, it’s not impossible that MK Dons could replicate the amazing rise of Wimbledon FC and make it all the way to the Premier League – it still happens occasionally, as Hull City have shown in rising through the four divisions of the football league in just five seasons. Teams like MK Dons and Hull (whose recent success has also coincided with a move to a new, purpose-built stadium) rely on local support, good management and plenty of luck to prosper. But they will almost certainly never experience the kind of luck currently being enjoyed by Manchester City, who if things go well could find themselves champions of Europe within a few seasons. I don’t know how I would feel about that prospect if I supported the club – it seems to come uncomfortably close to making a mockery of the whole thing. But then I’m not a real football fan.