Back in the good old days, some say the halycon days of the Wimbledon-related online community, there were many names of people of whom you never met, but their contributions and occasional mischief making made you felt you knew them like your childhood friend.
Sadly, one by-product of the AFCW era has meant a fractured community these days – some are involved in the club, some even run it. Others turn up to meetings, or just simply go to the games. While our nerves are put under far less duress these days, everyone has gone and done their own thing.
And then there are those who went to Wimbledon FC but never crossed over to AFC Wimbledon. Even during those dying days of Wimbledon FC, we were still getting 6000. Compare to current attendances which while good, still suggests that half of those from the WFC era are missing.
In other words, just where did the Wombles go?
A week or so ago, I received an email from a guy called Will Proops. Those with longer memories will know him by the moniker of Flawed. A well known name from the past who has yet to be seen at AFCW – you can name others who you just don’t hear of these days…
Anyway, I asked Flawed if he would write a few things about why he didn’t cross over from Wimbledon FC to AFC Wimbledon. Thankfully, he was more than willing to, and below is something I think we should all read and digest.
Over to you, Will…
In my career within the heady world of Global Media and Advertising there has always been the need for an icebreaker, either before or after meetings or during a business lunch. Someone asked me recently what football team I supported. A good icebreaker and certainly one I havenâ€™t entertained for a while.
I hesitated for a second or two before answeringÂ “Wimbledon”.
“Aren’t they the MK Dons now?” my inquisitor asked, perhaps slightly jokingly looking for a rise.
â€œNot my Wimbledon mate, they donâ€™t exist anymore.â€ I replied.
â€So you follow that new team then, that AFC Wimbledon thing then?â€
â€œNo. I tried. I failedâ€.
These words even shocked myself. As I spoke them, I suddenly realised I Âreally didnâ€™t follow AFC Wimbledon. And over the next few days I kept thinking back as to why?
Donâ€™t get me wrong, Iâ€™m not some fuddleduddled old romantic that thinks my Wimbledon will rise again from the ashes. I considered myself aÂ â€˜more-than-averageâ€™ Wimbledon supporter â€“ I went to 80-90% of home games and treated myself to a few away games each season.
I bought the new shirts every season (Home and away, and still treasure my green away shirt with Flawed 66 on the back!), I collected memorabilia, I took part in the online supporters community, I joined the protests, and I even had the pleasure of commentating on the Dons on Sky Sports â€˜Fanzoneâ€™.
I was just a fan like everyone else, doing my bit to the best of my ability. But I still donâ€™t support AFCW? Why canâ€™t I get my head around that statement? I am sure Iâ€™m not the only one.
You said you tried?
Yup I did, to an extent. The only way I can describe it is like trying to learn to love an adopted doggy that someone has instantly given me when I have lost my own. When maybe I just donâ€™t have enough left in me to care enough to start again.
I fear that much of the original AFCW support was fuelled by anger, fuelled by wanting to prove that we really do care about having a local football club in our community, fuelled by wanting to grasp onto something new, fuelled by wanting to be a part of something new, fuelled by wanting to prove the FA wrong.
I did my bit. I sent some funds and I followed progress online, but I never bought a shirt, never went to a game, never bought a programme, never bought some merchandise â€“ not even a car sticker. Iâ€™ve never even received an incentive to go. I probably canâ€™t even name more than 5 players that have graced AFC Wimbledonâ€™s ranks since its birth. I canâ€™t be alone can I?
So where have all the old Dons fans gone? Why have I gone?
It wasnâ€™t to do with the loss of Premiership football. In fact I rather enjoyed the old Championship matches. I am sure that a portion have left as they canâ€™t be bothered with lower league football. That doesnâ€™t bother me. I am sure some have left because of the logistics of going to a new ground.
But both these categories are for those fans who go to games. What about the Dons fans who never went to a match before? I know Iâ€™ve certainly met a few in my time (hey, we were a rare breed so when you met one at a party or meeting it was like finding Willy Wonkaâ€™s Golden Ticket). Maybe like me, theyâ€™ve just fallen out of love with the whole thing?
Maybe in the cosmic scheme of things losing your club isnâ€™t that big of a deal? Weâ€™ve had our fun on our roller-coaster journey, but the ride has ended. Time to get off.
Maybe they are afraid (like me?) that if they went a game it would be a terrible experience that would mar any future footballing foray. Maybe thatâ€™s it? Maybe itâ€™s like that first day of school all over again. Wondering if theyâ€™ll like it, wondering if theyâ€™ll make any new friends, secretly hoping that they wonâ€™t be last in the line-up against the wall when picking sides for a kick-a-bout, wondering if they can bring themselves to follow another club.
Now I must admit I did have a flicker of passion when I read about the potentialÂ FA Cup clash with the MK Dons recently. All my fondest Wimbledon memories came flooding back in an instant. Endorphin overload.
With no hesitation or thought for logistics and ticketing I just HAD to be there. I just had to stand shoulder to shoulder with brethren again. My tribe, my brethrenâ€¦. The flame in me grew taller. My tribal instincts kicked in – I would contact some of the old online community again â€“ I knew W&WW had withered away and died but surely SW19â€™s Army and It Must Be Dons still existed. They must do. Yes. Yes thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ll do.
I reminisced that evening, wine in hand, by the fire. My wife thought I was mad just sitting there smiling and chuckling to myself. I was in a happy dreamland as I recalled my favourite momentsÂ â€“ John Hartsonâ€™s header in the dying minutes against Villa meaning we survived the drop another week and the subsequent pitch invasion, beating Watford 5-0 on a cold April evening in 1999 where the shirt numbers scored in the order 7-8-9-10-11.
Singing the Champagne song, Paulo DiCanioâ€™s wonder goal, Beckhamâ€™s delightful halfway line chip, Walid Badirâ€™s crazed charges into the net, Gareth Ainsworthâ€™s header at the feet of Paul Ince, Ben Thatcher slamdunking Rory Delap into the advertising hoardings with a WWF move, playing Spurs 5 times in one month, commentating on the Dons on Sky, there were loads of memories and even more coming as I write this!
I was in nirvana. I hadnâ€™t thought about the Dons in a long time. I started thinking about the possible new memories with AFC and starting our relationship from new. I really hoped that the clash would be on. I would definitely be there all refreshed, ready to stand with my new found tribe, ready for a new campaign and chapter in my life after being in the wilderness for so long. Iâ€™d be there to see AFC beat MK Dons! Not a bad new memory to start with!
Sadly, the teams never met.
I slunk back into the dark.
This got me thinking (yes I do a lot of that) that if that was the incentive why hadnâ€™t I had this offer of a new relationship from AFC previously? Why hadnâ€™t they contacted me before and asked â€œWhere have you been all my life?â€.
I left SW19 in 2008 but still, there was no contact before that. They must have had my details from many points of contact. I had sent them money, thereâ€™s the supporters network (a hugely undervalued marketing vehicle in any campaign IMHO), Iâ€™d signed petitions, hell for a few quid you can purchase the WFC Season ticket and Crazy Gang contact lists. Maybe I just fell through the netâ€¦â€¦like a lot of others I imagine. I wasnâ€™t fired up enough to ensure I was at the first AFC match.
I imagine that AFC probably tried supporter recruitment and publicity road shows at public events, local shopping centres during the day and local press. Thatâ€™s great to start with as a base but like lots of people I work during the day, donâ€™t read local press or go to that many local fetes. Fan sites have my details and I bet they have a few others.
Why havenâ€™t they been incentivised to find an old fan?
Thereâ€™s a good chance that, like me, they know other fans who have never been. I personally know of 5-6 old Dons fans who have never been to an AFC game or even really follow AFC, but they went to see WFC and endured luke warm lager and a shitty excuse of a cheeseburger at Selhurst like the rest of us. They havenâ€™t been. I donâ€™t know why. So without AFC prompting or reminding me Iâ€™ve just drifted. Iâ€™ve forgotten about them and theyâ€™ve forgotten about me. Itâ€™s no oneâ€™s fault.
So rather than me, being a potential supporter, making the first move why donâ€™t AFC come find me in the wilderness and guide me back to the light? Tell me what Iâ€™ve been missing. Tell me it will be just as great as before. Tell me you really want me. Tell me you need me, not just my money. Tell me it will as great as going to a sports match in the US.
Tell me youâ€™ll put on a show. Tell me that when I appear 5000 other fans will want to hug me and welcome me back and say â€œWhere have you been? Beer mate?â€. Tell me my kids should get enrolled in coaching classes with you. Tell me all the great things we are going to do. Tell me how you want to be a part of my life again.
Maybe, in all truth, I just donâ€™t have enough in me to do it all again. Since â€˜myâ€™ Dons have ceased to exist I have moved from SW19. I have got married (to a Palace fan of people!) and now have 2 wonderful boys. Now I start to wonder what teams they will support as they grow up. All I do know is that when they ask â€œDaddy, what team do you support?â€ My answer will always be â€œâ€¦Wimbledonâ€ and Iâ€™ll tell them a plethora of wonderful stories and how wonderful being a fan can be…