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!”