We are Wimbledon: see my blog last December to know the reasons why. I am a founder member of the Dons Trust in 2002, a decision which led to the formation of AFC Wimbledon, a team that started off in the Combined Counties League and (re-)entered the Football league in 2011/12. We just about survived in League Two last season: see my article AFCW: We’re Staying Up! in April.
On 28th May 2002, the Football Association backed a three-man independent commission decision to allow Wimbledon F.C. to relocate 56 miles North to the new town of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire (otherwise known as roundabouts, like Craigavon). The Wimbledon chairman at the time Charles Koppel claimed such a move was necessary in order to prevent the club from folding. This franchising of a club was unprecedented in English football. By moving so far from their original base in London SW19, Wimbledon F.C. were cutting all ties with the area. Although the club was unable to move to Milton Keynes for over a year, their small band of loyal fans stayed put.
On 30th May 2002 a group of supporters led by Kris Stewart and fellow founding members Marc Jones and Trevor Williams, announced plans to create a new club , AFC Wimbledon. On 13th June 2002, a new manager, kit, crest and ground (shared with Kingstonian FC in Norbiton, in the nearby Borough of Kingston-on-Thames and on the 131 bus route from Wimbledon) were unveiled to fans and the media at Wimbledon Community Centre.
In order to assemble a competitive team at short notice, AFC Wimbledon held player trials on 29th June 2002 on Wimbledon Common, open to any unattached player who felt he was good enough to try out for the team. The event attracted 230 players, from whom the club’s squad for their inaugural season was chosen, under the captaincy of former Chelsea player Joe Sheerin, who ended up at Leatherhead in 2006. Forward Kevin Cooper (no relation to my friend in Belfast!) was the player of the year.
In March 2003 the Dons Trust members voted to purchase part of the lease for the ground at Kingsmeadow and in June 2003 the contract for buying the lease to the stadium was agreed with the owner Rajesh Khosla. £2.4 million needed to be raised, and a share issue in which I was an investor raised over one-third of the required amount. Further amounts were raised through a bond issue (in which I also invested) and a commercial loan was organised through Barclays Bank, not an easy task for a completely new entity which had no financial record.
AFCW PLC was placed under the ownership of The Dons Trust, a supporters’ group which is pledged to retain majority control of that ownership. The Dons Trust is an Industrial and Provident Society registered with the Financial Services Authority as “Wimbledon Football Club Supporters’ Society Limited”. The Chief Executive of AFC Wimbledon (previously Finance Director) is longstanding fan Erik Samuelson, a retired accountant with PwC, whose influence and experience was crucial in securing the commercial loan. In an online question and answer session, he explained how the finances worked from the start:-
“We paid £2.4m for the stadium – remember it was a non-league stadium, although it had already been upgraded for Football Conference national standards in line with the rules in place 11 years ago. We paid for it in stages:
- We created an intermediate holding company called AFCW PLC and issued shares. After expenses this raised about £1.25m;
- We couldn’t get anyone to lend us the balance but fortunately for us the people who sold us the stadium agreed that they should become our creditors and we paid them a high, but not usurious, rate of interest on the debt;
- So we decided to issue a Bond. These were for four years, but capable of being extended (and most have done so) and you could select your own interest rate, subject to a cap. We raised about £300k. About half the Bond holders chose 0% and the average rate paid was about 2%, a nice cheap loan;
- Then we decided to spend some of our five year ST money on reducing the debt. Spending next year’s income can be a very risky option but we knew we had a pretty certain stream of income coming from the Trust’s fundraising and so it was set aside for the purpose of replacing the annual ST income we’d spent on repaying some debt. In effect, we were spending the next five years’ fundraising on reducing the debt;
- Then we, astonishingly, managed to get a bank loan which cleared the final tranche of the debt on purchase. We make the capital repayments on the loan from the Trust’s fundraising and the interest is paid by the operating company.
As for subsequent fundraising, we’ve self funded substantial improvements to our stadium to make it Football League compliant (plus about £600k of Football Stadia Improvement Fund grants). For our hoped-for new stadium* we expect most of it to be paid for by enabling development but we are also changing our constitution to allow us to issue Community Shares in the Trust, hopefully qualifying as an Enterprise Investment Scheme, so that investors get 30% tax relief up front on their investment. Supporters Direct have been a great help in pulling the Community Shares plans together.”
*The plan for a new stadium is based on proposals for the redevelopment of the greyhound stadium at Plough Lane in Wimbledon, alongside what was once the home of Wimbledon FC and is now a housing estate. Remember what happened to Glenmalure Park and now Shamrock Rovers FC are in a brand new stadium in Tallaght, with the support of South Dublin County Council? This afternoon I passed by the Glenmalure Park memorial at Milltown and memories came flooding back, just as they do whenever I am near Plough Lane.
I am one of the AFC Wimbledon five year season ticket holders, in the front row of the main stand near the middle of the pitch. If I cannot make it to a home match, the Club can re-sell my seat and gain added income, as well as reclaiming the VAT on my ticket. Given the level of my commitment to AFC Wimbledon, you can now see why I am opposed to the visit of Franchise FC to my other “home patch” at UCD in Belfield, where I went to University in the first year of the Arts/Commerce Block and just a short walk away from where I am typing this article in the family home.
So once again I will say it: UCD AFC are entitled to play whoever they choose. But let’s not give Franchise FC the traditional Irish “Céad Mile Fáilte” when they arrive in Dublin for pre-season training. To the FAI and Airtricity League my message is this: Franchise FC were supposed to be coming to Dublin at one stage (or even Belfast) and a few prominent businessmen and commentators were doing their best to encourage a move across the Irish Sea to set up the “Dublin Dons” in the English Premiership. Wisely, in my view, the FAI said “NO” but that did not stop a certain pop music executive now property developer from setting up a soccer franchise in Milton Keynes, with the blessing of the Football Association. They took away our Club and eleven years on, we have given them the answer.