March 27, 2017, the NFL approved the Oakland Raiders’ move to Las Vegas, Nevada.
24 unbroken years of Bay Area history were over. Sin City could now claim legends like Nnamdi Asomugha and Rich Gannon. Future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Chase Garbers would have to leave Berkeley behind.
Relocation is a constant threat in American sports. If another city can offer a bigger media market, better facilities — or in Vegas’ case, over $750 million in taxpayer money — owners will eagerly jump ship, Raider Nation be damned.
Things are different across the pond. Corporate and state-owned capital have flooded European football, but clubs remain cornerstones of local communities.
If you grew up by Maine Road, your entire family supported Manchester City. Even when the Sky Blues fell to the third tier in 1998, your ass was in your seat. The Emirati takeover didn’t change things. Your grandad who got you into City couldn’t point out Dubai on a map, nor did he know a Sheikh Mansour. The club was in your blood. Moving it would be like cutting off your arm: you wouldn’t take it lying down.
Case in point: the death and rebirth of Wimbledon F.C.
Wimbledon Football Club was founded in 1889. The Dons were never London’s biggest club, with the city’s southwest mainly preferring Crystal Palace. Consequently, most of Wimbledon’s history was spent outside the professional leagues.
Fortunes would change in the late 1970s. Sustained amateur success meant election to the Football League’s Fourth Division in 1977. The Wombles stormed their way up the divisions, reaching the top flight in 1986.
This fairytale rise was anything but pretty. Manager Dave Bassett championed direct, physical football. His men often took “tough tackling” too far, earning a reputation for ill discipline. Other teams openly disrespected the new blood. Per England star Gary Lineker, Wimbledon’s play was so ugly that it was best watched on Ceefax — the BBC’s text-based news service.
But snide remarks can’t argue with results. Bassett led his scrappy Dons to the 1988 FA Cup final.
Their opponent was reigning league champion Liverpool. The Reds were everything Wimbledon wasn’t: technical, stylish, old money. Despite being heavy underdogs, the Wombles edged a 1-0 win. Commentator John Motson summed up England’s shock in a now iconic line:
“The Crazy Gang has beaten the culture club!”
Building on that unlikely triumph, Wimbledon established itself as a stable top-flight side, and kept it up when the Premier League began in 1992. Yet the club’s stadium didn’t match this success. Plough Lane was a relic of the nonleague days, and its run-down facilities showed its age. Worse yet, it was surrounded by sparsely populated parkland.
As early as the 1970s, owners believed the club’s location prevented it from attracting the larger crowds a league club should. But relocating? Unthinkable.
For the time being.
In the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, the British government ordered sweeping remodels of football stadia. Then-Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam deemed it infeasible to retrofit the 72-year-old Plough Lane, so he planned to find a new site in south London. In the interim, Wimbledon would groundshare with Crystal Palace, beginning in 1991.
Hammam publicly assured fans that nothing would change, remarking that he’d rather “die and have vultures eat (his) inside” than merge with the Eagles.
That was lip service. He prostituted the club to any city that would take it, proposing moves to Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast and — most outlandishly of all — Dublin. He hoped that airlines would give fans discounted flights to Ireland, and that broadcaster Sky would pay to fly opposing teams.
If common sense couldn’t kill that deal, the Don faithful would. Fans filled Selhurst Park with signs reading “Dublin = Death.” A frustrated Hammam sold the club to Norwegian businessmen in 2000, but the damage was done. He’d already sold Plough Lane to Safeway in 1998, and the new owners soon led Wimbledon into administration. On-field results followed suit, and Wimbledon was relegated from the Premiership in May 2000.
The sputtering side made an ideal target for the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium (MKSC).
As the name implies, the group aimed to build a football stadium in Milton Keynes, 56 miles from Wimbledon. Established in 1967, Milton Keynes quickly grew into an affluent commerce center. The growing population lacked a football club, with the nearest one playing in the ninth tier.
Rather than help a Milton Keynes-born club rise up the football pyramid — as Wimbledon itself had — the consortium, led by property developer Peter Winkelman, decided to import an existing one. After failed attempts to entice Charlton, Luton Town and Queens Park Rangers, the consortium landed on Wimbledon, which had 78 more years of history than Milton Keynes itself. MKSC easily bought out the Norwegians, and announced the relocation Aug. 2, 2001.
The move was universally hated. Not just by Wombles, who boycotted the club in droves, but by football fans nationwide. It was an attack on the people’s game by out-of-touch businessmen — newly appointed chairman Charles Koppel had reportedly never been to a match before. The club-to-be earned a new moniker: Franchise F.C.
Not as zippy as “Crazy Gang.”
As a final twist of the knife, the Buckinghamshire side was named Milton Keynes Dons. Winkelman had ripped Wimbledon from its home, then slapped the name back on it like a tacky sticker.
Crushed by the news, a group of Wimbledon fans went to sulk at the Fox and Grapes pub on Wimbledon Common: the same pub where the 1889 team changed before matches, and the same pub where the Crazy Gang celebrated their FA Cup victory.
Perhaps inspired by the historic spot (or, you know, booze), the Dons decided to take action. They would found their own team to carry on the Wimbledon legacy. In 2002, AFC Wimbledon was reborn.
From an American perspective, this sounds absurd. Our major sports leagues are closed shops: Team owners have to approve every expansion. Election to the Football League was essentially the same process, with Wimbledon admitted in 1977. The League did away with elections in 1986, replacing them with competitive promotion from the amateur fifth to the professional fourth tier. AFC could hypothetically earn its way back into the league.
This was a pipe dream. The revived Dons started life in the ninth tier, holding open tryouts on Wimbledon Common and playing home games at Kingsmeadow in west London. Nine years later, they made their triumphant return to the Football League. That achievement far surpasses their ‘70s fairytale: This legend defies belief.
I’ve got a simple explanation: the fans. The minute AFC was founded, the entire district got behind the phoenix club. Wombles would flood even the smallest away venues by the thousands.
Such overwhelming support might as well be a 1-0 lead.
But ambitious teams must spend to compete, and Wimbledon is no exception. Unlike most of its rivals, the club is majority fan-owned. Supporters won’t trade control for cash, but the team’s underdog story attracts a host of sponsors. Football Manager blesses Wimbledon’s kits, yet its biggest benefactor lives stateside.
Bestselling author John Green was captivated by Wimbledon. He began a YouTube series playing FIFA as the club. With a healthy dose of offbeat humor (his two fictional strikers, named after himself, were married), he took great care to share the true story with his audience. His love for the club grew deeper than that between “Bald John Green” and “Other John Green.” John Green Prime sent AFC Wimbledon the FIFA series’ advertising revenue, then bought the naming rights to their ground’s North Stand.
And in 2019, he secured the funding for a stadium in south London, just 250 yards from old Plough Lane. After 28 years of exile, AFC Wimbledon could return home. The Dons are indebted to John Green, but he’s just as grateful.
In the words of a much better writer than me, “It is such a testament to the power of individuals over wealthy people, over greed … the power of individuals who care about an institution to make this happen. This club reflects the best values of football, the best values of sport and I feel so, so lucky to be a part of it.”
Watching Wimbledon from across the pond, I can only look on with envy.