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End of the Beginning

Must. Not. Post. Video. Of. The. Black. Sabbath. Song. Of. The. Same. Name.

Oh, too late.

No, I’m not using a song title by Aston’s finest export just for the sake of it. If I was, then Fairies Wear Boots would have been used eons ago.

But I’ve kind-of wanted to write the following for a while, even before relegation was finally confirmed.

It’s perhaps fortunate (?) timing that it’s almost two decades to the day that our football world was turned upside down.

But no football club can escape the need to renew. AFCW is no exception, and this piece is all about that.

Helpfully, Mick Buckley posted a sizeable update earlier this week. Here’s the most important bit:

1) On the business side, we will be recruiting a new Managing Director, whose role will be to provide real focus on operating the stadium and driving the business side of the organisation;

2) On the football side, we will be recruiting a new Head of Football Operations who will work alongside the first-team manager and support them in the full recruitment pathway: talent identification, scouting, data benchmarking, agent management and contract negotiation. 

Like last season, we talked about becoming more of a professional football club. Unlike last season, we might be starting to do it.

There are many emotions that have come out of our first relegation in the AFCW era, but after the anguish there’s a growing feel of renewal.

A new manager appointed, a new Managing Director on his way, and a universal sense that we simply have to change from now on.

Which is why I’ve called this “End of the Beginning” – because in so many ways, that’s what this close season is.

While SW19 has always maintained the second proper campaign at Plough Lane was when it gets real**, us going down has only added to that.

** – I’m not wrong, am I?

AFCW hasn’t “failed” in its broadest terms – we’re back home, we’re still an EFL club and we’re still here – but going down is a failure. And probably the biggest one since 2002.

Buckley is talking some good stuff, but as ever with AFCW talk is very cheap. We’ve promised so much in the past and little ultimately changes.

It’s not unfair to say the club is currently at the crossroads, that we could equally make the wrong decision as the right one.

But just as going back home changed the club forever, relegation killed off “old” AFCW for good.

Demotion laid to rest what we had become. Culturally insular, looking back rather than forward, and never properly coming to terms with what was financially required.

Not that it mattered for a lot of the ten years we’ve been in the EFL. There’s been a lot of struggle, but we never got relegated….

We’ve talked the talk about “changing”, and last season might have been the biggest gap between rhetoric and action ever.

On-field, it’s ironic how things have turned out though.

As you probably now know, Mark Robinson has got his dream job at his boyhood club, and he’s done well to get that.

It’s ironic, because he was seen as the figurehead of the brave new era of AFCW this time last year.

When he was sacked after Cambridge at home, and Mark Bowen took his place, it not only ended his tenure but the last decade of the club too.

Since Terry Brown left, AFCW has been a WFC reinactment society as much as a contemporary EFL football club.

You only have to look who we appointed as manager (or Head Coach) since TB departed, and before MB attempted to save us.

Precious little actual experience, but that wasn’t the main reason why they were employed.

Picking Bowen, then JJ, has already been a major departure from how we’ve done things.

But if things have changed, it’s because last season took us out of the comfort zone we’ve been in for a good while.

Even now, AFCW doesn’t totally convince it knows what being a pro football club is about.

It’s very easy in that case to retreat back to what you’re most familiar with. Which a lot of the time is what we did.

We were always fine because we had “one of us” in charge – regardless of actual managerial experience.

Not that struggling to grasp what’s needed in the division we’re in was anything new.

When we went up to the EFL, Barnet, Dagenham and Aldershot were League Two regulars too.

If they could remain there with little bother, there wasn’t much we needed to change, right?

Jack Midson’s penalty was a timely reminder of that folly, which is something we’ve not fully shaken off.

Oh, and where are the Bees, the Daggers and the Shots right now? I’ll give you a clue – they’re not in the EFL.

We went up to L1 with a run that remains inexplicable, but we never entirely belonged there.

That was partly because we didn’t really understand what it required until it was too late.

Mark Robinson was in many ways the last throw of the “old ways” dice. Yet he proved to be a transitional manager, and his firing was the end of an era.

As said on SW19 before, what he wanted to do was try and recreate 2000-2002 in terms of our youth development.

That it’s not really possible any more was lost on a club that has had a bit of an identity crisis for a long while.

When 28/5/02 happened, we lost more than our club – we lost a lot of what we “belonged” to as well.

This may partly explain why we bought back old WFC people in charge, even if we shouldn’t have done.

It was done to patch up some very real wounds from then that never healed. Make us “us” again.

Going back home to Plough Lane, and realising while it’s better is not the same as it was in 1991 has moved us on from that too.

We “belong” at PL in a way we didn’t at KM. For the most part, we collectively accept now that it’s 2022 and we support AFC Wimbledon.

It’s taken us 20 years to get to this point. But just as AFCW has reached a transitional point on the field, it’s in the same boat off it.

If I was to ask you a simple and innocuous question, plus a follow up, I bet you’d have some difficulty answering it.

Here goes, anyway : what do you want AFCW to be from now on? What is its purpose?

We wanted to get back into the Football League, and we’ve done that. We’ve wanted to go back home, and we’ve done that too.

What exactly should we aim for now?

Buckley himself answered that, as far as the club itself goes : challenge to get into the Championship** within five years, and we’ll need an extra £2.2m to do it.

** – a subtle yet notable change from “we’ll aim for the Championship in five years” hyperbole.

If anything should highlight why right now is indeed the end of the beginning for AFCW, it’s this.

Funding AFCW has long been the elephant in the room, and it can turn some otherwise sensible people into absolutists.

You’ve all heard the trope about the evil sugar daddy wresting control from the humble AFCW fan, for his own nefarious needs.

It’s a tired one, especially as those same people (conveniently?) ignore that Mike Richardson was indeed a money man.

We’ve missed him, just like we’ll miss Iain McNay’s dosh when he stops doing it.

If going down has sobered us for stuff on-field, it’s a much-needed slap in the chops off it.

For the first time since 2002, failing to properly grasp funding directly affects our bottom line.

We’ve long been reactionary, especially when it comes to money, and now we have to be pro-active throughout the club.

That means getting the off-field hospitality right, to get sponsorship up to a good level where it’s worthwhile.

To not rely on Sunderland, or Sheffield Wednesday, or Charlton to visit us and hope we get a good pay day out of it.

To be fair, attitudes towards money have become a bit more pragmatic amongst most people.

When the club updated us with Ananth S Nathan putting money in, there was barely a murmur of dissent.

In fact, there was legitimate disappointment with news of another investor pulling out. Compare that reaction to what it would have been like in 2019…

It’s obvious we can’t go back to what we were. It’s just that moving forward isn’t going to be entirely easy.

The big question isn’t so much whether we can raise the extra £2.2m, presumably as a yearly sum.

It’s whether people are prepared to make the sacrifices needed to get that figure.

This could prove to be the hardest period of the AFCW era, because in the past two decades you could get away with putting handbrakes on discussing finance.

We got up to the EFL, then League One, without “selling our soul”, so why can’t we do the same now?

If Mark Robinson being the end of the on-field era is ironic, then having a significant percentage of our own fans being roadblocks to progress is even more so.

Off the top of my head, admittedly, but I think selling more equity to external investors will be a good way of getting that sum of money in.

Current ways of funding are finite. There’s only so much revenue PL can generate, along with supporter wallets and limited transfer dealings these days.

That’s not including whether we get additional debt to what we already have.

Don’t believe me? Well, Buckley talked about improving the training facilities, and that doesn’t come gratis either.

Will those who have resisted such moves over investment in the past continue to do so? Even if it hampers the club?

If not, what will be their own breaking point before the AFCW equivalent of getting a job at Koch Industries?

AFCW is in for an interesting couple of years, because simply put – we now need more money than ever before.

Pressure on our finances is at its highest, which will only get higher. While I think pragmatism will ultimately win – there’s a lot of ideals about.

If nothing else, we have to fund owning and operating Plough Lane. That won’t change if we go out of the Football League.

I avoid just about anything Dons Trust related, I’m not a member and have no desire to be one.

But that’s a good example of what happens when what people think a club should be comes up against what it actually is.

Even now, a fair few see the club through the prism of fan ownership being front and centre, as though it’s as important as the first team.

It isn’t, by the way. In fact, AFCW would be around if the DT disappeared this afternoon.

They’re the ones who express displeasure that they’re not being informed of, say, managerial appointment processes.

Professional football club don’t usually give blow-by-blow details of that kind of thing. They’re under no obligation to.

In a close season full of ironies, while it has its faults the Dons Trust Board itself is acting more like a “professional” club than it ever has.

99% of fans don’t need to know 95% of what goes on. Commercial confidentiality and employment law is a bitch.

Yet over the years, many fans have told themselves that because they “own” the club, they feel entitled to know more than they do.

There’s a whole article to be written about the long-term future of the DT, namely how relevant it will be to youngsters once the highly-influential oldies die off.

Put it this way. If they don’t feel they have a stake even if they’re a member- or they see it with hostility – then it gets very interesting…

Back to the football side of things, which after all is the main reason we’re all here.

When relegation was confirmed against Accrington, any remaining innocence the club had gone.

Supporters are more cynical now, no doubt assisted by constant weatherbeating on the field (and off it too).

They’re also more expectant these days, because L2 is a level we should realistically look to get promoted out of.

Being “happy to have a club” has never worked for a long while, but it’s now properly extinguished

This is especially as we’re in a division where we should be one of the bigger clubs in it.

In any given season, we may not be the biggest or biggest-spending outfit around. If Wrexham go up we won’t be.

But you could file us alongside Gillingham, or Swindon, or Doncaster, or Tranmere as sides who should be up there.

We got up to the EFL, then League One, by being there at the right place at the right time – and taking our chances when we did.

Now, it’s a different ball game. We can’t rely on momentum any more, or luck, or flukes – we’ve used that all up.

We have to look the part, to get promoted because we’re geared up throughout the club to do so.

We might even need to be where we were in Turdeyland/Conference South, a club where everything off the field is aimed for going up.

If we’re content to be a mid-table L2 side for a good while, then crowds drop (and subsequently money to pay off debts).

AFCW has reached the end of what it used to be, both on field, off field and in its collective mindset.

What path it chooses remains to be seen, and there’s no guarantee it will select the right one.

But in a nod to the fellas at the top of this article – perhaps it’s time to fill our victims full of dread again…

Published inUncategorised