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AFC Wimbledon, the Revolutionary Soccer Club that Refuses to Die

A town that lost its soccer team decided to fight back by starting over from scratch with the fans in control of the club.

"Anybody sitting down saying, 'should we do this,' would immediately say this doesn't make sense."

It was about an hour before AFC Wimbledon's match against Accrington Stanley, and Erik Samuelson, the club's chief executive, sat in the back row of an empty section in the main stand. A few players were stretching down by the touchline, pausing to gladly sign the odd autograph for the children who nervously approached. "Indeed," Samuelson continued, "famously among Wimbledon fans at least, the FA Commission—have you seen the quote?—'the idea that Wimbledon fans might have to create a new club, a Wimbledon Town,' as they surmised it might be called, 'would not be in the wider interests of football.'"


The commission Samuelson was referring to was the one which, in May 2002, voted to allow Wimbledon F.C. to relocate to Milton Keynes. The move was unprecedented; an English soccer team disappeared with it.

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It was legendary Scottish manager Jock Stein who said, "Football without fans is nothing." In the case of AFC Wimbledon this is more literally the case than usual. After having their club moved 80 miles up the road, there may well have been nothing for this team. There was no place in the Football League, despite how hard Wimbledon had fought to earn and keep it. There was nowhere to call home, as they'd been sharing a stadium with neighbors Crystal Palace.

There were, however, fans, which meant that there was still something for AFC Wimbledon to play for—they were, in a sense, football, and nothing else. Faced with what they considered to be the theft of their club, the fans decided to try again. This time, they took the power themselves, building the club from scratch on the basis of fan-ownership. "There'd been a long protest movement, which included refusing to buy merchandise, turning their backs on games … but the protesters lost," recounted Samuelson. "The fans said, 'we're not doing that, we've been in non-league before, we'll start again.' In an enormous outpouring of emotion and energy and frustration and rage and hope and ambition, the new Wimbledon was born. Or, Wimbledon was reborn."


The Dons' Trust, the formal fan group that runs AFC Wimbledon, uses a basic formula. "One person, one vote. Pay as much as you like for a share, but you get one vote." Every fan with a share gets one. No one else does.

"You'll see t-shirts all over the place saying, 'Not In The Wider Interests Of Football,'" Samuelson told me. He pointed across the field to a standing room only section. "There was even an attempt to name that stand The Wider Interests of Football Stand." The name would've fit, as AFC Wimbledon has, in just over a decade's time, become a key cog in the conversation about the wider interests of the sport.

The call for fan involvement within the running of football clubs has been on the rise since Wimbledon F.C.'s infamous relocation. The British government helped to create Supporters Direct, an organization tasked with helping supporters gain a greater voice in the running of their football clubs. While AFC Wimbledon is an extreme example, supporters' trusts have popped up across the U.K., with over 180 now in existence. A handful of clubs are now owned by supporters, and others, including the successful Premier League club Swansea City, are owned in partnership with a supporters' trust. Those still owned privately are now reckoning with the increased influence that comes with a formalized fan relationship.

"Clubs were drifting from their fans, there was almost a full-speed sprint away from their relationships with their supporters and their communities," Kevin Rye, the head of PR at Supporters' Direct, explained. "Ultimately the government, as only governments can do, said, 'right, well we need something here.' One of the things created was Supporters' Direct. The net result of that is all these things called supporters' trusts, have in some way been authored by us, and Wimbledon was a very early case."


"We Are The Resurrection. We Are The Light" reads a sign hung off the stand behind one of the goals at Kingsmeadow stadium, where AFC Wimbledon currently play their home games. It's witty enough, but it's not a joke. To understand where AFC Wimbledon is planning to go, it's important to consider its ghost.

The story of Wimbledon F.C. is truly one of the most remarkable in the history of modern soccer. Founded in 1889, it was a non-league club for the vast majority of its existence. However, after getting into the Football League in 1977, it went on an unprecedented journey. After yo-yoing between the Fourth and Third Divisions, the club moved all the way to the top flight in an incredible four year period. While in some ways the club reached its peak in 1988, when it upset Liverpool in the F.A. Cup Final, it was perhaps more extraordinary that the small outfit stayed in the First Division and then the Premier League for 14 years.

Even before the radical economic stratification brought on by television deals and the insanely wealthy ownership of most top clubs, Wimbledon's success was a complete and utter anomaly. Yet it is precisely this fairy tale story that informs the new history of AFC Wimbledon. An F.A. Cup winners' medal from 1988 is proudly shown off in the club's small trophy case, alongside other totems of past success. If the idea is for history to repeat itself, the club has at least done a noble impression of its proud past. After five promotions in its first nine years of existence, AFC Wimbledon finds itself 12th in League Two, only five points out of a playoff position. Just this year, they once again faced Liverpool in the F.A. Cup, acquitting themselves well in a close 2-1 defeat.


But this is just what Wimbledon has done on the pitch. In other, off-the-field areas, its success has been even more improbable, and striking. The club has submitted an application for permission to build a new stadium, just down the street from their last real home on Plough Lane. It is set to start as an 11,000 seat stadium, with the ability to expand capacity to 20,000. The team's youth academy is yielding results already, as the man-of-the-match performance by 19-year-old center back Will Nightingale in a recent match against Accrington Stanley F.C. can attest.

AFC Wimbledon is succeeding at what it set out to do, and it is growing. "If we had said 12 years ago, 13 years ago that Liverpool would be visiting a reborn Wimbledon owned by its supporters with a planning application to return to the bottom end of the road from where they were removed by their then private owner, into a stadium that would be perfectly adequate to take it up to the Premier League you would have laughed in my face," Rye pointed out. "You would have said I was an idiot."

This is not the end, though. As Wimbledon grows, it will confront the question of whether there is a ceiling for clubs using a fan-ownership model. Rye, perhaps not surprisingly, does not believe there is. "Nothing stays the same," he told me. "Everything moves on and changes. There were people who thought the banks were indestructible and what have we spent the last six years, seven years doing? Trying to rebuild the world economy because the banks collapsed. Now I'm not suggesting that the top flight is about to collapse, mired in some debt crisis. What I'm saying is nothing stays the same."


Maybe one day there will be cause for Wimbledon move back to some form of private ownership, but there are safeguards in place to make sure that, if it does occur, it will be because of the wishes of its supporters, and not in defiance of them. Samuelson says that no matter what, the key for Wimbledon is finding a way to maintain the culture. "How do we make sure people understand who we are, where we came from, and why we are the way we are? If the club wanted to be sold, the members would have to vote for it. That could happen. I very much hope it doesn't."

It's a testament to Wimbledon's success that it is difficult to imagine such a vote happening, so closely does the club's culture spring from its unique ownership model. The idea seems to be to make sure there is no reason to ever go private, and all involved in the club seem tremendously dedicated to this goal. The club is still highly dependent on a motivated and friendly staff of volunteers who work to create one of the most accessible and engaging match day experiences possible; Samuelson himself used to work in the club parking lot. He now works for the nominal salary of one guinea per year.

One supporter named Barry proudly shows off literature on the club's proposed move. His friend Lawrence, who helps run the press area, tells the tale of AFC Wimbledon's first match, away to Sandhurst Town. "Some of us had to stand on bales of hay just to see." He estimated he'd been to about 1,300 matches.

"One of the reasons this movement was created was that as a result of this disconnect, there's this huge bank of talent out there watching the game every week that was being ignored," Rye says. "Whether it's someone who was previously as well-qualified in the financial services sector as Erik (Samuelson), whether it's someone who provides a discounted service to maintain the electrics at the ground, or the people who dig the ground up at half time to make sure the water drains, these things are all coming from the supporter base and the community. It's not being an amateur. What it is, is being rooted and understanding where you come from."

That's not all that matters for Wimbledon, but it's what matters most—and the best reason to think this little revolution might just keep on happening.