I was born in a crossfire … No, hang on, excuse me. Proof if nothing else, I guess, of the effectiveness of that Rolling Stones tv ad it’s hard to escape from at the moment. And what have they chosen to call this latest money grabbing compilation? Grrr! No, that’s what they’ve called it. Very grown-up. When what we could really do with are re-issues of the original albums released by Decca in the UK up to and including Aftermath, compiled as per the Kinks Pye reissues with – in addition to the album tracks – all the singles, b-sides and EP tracks from the same period. (Not forgetting that Rice Crispies TV ad).
I was born in the Nelson Hospital, Merton and lived easy walking distance from Plough Lane just round the corner from South Wimbledon tube station on the Northern Line for the first 6 years of my life, after which we moved to Sutton. And though we lived pretty much mid-way between Sutton United’s and Carshalton Athletic’s grounds there, it was back to Plough Lane that my father took me for my first football match, to see Wimbledon, the team he had followed since his youth, playing in the Isthmian League. That’s his badge in the picture. Though he didn’t go much any more, he followed their progress up the leagues with satisfaction. It was a good story.
My later (wholly non-attending) allegiance was aroused by their unfashionable status in what was still then the First Division of the Football League. Champion the underdog! I even bought a lapel badge at some stage – in Milton Keynes shopping centre, as it happens, after we’d moved there in the ’80s with a family of my own. Not sure whether the purchase was before or after the Cup Final of 1988, when Liverpool got theirs; probably after. In the family archive I have manager Bobby Gould’s reply to my father’s letter of congratulation after the team’s semi-final victory wishing the club good luck for the Final. It’s like – no, it is – something from another age.
Shame it transpires that the famous Wembley win and much of their success was the equivalent of playground bullies kicking the shit out of the school swots, though it’s still good to think of Liverpool’s sense of entitlement being rattled. You have to also say that it’s refreshing in another way to think that Vincent Jones and chums in the Crazy Gang – some footballing heritage there, eh? – would never have got away with a quarter of what they dished out most weeks with today’s tightening up of the rules and refereeing standards; not that their disciplinary record was exactly exemplary by contemporary standards even then. How fitting that Vinny Jones went on to play for Leeds United (of whom more later).
Wimbledon continued to be of interest to me, not least when managed near the end of their time in the top echelons of English football, by Egil Olsen. Olsen had been a success when in charge of the Norwegian national team – and rather uniquely among British football managers was a member of the Norwegian Workers Communist Party – but by then the financial writing was well and truly on the wall. They’d been playing to sparse crowds at Crystal Palace’s ground for nearly a decade and you had to fear for the worst when that last season at the top pretty much started with that famous David Beckham lob over the keeper from the half-way line. Incredibly they’d been talking about moving the club to Dublin, never mind Milton Keynes.
But let’s backtrack a bit and consider the state of association football in the new city of Milton Keynes. Or even earlier, to Wolverton, where what is believed to be the first covered football stand in the world was opened in 1899 for men in flat caps watching the railway works team who became Wolverton Town. No, non-league football did not thrive in MK. Back in the ’80s music entrepreneur Pete Winkelman decided he wanted to bring professional football to his adopted city and chose the same route as that by which the city had itself been populated – he would try to move a team in. (I say ‘new city’ – that’s never been official, but then, if that’s dependent on the Queen’s say, well stuff it). I was active in the Labour Party (well, I went to a few meetings, pushed a few leaflets through letter boxes) the first time there was a very real prospect of Luton Town – then more successful than they are now – moving to the city, and for what it’s worth, the General Committee passed a motion that we were agin’ it, half from football hooligan paranoia (that was then), half from the idealistic wish for something more organic to emerge. Well it didn’t. The sugar daddy route might have worked – it has elsewhere – but that’s almost as artificial as what has happened. Indeed, the charismatic Winkelman has more than once said he regrets the way it was done. This interview, from the Yeovil Town programme in 2009 (he’s third feature quite a way down the page) gives a good picture of where he’s coming from.
By the millennium Wimbledon’s owners were in dire straits financially. Sam Hammam, the owner who’d made the club what they was, had basically sold them a pup; he later made a mess of Cardiff too. Since 1991 they’d been using Crystal Palace’s scruffy ground for home fixtures; often the visiting team’s supporters outnumbered their own. The club would have gone into administration whether it had moved to MK or no. Did the local politicians of the London Borough of Merton help them at any time with their ground and other dilemmas? No. So tell me about football clubs and the local community. Should the Football Association have allowed the club to move 56 miles north? Of course not. It happened, though. And Milton Keynes Council were dead keen, saw it as a big part of the economic regeneration of Bletchley. (What I hadn’t realised, until fact checking all this, is that the first time it was mooted is as far as 1979 and was initiated by Wimbledon. This Wikipedia article gives some fascinating background detail to the whole saga).
How did I, Wimbledon born, see this development? I thought it was great – the chance to see some decent football locally. I joked about the club following me. Have I been to see Milton Keynes Dons much? No, not really. No matter. Do I feel a pariah? Not really – I refer you back to the London Borough of Merton. Am I sick of self-styled ‘real football fans’ still bleating on about Franchise FC? Yup, because i). look up franchise in the dictionary, and ii). half the time it’s the same tired old jokes about Milton Keynes. There’s plenty to complain about (where is there not?) but a lot of people like living in MK and can become very defensive depending on who they’re talking to.
Is the club an asset to the city? You bet. It’s embedded. Anecdotally, match day is a big deal for the children and grandchildren of friends; hell, some of those friends, who hadn’t been to a game for decades if at all, are keen regular supporters themselves now. MK Dons wins awards for its work in the community. The academy has brought through local lads like Sam Baldock – I know one of his school teachers (he got brilliant A levels); he went to West Ham for a million, where he was popular with the fans but not as much with manager Sam. The academy developed the prolific Daniel Powell, who I’d first watched with the Academy side on the training pitches down by the River Ouzel and thought was useless, wondered why he was on the pitch – so what do I know? And it’s even got an official poet in residence – step forward Mark Niel (even if it would appear he’s been too busy to update his website to that effect; it’s still worth a look).
Is the club an asset to football? I think so. It’s got a tremendous modern stadium but it can’t be a big spender, depending for its playing staff on the academy, free transfers and loan signings. Winkelman gave Roberto di Matteo his first big break in management. Karl Robinson is the youngest football league manager; his name already regularly appears whenever vacancies come up elsewhere. Under his guidance MK Dons are known as a footballing side, playing to feet, though, truth be told, from what I’ve seen, their control of a game can be a bit boring. Even with Ian Wright now part of the training set up.
Is it time for AFC Wimbledon and the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the ‘People’s Game’ to get over it? I would say so. It’s inspirational what AFC Wimbledon have done, building from scratch. Respect. But MK Dons is now an authentic football club in its own right. And without it, AFCers, you wouldn’t have had the opportunity for your own big (immensely satisfying to all) adventure. It shouldn’t have happened but it did, and it strikes me it’s now a win-win situation as far as the two clubs are concerned. The very notion of AFCers boycotting their own team’s appearance next weekend in the FA Cup second round tie at stadiummk (I know, I know) out of feelings of outrage, pride or spite – whatever – after all these years is a nonsense. Accentuate the positive.
The trappings of the Wimbledon FC history – FA Cup replica and all – went back to (here’s irony) the ever-helpful-to-the-cause London Borough of Merton in 2007. Which was good enough for the Football Supporters Federation, if not for that worthy magazine When Saturday Comes, whose yearly survey of the prospects for the new season continues to recognise only the MK Dons’ titular existence while giving a platform for (still) vituperative and dismissive comments from other teams’ correspondents; I gave them a chance but they refused to de-Stalinise – I cancelled my subscription in 2010 (but then I’d always wanted to cancel a subscription to something in any sort of dudgeon). Apparently keeping ‘Dons’ in the name is a sticking point for some AFCers. I’d say it’s too late to stop now. Why don’t we just reinterpret it, give the nod to the Open University – MK’s second biggest employer? The AFC Wimbledon ground, The Cherry Red Records Stadium – in Kingston, lest we forget – is sponsored by the record company that puts out the Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and boasts a roster running from A Flock of Seagulls (or Aardvark, depending on which filing rules are applied) to Zoot Money. And they’ve got Brian Lane in New Tricks. So we can be sure of the winners – and I say this without a hint of irony – as far as romance goes.
Whoever wins at the weekend I really don’t mind either way (so, some might say, I’m not a real football supporter). For me it will be the manner and grace of losing that is far more important; it’s in the aftermath we might get to see where real class lies. Here’s a recent picture of one of the very wet fences I shall be sitting on:
I hate the tribalism of football, the ugliness and stupidity it can engender, the endless bearing of grudges. When I lived in North London I supported Arsenal in one of their leanest times, and theirs is always the first result I’ll look for. Do I hate Spurs? Why should I? They’ve a proud and worthy footballing tradition. Of course it’s always especially pleasurable to beat them, but that’s as far as it goes. Does that mean I’m not a ‘proper’ supporter, not a ‘real’ fan? Next, as it happens, I’ll look for Crewe Alexandra – the result of sharing an office for ten years with Sally Ann. Then MK Dons. I think it’s childish, too, to boo opposition players who once represented your team (unless it’s Ashley Cole). I find it hard to hate, though I can sure resent among many others, not least Chelski. But no, on the whole, it’s not healthy, not something I like to do (unless it’s Leeds United in the Don Revie era).
Thank you for reaching the end. Please be gentle. Or at least polite.
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