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Walking on the Sun


By Florida John

Identity Crisis?

I don’t mean the “Crazy Gang” or any other kind of image that is attached to by the media or generated by the club. It’s the way you identity with the club. Go back to what made you support the club in the first place. Wimbledon FC must have some special characteristics that made you follow; otherwise you would be supporting Manchester United or Liverpool if you were a glory hunter. Altringham or Walton & Hersham if you wanted the close camaraderie of the non-league, or maybe a Third division side which occasionally takes a big scalp in the cup. Quite why the majority gets attracted to the big clubs is down to marketing these days as much as the clubs history (though the odd air crash seems to help).

How did I come to support Wimbledon? Well I worked in and around Wimbledon during the rise to the top. First I was almost dragged to a game, but then I got to like the excitement of watching a team playing “man’s football”. Then we had a team with no stars, who played in ramshackle surroundings. As the years went on it was a great buzz to watch the likes of John Barnes, Chris Waddle or Gazza running around a ground when only days earlier they might have been pitting their wits against the best in somewhere like the San Siro. Now I bet we hit a common denominator here, something in our personalities is attracted to the “against all odds”, “David and Goliath” type thing. I know I do. So until we left Plough Lane that was it, or is it that simple. Hell no.

Through the history of Wimbledon there are four distinct phases of identity. Non–league Plough Lane, Plough Lane in the climb up the league to the old First Division, First Division / Premier League at Selhurst and the future. To explain this until we were a fairly typical (if rather successful) non-league side until 1977, when we got elected to the league. Remember there are still supporters from that era, who still identify with that (and I hope we all take our hats off to those people!). Then as the promotions started to add up, rapidly the identity of this club changed to this “up at ’em team” in non-league surroundings, in amongst the elite. There are many of us who identify with this, and we still hang on at Selhurst hoping to return home. These are also people who get all misty eyed about Plough Lane, want to get back to the borough and are/were the most distrustful of Hammam (as well as the earlier group, of course).

Then we moved to Selhurst, the reasons for this you all know. At first I doubt if we attracted much new support, but by around 1995 this started to change. The reasons for this were fairly simple. If you take our catchment area as broadly “South London/Surrey”, then we were the most consistently successful club in the area. Namely the younger supporter in the area (respect to you all) wanted to see a Premier League team and as others struggled we were always there. These fans (I think) identify more with the Premier League Wimbledon, and so when people mention a new ground being built at Gatwick they are not so worried, as a group (SW19 note: up until probably last season, many “older” Wimbledon fans were very keen on Gatwick, primarily because they at the time “accepted” that we would never return to Merton, but also because it wasn’t SP or Dublin).

They do not know what Plough Lane was like, that is not their fault. The earlier group, meanwhile are up in arms, as that would be severing their links with the past, why we have waited and suffered in the hope of a return home. The fact is these are the new breed, and have (if they aren’t already) become the majority as the oldies, die off, lose interest, move abroad and so on. And that leaves us with the future, future that needs to accommodate all of the above. First I need to tell a little story.

I have a very good friend who is a Manchester United supporter, (I expect we all have!), but he is different. He was actually born well within Greater Manchester (thats not all thats different!), and finds the rise of Manchester United plc rather tedious. He goes to games where there are 55,000 supporters. There is no atmosphere. Why? Mostly because it is a different lot of people every week, and nobody knows any one else. They all think they belong, but they don’t. They belong to one big commercial machine. My friend has joined we at several Wimbledon games over the years. He even sneaked into the Huddersfield promotion game. Every time he says what a great bunch of supporters we have. He almost wishes he supports us! Just because of this! So there it is, despite all the changes, we the supporters are what makes us so special. Witness the sympathy we got at Southampton, they meant it because we behave properly, there was some “there for the grace of God go I” too.

So what identity do we have of Wimbledon FC now, or indeed what is the identity that rest of the world gives us. We all have our own perception of what we see in the club. I became aware of this situation in those dark days after relegation. Apart from the obvious, the press and public’s perception of us changed in just a few days. One day we were “Wimbledon FC Premier League club”, the next we were “A small club with no ground of its own, few fans and not much else”.

Let me expand that, to the outside world while we were Premier (despite all the hate from the press) we stood for something, we were (occasionally) on TV. We were the ones who would rattle Man U’s cage, the “crazy gang” etc. But as we now are not part of the top 20 clubs in the land, and we already have no ground (and indeed share a poor ground with poor access), we became an empty shell of a club (to them). A club that has lived a lie for years, and finally got found out.

So lets look on the bright side! We have new owners! Who have a very large amount of money indeed! Already they have waved the magic wand, bought the land and started on a new, state of the art, training facility less than two miles from the centre of Wimbledon. So what do we want next! A new ground, go back to the Premier League, both, or what? Well that has all changed rather hasn’t it? It would be easy for some to think that just by moving back to the Wimbledon area, we would take on the identity of the late 80’s. In some sort of modern Taylor report approved version of Plough Lane. Nice thought isn’t it?

That is not very likely. As seen above we have something like three sections of support running around with somewhat different perceptions of the identity of the club. The team plays differently now, we are expected to be in the Premier League (or disappear without trace) and we would play (I hope) in a modern, well-designed stadium that would hold around 25 – 30 thousand. We would not be the happy-go-lucky non-league outfit, the “Crazy Gang” or the “homeless Premier Leaguers”. We would be something entirely new, but with a history.

Now anybody who supported Wimbledon FC on or before the 14th May 1988 will tell you about history. I’m not going to repeat that here. To me some project a future vision of WFC being somewhere in the borough of Morden. Having a nice new stadium, a bit like Middlesborough without the nuclear waste and psychopaths running the streets or a Coventry, well just not dull. How will we encapsulate all this? Well that is one tough question, to blend all this together, to be re-born, and yet retain the positive aspects of the club that makes us unique. Remember we do not have a hooligan problem.

The debate could be a long one; you will all have your ideas. At least I hope the new owners will listen to this as we forge ahead. To start the ball rolling here is one idea from me. As long as a new stadium has been proposed I have always hoped we would take a leaf out of Arsenal’s book. To have something, like their marble halls, a “Hall of Fame”. Not a cheesy Disney-like thing, but something with dignity that illustrates the past, that is not just dedicated to the obvious names (for a Herbert Chapman read “Harry Bassett”), but some of the less well known who weren’t on the scoresheet or Player of the year. Some of the players, who toiled on low wages, for little thanks. This would be more important to the fabric of the club than a “Womble Superstore” or a “Womble Café”. Somewhere to show your kids how we remained loyal to our club, without a ground, for longer than anybody else.

Next Week: Where did it all go wrong? – A new perspective, that is not too hard on the welly wearing one! You’ll be surprised.