Afc Wimbledon

– in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 26th January 2012.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I am pleased to raise this issue in the House today. AFC Wimbledon has an important place in the hearts of many of my constituents. As we approach another big FA cup weekend we will, I am sure, look back at many of the cup’s greatest moments. Perhaps none are so fondly remembered as one from nearly 24 years ago, when a team that had been in the Football League for only 11 years beat probably the best team in Europe, when the Dons of Wimbledon beat the Reds of Liverpool and John Motson coined his wonderful phrase, “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club!” My dad and my sister were very lucky to get tickets for the cup final, and a picture of me with my dad, who passed away five years ago, hangs proudly in my hall back in Colliers Wood, with him wearing his yellow and blue rosette. It was a happy day for our community, and it was also one of the happiest days for me, my sister and my dad. Winning the FA cup was a thrilling achievement.

Nearly a quarter century on, the achievement of one club in going from non-league to FA cup winners in barely a decade has been mirrored by the achievement of another. That club is AFC Wimbledon, which despite being formed only in 2002, has now made its way in less than a decade from jumpers for goalposts to the Football League. Less than 10 years ago a community came together in a time of struggle, and now they have achieved something even more amazing than the original Wimbledon. I am sure that all Members with an interest not just in football but in the power of community will want to join me in saying how proud we are of AFC Wimbledon. Therefore, I take this opportunity to congratulate the manager Terry Brown and his predecessors, and all the current and past players and staff.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate, and for allowing me to intervene. She is absolutely right. The key word she has hit on with AFC is that it is a club of the community of Merton and Wimbledon. The work that it does in the community, beyond its work on the football field, is to be commended. That is why the nickname “The Dons” needs to come back to that club, where it belongs.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman.

The people we most want to congratulate are the supporters. AFC Wimbledon is owned by the fans through a small supporters group, the Dons Trust, and is deeply rooted in our community. When it was promoted to the Football League at the City of Manchester stadium last May, after Danny Kedwell’s penalty kick and Seb Brown’s heroic penalty saves, it was not just the club that was celebrating, it was the whole community.

But I have not called this debate today just to praise my local football club—although that would be reason enough. Yes, I want to use this debate to inspire, and to sing the praises of community football. But the main reason why I requested the debate is because, strange as it may sound, everyone involved wants to prevent what happened to us from happening again. No true football lover could possible want what happened to us to happen to anyone else.

Yes, it is true that the fans of AFC Wimbledon are enjoying their success, and yes, they are the same people who enjoyed success as supporters of Wimbledon, but the highs that we have experienced are nothing compared with the lows, and we do not want another club to suffer those. First, in 1991, the club left its home at Plough Lane. This was an ignominious time, especially for those of us who, like me, were connected to Merton council. We were persuaded by the owner, Sam Hammam, that Plough Lane was unsuitable for top-flight football, which required all-seater stadiums, and that he should be allowed to leave while a new stadium was found.

Photo of Tom Greatrex Tom Greatrex Shadow Minister (Energy)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate this evening. The point that she is making is pertinent to many football clubs. Does not that show just why, when the Government are considering the future licensing regime for football, there should be a presumption against clubs being able to move out of grounds, unless it is in the interests of the club and they have somewhere permanent to go?

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. AFC Wimbledon is a case in point that justifies such registration.

AFC began to ground-share with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in Croydon. They never returned. Even worse, new owners took over and, in 2001, announced that they wanted to move to Milton Keynes. There was of course opposition from fans—not just fans of Wimbledon, but those of virtually every football team in the country. The move was opposed by the Football Association and even the Football League, which blocked the move twice. Many MPs became involved in the campaign against the move, and I wrote numerous times to the football authorities. With such opposition, few of us believed that the move could happen, but in May 2002 an independent commission gave it the green light.

The decision was as devastating as it was incomprehensible. It was the end of the road for our Dons. For most fans enough was enough, and they stopped supporting Wimbledon FC, which suffered so much that it went into administration the following year, shortly before finally moving into Milton Keynes in September 2003. Not only had the club failed to return, as Sam Hammam had promised it would, but thanks to the independent commission, what was still left was stolen and taken to another part of the country.

That was the point at which most people would have walked away, but a remarkable group of people decided not to. According to legend, a group of fans including Erik Samuelson, Ivor Heller and Kris Stewart met in a pub and decided to set up their own team, which would be owned by the fans and rooted in the local community—a club they could be proud of. In June 2002 they held open trials on Wimbledon common and cobbled together a team in just a few weeks. Their first game was a friendly against neighbouring Sutton United, another famous FA cup giant-killer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sutton won the match 4-0, but the result was less important than the fact that the dream was now real.

Rather like what happens in Kevin Costner’s “Field of Dreams”, those people built their club thinking, “If we build it, they will come.” In a race against time, they found a ground at Kingsmeadow, just over the Merton border in Kingston, and persuaded the Combined Counties Football League to let them enter their competition. And once they had built it, come they did. Around 3,000 fans went to those early games, more than the old Wimbledon had attracted in the championship. What followed has been astonishing: five promotions in nine years.

However, that is not the whole story. AFC Wimbledon achieved their success in the right way. On the field, year after year they have won the Fair Play award, and off it they have been a model of good management and community involvement. The club is owned by the Dons Trust, a supporters group pledged to retain at least 75% control of the ownership. In 2003 it made the difficult decision to have a share issue in order to buy Kingsmeadow, the ground they share with Kingstonian, a club that is itself in terrible financial trouble and threatened with new asset-stripping owners.

AFC have been looking to return to Merton ever since, and the council has been very co-operative and supportive throughout. The leader of the council, Stephen Alambritis, a qualified football referee, is personally very involved in working with the club to identify a new home in the borough if that is at all possible. AFC have a real commitment to community sport and are well known in the area for their commitment to women’s football and youth football. I have only good things to say about the chief executive, Erik Samuelson. He is a fan first and foremost, and infamously agreed to carry out his full-time duties in return for the nominal sum of one guinea a year, because

“it sounded posher than a pound”.

He would be the first to say that the club would be nothing without every supporter helping to make it a success and the fans who give up their summers to paint the ground, or spend match days selling programmes or running the car park.

AFC have always been very supportive of the activities that I get involved with in Mitcham and Morden. In 2009 I held a reception for the club here in the House in recognition of its community work, and I remember those people being greeted warmly by many Members. Indeed, back in 2007 when the club was docked 18 points for not knowing that it had to fill out an international transfer form in order to sign a retired player, Jermaine Darlington, from Hackney, 88 MPs joined me in signing an early-day motion about it. Even the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told the House:

“it sounds like a daft rule, and someone should change it.”—[Hansard, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 813.]

AFC have made a big impression, because they have been recognised for their work in our local community. So that brings us up to date.

AFC are an inspiring story of good people doing good things and getting good results, and this is now our opportunity to ensure that clubs such as Wimbledon never have to go through the same thing again. The review of football governance is very much to be welcomed, and the work of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in particular, has been incredibly helpful.

I especially pay tribute to a former Member. Alan Keen was an exceptional chair of the all-party football group and, by all accounts, an excellent football player—even into his 70s. He played a leading role in getting football governance taken seriously.

Supporters Direct, the independent co-operative that champions fans’ concerns, has also been inspirational. Established in 2000, thanks largely to the efforts of my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham, and the exceptional Phil French, whom I was pleased to see at AFC’s first league game against Bristol Rovers last August, it has been a powerful voice of good sense. I especially thank Kevin Rye, who has been a great help to me today, but the entire organisation is fantastic.

I do not have time to go through the whole subject of football governance, because it deserves a far bigger debate and there are many more people qualified to speak on it than me. I am concerned about the narrow question of how the review of governance can stop clubs going the way of Wimbledon and ensure that they go the way of AFC. It should not be possible for clubs just to pick up sticks and leave the communities that support them. A proper, grown-up relationship between communities and their clubs is the way forward for all clubs, and I back Supporters Direct’s call for action.

We now have an opportunity to ensure that football clubs can never again have their identity stolen or be uprooted and moved away from the communities that support them. If Supporters Direct’s model of formal licensing had been in place prior to 2002, Sam Hammam and his successors might not have got away with what they did, so we need new rules on supporter and community engagement that give rights to supporters on behalf of the community. Those rights should include the right to have a “fit and proper supporters’ trust” to engage with its club, with basic rights to information, including financial information, and to hold meetings with club executives.

We should make it mandatory to secure the agreement of the fit and proper supporters’ trust before any fundamental changes to a club, such as the sale of its ground or a move to a different part of the country, take place. I support also the proposals to reduce clubs’ dependency on “benefactors”. Instead, clubs should have to rely on generating their own revenue, as AFC Wimbledon do, as a protection against overspending by speculators.

So it is clear in my mind that Supporters Direct is right, and I should like to hear the Minister’s views on how licensing could help the supporters of clubs such as Wimbledon, but I should like also to raise the thorny issue of identity theft. It is not the first time that I have raised it in the House, and Members have usually agreed that identity should be protected.

When the FA commission agreed to let our club leave south London, its supporters felt that their identity had been stolen. Everything that they identified with suddenly belonged to someone else. Very kindly and sensibly, the new Milton Keynes club decided that, even though they were essentially the same club as Wimbledon FC, they no longer merited the honours won by Wimbledon, so they handed over the titles and cups to Merton council. They even changed their name from Wimbledon to MK Dons, but “the Dons” is the nickname of Wimble-don, and now that AFC Wimbledon have reached the football league it is time to reclaim our identity. We are the Dons, and it is time for the authorities to look at the running sore of our identity being stolen.

The Dons are from Wimbledon, and it is time for the new club in Milton Keynes to come out of the shadows and stake out its own identity. I understand that they are a good team with a good young manager, and, although what they did caused a lot of hurt, it is time to consign it to history. It is time for them to find a different way of representing their heritage, in their name, and then the team that are known throughout football as Franchise FC, which most fans think gained their position through identity theft, would be able to carve out their own identity and allow AFC Wimbledon to retain theirs. That would be good for Milton Keynes, removing much of the stigma associated with that club, and it would be good for the game.

I hope that the Minister will therefore commit to ensuring that the new licensing model also tackles identity theft, and I urge him to back the “Drop the Dons” campaign, launched earlier this month by my local newspaper, the Wimbledon Guardian, and to support my early-day motion on the subject.

It has been a real privilege to hold this debate today. I have always said that mine is a strong community, and that we are at our best when we act together. Nothing demonstrates that more than the Dons Trust and its creation of a brand-new football club to replace a much-loved old one.

In just nine years, the club has come a long way and made a big impression not just on me, but on many Members and on the wider football world. When we lost our football club 10 years ago, we lost some of our pride in our community. Well, we have got it back, but we do not want anything like that to happen to anyone else, and we believe that we now have an opportunity to ensure that it does not. So I say, on behalf of every supporter of every club rooted in every community, “Come on you Dons!”

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport and the Olympics) 6:14 pm, 26th January 2012

That is a difficult one to follow, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on securing this debate and on the great interest, knowledge and enthusiasm with which she has promoted her local club. I genuinely thank her for that; one of the great things about my job is that it is not always a terribly party political post. I take great pleasure in the fact that Members from both sides of the House want to come together and praise the great work done by sports clubs in their local communities.

I associate myself entirely with the remarks that the hon. Lady made about Alan Keen. He was a great friend. I am not a good enough footballer to have played much football with him, but I played a great deal of cricket with him. He was a remarkable cricketer for a man in his 60s and a great sports enthusiast. Many people across the House miss him greatly.

I congratulate AFC Wimbledon on its promotion to the Football League this season. That was well merited and, as the hon. Lady said, a fantastic example of what can be achieved. It was the culmination of a great many things, many of which she mentioned in her speech. However, as she correctly said, it is, just as importantly, an example of what can be achieved through the power and determination of supporters—I am thinking particularly of the three gentlemen whom she mentioned. It is the supporters of AFC Wimbledon who, through their financial acumen and leadership, have driven this success. That is a great model for what fans can achieve and a great example, dare I say it, of the big society in action. I am delighted that their achievements have been recognised by Downing street.

In the coalition agreement, the Government made a commitment to work with the football authorities—the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League—in this country to encourage reform of football governance, including measures that would encourage co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters. Like the hon. Lady, I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. The Government have supported its report and recommendation that football supporters should have much more of an active role in the running and decision making of their clubs. In our response to that report, we have suggested a number of ways in which we believe that may be achieved.

The first is through fans being better informed about a club’s activities—for example, its financial standing, particularly, and the identity of its owners. Secondly, supporters ought to be represented or consulted in the club’s decision making. That will help to prevent such unpopular decisions as a club’s moving miles from its traditional fan base, as was the case with Wimbledon FC. Thirdly, supporter and supporter-run groups ought to have a formal share or ownership in their club.

Following the Select Committee report, we have given the football authorities—the FA, the Premier League and the Football League—the time to determine the best way of achieving those goals. In their response to the Select Committee process, they have the opportunity to work together collaboratively—they have not always done so in the past—for the long-term benefit of the game.

We have asked those football authorities to bring forward their proposals in three key areas by the end of February this year. The first is the reform of the FA board—a long-running sore since the Burns review. Secondly, there is the relationship between the board, the various FA committees, the council and the shareholders. Thirdly, and most relevantly to this debate, there is the introduction of a licensing system for all professional clubs, where much more robust rules around financial sustainability, fit and proper persons and directors are laid out. We see that licensing model as the appropriate vehicle for greater supporter representation at football clubs. As I said, the football authorities are due to make public their proposals by the end of February. I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not pre-empt that tonight.

The hon. Lady was right to praise the work of Supporters Direct, which has been pivotal in the whole process. It provides fans with the focus and voice to ensure that they can secure influence and ownership of sports clubs and has contributed to the setting up of a network of supporters’ trusts in many sports beyond football.

I recognise that any change in the corporate governance landscape of football ownership will be something of a cultural change. Given that we are trying to modernise and professionalise the governance of football, there will have to be a similar step change in the skills of supporters’ representatives. That will ensure that the success of AFC Wimbledon is repeated across the country and across the leagues.

I will finish where I started, by congratulating the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Crucially, I not only congratulate AFC Wimbledon once again on their promotion and their recent award, but thank them for the excellent work that they do in the community, which as the hon. Lady said was recognised here in a reception in 2009. To conclude, I reiterate the coalition Government’s commitment to encouraging greater supporter involvement in football clubs. With the hon. Lady and many Members across the House, we await with interest the response of the football authorities to the Select Committee’s report.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.