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Crossroads – the sequel

Many many – MANY – years ago, June 20th 2001 to be precise, I wrote an article entitled Crossroads. You can read it here. Its contents are pretty self-explanatory, and memories really do come flooding back. And I don’t just mean the theme tune to the crappy soap opera of the same name. If we’d known then what we know now…

Reading it still makes me angry, especially the first paragraph. It was hard to take then without the benefit of hindsight, although at times reading back at it, deja vu really does happen all over again. With everything that went on since then, it went from bewilderment then to still-burning feelings of apoplexy now. Even now, I can’t really describe what it meant to be so blatantly lied to.

Which puts supporting a club called Wimbledon in 2010 into a great deal of perspective. No matter what challenges AFCW throws up at us, they will never be as bad as what affected us a mere nine years ago. We were a lot more naive back then, we hadn’t as yet experienced the worst thing to happen to a set of football fans that didn’t involve physical harm, and we really were standing at metaphoric crossroads back then, with not a clue of where to turn.

It may therefore seem odd, even perverse, to suggest that AFCW today stands at the same four-way turnpike as Wimbledon FC did in those troublesome days. And no, I don’t believe that Erik and co are sitting on a financial timebomb on the quiet, that will explode in December and will mean we absolutely have to move to Sunderland. Even I’m not quite that cynical. Maybe.

But while the club may be stable, and doesn’t nearly have as many (self-inflicted) wounds as it did back then, it still faces challenges that are as important. AFCW isn’t all sweetness and light, where the sun shines on it every day, where the players win 5-0 every game without breaking sweat, and even the beery farts smell like the finest perfume.

No, we have our own pressing issues that need looking at. Right now, we are having to think deeply about that age old question of money. The commerical department in particular has found a rocket shoved at a 45 degree angle anally, which explains why your inbox is currently full of adverts to consume a nice joint (of meat) before the next game.

For me, the club’s attitude towards money changed when it had to upgrade KM to Conference standard. I get the impression it genuinely was shocked to find out not only how much extending the Main Stand cost, but also how much it was to do something “minor” like replacing the floodlights to League standard were. From those points onwards, it realised just how cheap running a top level club wasn’t.

That was compounded when the club decided to make the big move towards going full time. Towards the end of last season, I was (very) reliably informed that if we went down that route, it would be as cheap as possible. Thus far, on the pitch, it’s worked out well for us, and it was a risk that paid off.

I don’t doubt for one second that we did every single budgetary calculation to make sure we could afford it, yet we still found out the hard way about the real cost of going full time. When we broke into the Premier League’s earmarked gift money to sign Fraser Franks and Ed Harris, it became clear that we’d underestimated how much we needed to spend. It’s unclear whether we got some, ahem, additional financial help from a couple of the usual suspects, but even that proved to be too small.

It is scary to see how much even a well supported club at our level has to shell out to compete, so you can imagine the debts Crawley are running up on the quiet. And the thing is, it’s not like buying somebody like Franks/Harris is an optional extra – already, both of them have played for the first team, and neither thankfully look out of place.

There are knock-on effects with this. Apparently, our scouting network is now taken over by a company who specialise in it, which is therefore cheaper for us to operate. There is a loss of a personal touch here, but again, needs must. So we are having to find money to do the things that need to make the first team infrastructure function.

To ensure we don’t get screwed, we have to get the right people in, which costs even more money. And that’s not to mention the ground situation…

If there’s one issue that hangs over the collective AFCW head, it’s where we play. And like the approach to funding the team, the rapid rise of the club since the Ryman Premier days (let alone the CCL to Ryman era) has meant a total rewrite of the whole approach to the ground. If ever there was a crossroad, this is it.

What we do know right now is that KM is no longer a solution but a problem. Height restrictions mean that it can only be extended to about 1000-2000 more people than it can currently hold. The only genuine bit of refurbishment will come by knocking down the JS and replacing it with seating (again, with the usual restrictions of height and planning). And if that was to happen, it would be because we’d be a League side and we would need additional seating.

It has certainly appeared to woken the club up. Before we got into the Conference South, there was always a sense that they wanted to stay at KM forever and hope that people would eventually forget about moving. But when the creaks for the Chelmsford game occured, and St Albans got over 4500, the first real doubts surfaced. By the time Luton popped along for the first time, even the programme admitted that a better stadium was needed.

Probably for the first time since 1991, the whole stadium issue has to be settled once and for all. The years between 1991 and 1996 were wasted, due to lack of effectiveness and not holding Hammam to proper account. We drifted without nailing anyone down properly. No comment between 1996 and 2002. From 2002 to 2008, the club rather than the ground was the top priority. And it really has become such a big issue in two years, and will only continue to get bigger.

The club itself is finding out that what is mandatory at Conference level is unsuitable for what KM was built for. Yes, KM was constructed to Conference standard, but that was in 1991. It is now BSS level at best. And from what the Stadium Working Group seem to suggest, knocking it down and rebuilding it is a waste of time, because it wouldn’t increase capacity that much and it’s pretty restricted.

We are effectively in the same position as we were in 1989, ground wise. This time, we can (hopefully) trust those in charge to do the right thing. If they mess up though, the club will be fatally damaged – we just don’t want to go through another twenty years of being told that negotiations are at a critical stage, and we must pipe down.

Which is why when you hear stories about Hogsmill (ie a few hundred yards below KM) getting mentioned, it could end up being a disaster for AFCW. The whole ground thing is a politically sensitive subject, and while it’s obvious that one or two factions take glee in carrying on Hammam’s legacy with regards to Merton, the (vast) majority of fans see returning home as the Holy Grail. The final piece in the jigsaw, if you prefer.

It wouldn’t get nearly the emotional support that a return home would conjure up. If anything, whenever I hear it brought up, you can feel the stomachs churning and hearts dropping. It will only be widely accepted as a fall back if all else failed – there doesn’t appear to be much love for the area, put it that way. Yes, we accept we’re here, we use the local pubs and Fat Boys and the crappy chippy on the corner. But the pangs are starting, those little psychological reminders that our long term future isn’t with a KT postcode.

So we look at Merton. The big one. And the more the ground issues intensifies, the more you get the feeling we deserve something good with this. Christ, with all the setbacks we’ve had over the years, something to genuinely call our own seems almost criminal to deny (with one possible exception, which you’ll find out in due course). It’s a bit like AFCW was a reward for putting up with everything between 1996 and 2002.

You don’t always get what you deserve though, we should know that by now. That said, there’s a fair amount of positivity about with Crown House right now, whispers suggest there could be as many as three possible sites, none of which are the Dog Track. What is obvious though is that the club accepts that we have to properly explore how to fund moving – it doesn’t matter now whether it’s Merton or the backup plan at Hogsmill, KM is no longer a viable long-term option.

People certainly would get behind a move to Merton. Deep down, I get the impression the club knows it too – the community stuff appears to focus on Merton rather than Kingston, which is how it should be. We’re not Kingstonian. There’s a lot to tap into as well. Whenever the club has done PR in Merton (especially Wimbledon), a lot of locals have forgotten there was a football club. A quick history lesson, and suddenly somebody else knows we exist again.

That’s not happening by accident. While we will always stumble on the pitch on occasions, off the field the club is building up momentum. It’s probably grown as much in the Conference as it had done between 2002 and 2008. More importantly, you can’t see the momentum stopping any time soon. Obviously, the club has to keep building its profile off the pitch because it’s a competitive environment. But there’s also a sense that we’ve wasted well over a decade not plugging the club in its own area.

Anyway, the ground issue will rumble on, and it’s a straight choice between AN Other Site in Wimbledon/Merton and the plot of land south of KM, right? Not quite…

Quoting from unofficial messageboards is always a dangerous thing to do, but this from the Tooting and Mitcham forum recently caught my eye. Read it and digest.

Done that? Good. It has some degree of plausibility, doesn’t it? And you do have to wonder if this is Merton’s fall-back option (assuming it actually ever got the OK). It would certainly get Merton off the hook, and call AFCW’s bluff. After all, it would have put a firm committment to the club.

Would the club go for it? Would it put its foot down and reject the proposal, running the very real risk of permanently shutting the door on the borough, and putting us at Kingston’s mercy?

While you’re digesting that, I’ve allowed myself a little bit of fun with this. Observe…

So, what does this suggest? Apart from the fact that your editor is crap with Photoshop, that is. Well, IF’s current capacity is 3500, and their stand holds 600 odd (612 to be precise). If you assume that the bits along the side that doesn’t have a stand or terracing is the 500, then the terracing works out at about 1000 each (1000 + 1000 = 2000 + 600 = 2600 + 500 down unbuilt side + 400 stragglers = 3500).

Obviously, if AFCW did go in there, the mock-up main stand is about 1800. So already capacity is automatically raised to 4700. Currently the same size as KM. If you then build a full service stand on the other side (as in, police control room, executive boxes and enough room for the carvery) at about 3000 seats, you’ll get close to 8000. Then double the terrace sizes as I’ve done….

Intriguing, isn’t it?

There are plenty of pitfalls for this suggestion too, namely that until Merton lift the restriction on us playing there it’s just me being cheeky. But with the club thinking about finance all the time, if this happened this would be the cheapest way to get a legitimately League-standard ground. Something I’m sure would make the powers-that-be sit up and take notice.

It would almost certainly put the whole stadium issue to bed for the next 20+ years. On the flip side, it still wouldn’t be “ours” as such, and it’s Merton but not Wimbledon, although you can easily get the tram from SW19 and it’s walkable (if long) from Morden tube station.

Would people go for it, if offered? Who knows, but my own gut feeling suggests they would. Internet grumblings aside, although the club will likely deny it’s ever been mentioned, there is the feeling that it’s not quite that bad a suggestion. OK, it won’t be as welcomed as returning to SW19 would, but it doesn’t make your heart sink in the same way as Hogsmill does. And I’m certainly not the only one to have ever gone there, looked around at it and think, “hmm…”

Whatever path we take, the next decade is going to be vastly different from the previous ten years. This will affect every facet of AFCW life – the merchandise department needs to balance making money but not ripping people off in the process. It’s an important source of income, and can’t afford to start putting people off long term.

Commercially, the club has to stop relying on AFCW fans using their own companies to sponsor us. The fact is, we’re high profile, quite possibly a League side in the next 12 months and watched by more than a man with dog, and yet we still have difficulty getting deals beyond SI and Cappagh?

Our ability to develop players to sell on (WFC style) becomes ever more important too. Alongside the stadium development comes the very real need to build proper, permanent training facilities. The need to develop our own Christian Jolley or even Danny Kedwell is now in the top three of on-field necessity, probably even in the top two…

While researching this article, I came across an article about fan power in Prospect magazine. The whole thing is a pretty big reality check, probably the first of its ilk I’ve ever seen. It’s worth reading with an open mind, but I get the feeling this won’t go down well :

Other, better examples of fan-owned, sustainably-run football clubs tend to be abroad, or too small to be noticed, like AFC Wimbledon or AFC Telford, which play in the fifth and sixth tiers of league football.

Arsenal is the only top club trying to involve fans in its operation. Its supporters’ trust (AST) announced a new scheme in August that will allow fans to buy small fractions of shares in the club at an affordable price. While “fanshare” holders will be able to vote on policy, Arsenal is majority-owned by four directors and it remains to be seen if a tiny shareholding group of fans can have any influence.

Hmm. Respect against influence, anyone? Often easy to confuse the latter with the former – I used to be a member of the FSA (Football Supporters Association, not the Financial Services Authority) in the early 90s, and it suffered from what a lot of supporters groups today still continue to do – hang around other supporter bodies and it all becomes an echo chamber effect. People may laud what we’ve done but we haven’t spawned much offspring along the way.

The funny thing is, AFCW is currently as big (if not bigger) as half the sides in League Two, and it’s only starting to realise its potential. With proper marketing, facilities etc, it really could get regular crowds of 6-8k. Once that potential starts getting realised, we could find the club doubles in size almost overnight. Especially if we start getting into the League, and/or get decent FA Cup runs.

This would have knock-on effects, like what happens to Dons Trust elections. Right now, you join the DT for three reasons : you want to donate to the club, you’re a Doris the Tealady type who would sell raffle tickets on your deathbead, or you’re politically motivated to the point that you retweet John Prescott every five minutes on Twitter, and actually pay attention to anything BBC Parliament says. 1700 fall into the first category, not nearly so many fall into the second or third.

The current DT powerbase is of the 700-800 (in a good year) who vote in the DT elections. More accurately, it’s nearer 400-500, because not everyone votes for the same candidate, and you only need most  of SW19’s readership on a Saturday night to guarantee not only election but probably top spot as well.

Those who decide who sits down with the club and discuss/rubber stamps things appear a largely older group, very conservative in many ways, and the sort who would be happy with remaining at KM forever because they have a nice view from their seat. There’s some trickles of flesh blood coming through, but with all due respect, the board wouldn’t have looked out of place five years ago.

The 400-500 will vote for a Kris Stewart type character because they know who he is, yet at the same time it will simply not elect anyone who goes against orthordoxy or who may even be a remote “threat” to what they’re used to.  The likes of Xav Wiggins and Damian Woodward can testify to this, as their standing seemed to scare people into sticking with what they know.

One could argue back “but there’s 1700 members of the Dons Trust, why don’t they all mobilise and put their own people in?”. Well, if that’s what happened in the real world then there would be no such thing as a political safe seat. I’m sure a passing political scientist can explain about why that happens.

You may have noticed that Prospect article mentions a fair bit about Exeter, and that they look a bit (OK, a lot) more pro-active than its AFCW equivalent. Only in the last year or so, they’ve helped to buy a new pitch, raised over £1m,  and sorted out their training ground. Three things you find diffficult to see the DT doing. Why this is the case is unclear without living down in the West Country for a while. But when you analyse it, it’s a waste of time to try and ape what they do, even if they run along the same lines as us.

Unlike us they don’t have to rebuild/move their ground and all the costs it involves. They have St James Park, an expense that they didn’t have to deal with. We don’t have that realistic luxury. There’s also not the emotional baggage supporting Exeter that supporting AFCW has. Let’s be brutally honest here – as a fanbase, we’re knackered. Both metaphorically and financially.

This past decade has been a very trying one for Dons fans. Obviously, the events from 2000-02 have left permanent scars, but there’s also been pushes to raise enough money for the Khosla debt/Barclays loan as well. Not to mention getting AFCW up and running up to the point of being full time. That has taken a lot of energy out of the wider fanbase, let alone money.

Perhaps this explains why the club usually takes the lead and the DT reacts? There is no way you could do another share issue for anything other than a new stadium (in the right place) these days, because neither the money from the fans nor the inclination is there. It’s almost forgotten these days, but when the share issues and bond schemes were launched to buy the KM leasehold, people really did put holidays and dental operations on hold, often more than £3000. Try doing that today…

This is also why the club is now launching things like the carvery. OK, we can justifiably take the piss out of them plugging it to the detriment of minor things like the football, but it has now grasped the concept of the carrot against the stick. Before, you couldn’t walk down Jack Goodchild Way without another load of raffle tickets being thrust at you, in expectation of “helping the club”.

Today, the club still wants/needs your money, but doesn’t pressure you so much into coughing up. Don’t want to go to the carvery? Fine, nobody is going to accuse you of being a lesser fan, at least not publicly. There is still a bit of that “it’s your club you ungrateful bastards” mentality when it comes to complaining how crap the catering for the masses is, but these days you’re not considered so much a criminal if you just want to watch some football.

AFCW is set to face many more challenges within the coming years, including its biggest of the lot. It will not make the right decision on all of them, but it’s better to get the most important decision(s) correct. It made the most fundamental one thus far – going full time – without much fuss. Bar the odd complaint from a DT member that they weren’t given a vote…

Indeed, that’s the most striking thing of AFCW since it got promoted to the Conference – the way it’s adapted to life as a professional club. There have been more restrictions on things like going to the bar at half time, but people have coped with that well enough. While you get the odd crying toddler whining about not being able to take cans of Strongbow in the ground, we’ve accepted that stewarding has become a lot more, ahem, professional.

The club has dealt with adult situations thrust upon it, and so have the vast majority of the fans. It accepts that now we have to budget for more than we have to, so the money has to come from somewhere. The only thing that seems to have put backs up is the Premier Sports deal, but that’s because it’s a pile of shit. And it’s not like we’re alone in thinking that. If it was on Sky/ESPN and we were getting more than £4k an appearance, we’d cope pretty quickly.

And you want to know why we think that? Because we know the worst that can happen is that we stay as we are. If AFCW had to go back to being part time, we’d be unhappy but we’d probably still be in the Conference. Chances are, we won’t even need to do that now, because the club knows what the minimum level of investment is to run a full-time squad (hint : we’re doing it now).

The club is at its lowest natural level now, and it would take a massive fuckup of biblical proportions to find itself in the BSS, let alone the Ryman again. It may find itself finishing 15th on occasions, but it’s inconceivable to see us go much lower again. If we did, we would regroup and eventually get back up to the Conf again.

Additionally, there’s always going to be ultimate control of the club in the Dons Trust. It may only ever have 51% of shareholding in future, but I can think of no AFCW fan (me included) who wants to be sodomised by another Hammam type character. It would be extremely unlikely to happen anyway, because we’re just simply more aware of the pitfalls.

You could raise revenues by another bond/share issue, better sponsorship, selling off certain parts of AFCW in return for guaranteed income and a buy-back option if needed (though what would be of value is unclear), not to mention things like FA Cup runs, transfers and the carvery taking over the main bar too. And that’s just off the top of my head. Those who work in finance will know a lot more about investment and how organisations generate revenues, without having to rely on single investors, and we have enough people who work in the City to advise.

AFCW is indebted to a couple of  benefactors anyway, and again there’s no wide rooted objection to that arrangement. It’s only the symbolism of owning 100% that keeps it at 100%. The moment something tangible comes up that requires extra fundraising, it will happen. And like everything else, it will be done without much in the way of discontent.

And perhaps most importantly of all, unlike those words of anger I wrote way back on a sunny day in June a mere nine years previously, and no matter what happens, we will still have a club…