Twenty-five years ago this week, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis journeyed to London to pursue ambitious project: write about English soccer, sometimes with local flavor, other times with a U.S. twist. He wound up attending seven matches over 12 days in all four professional leagues. He wrote the stories for Soccer New York, a print publication, in January 1996.
As it turned out, this series comes at a time when crowds in London have been forbidden due to the discovery of a mutated strain of COVID-19. FrontRowSoccer.com already had planned to re-post this series as it comes on the 25th anniversary of this trip.
By Michael Lewis
LONDON – As far as fairy tale endings go, this one just might wind up an unhappy one.
Once upon a time there was a semi-pro soccer team in south London that gained promotion to the English fourth division.
In only 10 short seasons, the team incredibly moved all the way up to the first division. Only two years later, the team captured the FA Cup.
The story of the Wimbledon Football Club indeed is a fairy tale that could wind up having an unhappy ending in the long run. the team’s owners are considering moving the club to Dublin, Ireland or Cardiff, Wales.
An English or European soccer team moving? It’s virtually unheard of.
Unlike U.S. sports, where franchises move around on a regular basis, teams, particularly soccer teams around the world, usually go out of business before they move.
“People knock us for wanting to go to bigger places,” Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear said after his side play the defending champion Blackburn Rovers to a 1-1 draw on Dec. 23 (1995). “Five thousand is all we’ve got, 5,000 loyal supporters. Our backs are against the wall.
“We’re serious about it. I’ve seen newspapers reports making fun of the move because it is Wimbledon F.C. The club ha survived brilliantly. It sticks in our throats.”
Owner Sam Hamman hopes to work out the deal by the end of the season.
“What’s wrong with us having two or three millionaires on the board?” asked Kinnear, who still might wind up in Dublin if the club doesn’t. He is being considered to succeed Jack Charlton as coach of the Irish national team. “We certainly have the people there with financial clout. … Life is about ready to turn around for us.”
There are, however, several possible problems with the deal. It would need approval by the English Football Association and Football League, which would be extremely unlikely. Some Wimbledon observers said that the club is using the Dublin move as a ploy to get the borough of Merton, Wimbledon’s old home, to build a new ground.
As the smallest Premier League club in London, Wimbledon struggles to get by. It usually has to sell its most marketable and best players.
In its match day program for the Blackburn match, writer John Rogers noted in a story that the club spent £77,636 a point (about $120,000). That was the fourth best production in the league during the 1994-95 season, behind only Southampton, Queens Park Rangers and Crystal Palace.
Compared to other Premier League teams, Wimbledon is not drawing. The Dons average 12,397 a match, in comparison to their average road attendance of 23,025. Premier League teams are averaging 27,329 per game. The Dons also have the dubious distinction of having the lowest single game attendance of the Premier season as a crowd of only 6,352 showed up for a game against Sheffield Wednesday.
Wimbledon’s rise has been nothing short of remarkable. After years of playing in the semi-pro Southern League, Wimbledon was granted permission to join the English Football League as a fourth division franchise in 1977. After shuttling back and forth between the third and fourth divisions for several seasons, the Dons took the leap up to the second division in 1984-85 and then finally the first division in 1985-86.
In 1988, the team captured English soccer’s Holy Grail, the FA Cup, defeating Liverpool, 1-0.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Wimbledon media and public relations director Reg Davis said. “It was tremendous hard work when we got there. Remember, we were a tiny little club
“At the match itself, we were winning with 10 minutes to go and the staff was crying their eyes out.”
Under the direction of then manager Dave Bassett, Wimbledon earned the nickname “The Crazy Gang.” That was due to its physical brand of soccer, long-ball style and intriguing characters, such as Vinny Jones, who has been red-carded 11 times in his career.
“If you sat down and wrote a play, brought it to a television producer, he’d laugh you out [of his office],” Wimbledon fan Gordon Spikis said years ago. ” ‘I’m not backing that, he’d say. It’s far-fetched. Not even Walt Disney would take it.’ ”
In 1991, the team was forced to leave its cozy ground in Wimbledon, Plough Lane, because the stadium wasn’t big enough and could not meet several other important standards of the English Premier League.
So the team moved to another south London ground, Selhurst Park, home of first division Crystal Palace.
It was never the same.
“The only thing that has kept us down has been the lack of crowds,” Davis said. “We did everything so quickly.”
That limited the number of neighborhood fans, who were forced to drive [parking is abysmal at Selhurst), instead of walking to watch their favorite team. Because of the configuration of London’s tube (subway) and Brit Rail system, taking a train has been out of the question.
On this miserable Saturday before Christmas, a crowd of only 7,105 turned out to watch a rather ordinary game, which led to Kinnear’s outburst. The match ended in a 1-1 tie, bringing Wimbledon’s winless streak to 13 games (0-9-4). Wimbledon was in 18-place in the 20-team Premier League, in the relegation zone. A demotion to the First Division would certainly end or put a serious crimp in the fairy tale.
“There is a long way to go,” Kinnear said. “It’s going to be a very tough. It’s going all the way to the end.
Wimbledon was going to practice on Christmas Day, the manager promised.
“If that keeps us in the Premier League, that’s how we’ll do it,” he said.
But what will keep Wimbledon in London?
(Editor’s note: Under new ownership in 2004, the club moved to Milton Keynes, 45 miles northwest of London and renamed itself the Milton Keynes Dons. It was relegated from the EPL in 2000 and as the MK Dons has fallen twice to League Two (the old fourth division). It currently is in League One (the old third division)). In 2011, AFC Wimbledon joined League Two and has moved up to League One.
Next: A Boxing Day trip to the original Highbury (Dec. 26)