Wednesday, 7 September 2011
Does size matter?
A frequent slur thrown about by Franchise customers is that we didn't support our club either well enough or in enough numbers. Let's deal with the 'well enough' aspect first...
Since the quality of support is impossible to measure in an empirical way, it's a pretty stupid thing for anyone to say in the first place. Quite what is going on in the heads of the people that make this accusation is a mystery. Is one supposed to shout louder and longer? Were Wimbledon FC fans supposed to jump up and down more to show their displeasure at the MK move? Absurd, of course, so this can just be dismissed. Quality of support is irrelevant. After all, the morgue-like atmosphere at Franchise FC home games, which has been reported by virtually all visiting fans, Franchise customers themselves and observable from the television highlights, hasn't stopped their team from winning games. So, it's purely a numbers game...
I'll look at Wimbledon FC first, starting by tracking the home attendances from our first season in the Football League up until 2002:
1978: div 4 - 3,135 (Plough Lane)
1979: div 4 - 3,712 (Plough Lane)
1980: div 3 - 3,426 (Plough Lane)
1981: div 4 - 2,484 (Plough Lane)
1982: div 3 - 2,596 (Plough Lane)
1983: div 4 - 2,347 (Plough Lane)
1984: div 3 - 3,459 (Plough Lane)
1985: div 2 - 4,391 (Plough Lane)
1986: div 2 - 4,578 (Plough Lane)
1987: div 1 - 7,811 (Plough Lane)
1988: div 1 - 7,995 (Plough Lane)
1989: div 1 - 7,768 (Plough Lane)
1990: div 1 - 7,652 (Plough Lane)
1991: div 1 - 7,432 (Plough Lane)
1992: div 1 - 7,062 (Selhurst Park)
1993: div 1 - 8,391 (Selhurst Park)
1994: div 1 - 10,475 (Selhurst Park)
1995: div 1 - 10,206 (Selhurst Park)
1996: div 1 - 13,230 (Selhurst Park)
1997: div 1 - 15,139 (Selhurst Park)
1998: div 1 - 16,666 (Selhurst Park)
1999: div 1 - 18,235 (Selhurst Park)
2000: div 1 - 17,157 (Selhurst Park)
2001: div 2 - 7,897 (Selhurst Park)
2002: div 2 - 6,961 (Selhurst Park)
What these figures tell us, quite clearly, is that a team with a core fanbase of less than 3,000 when it entered the Football League in 1977, had grown to at least between 5-6,000 by the time of the 1991 switch to Selhurst Park. It's unknown how the attendances might have developed if the club had stayed within Wimbledon/Merton in a bigger ground, but the doubling of core support between 1977 and 1991 is clear, based on the capacity of Plough Lane and the percentage of away fans.
That is as far as one can reliably go regarding Wimbledon, because the Selhurst Park figures are all over the place. They show that any top-flight football team can attract customers to games in a big enough stadium, but they tell us nothing about how Wimbledon's core support changed over the 1992-2002 period. The fact that after relegation in 2000 the average attendance dropped back to comparable levels with those first achieved at Selhurst Park in 1992-93, suggest the core fanbase, willing to travel to Selhurst Park instead of Wimbledon, hadn't changed much in those ten years and that the increases were down to away fans, neutrals and 'floating' customers.
So, let's err on the safe side and say that in 2002 there were 5,000 core Wimbledon fans - well below the average home attendance and bearing in mind not every dedicated fan makes it to every home game. How does that stack up against other clubs? 5,000 puts a club near the top of division 4 (League 2) or comfortably within division 3 (League 1) - basically amongst the top 60-70 clubs in the country. And bear in mind I've been conservative with the estimates and not really considered away fans as a factor.
So how are AFC Wimbledon bearing out those figures? Quite well as it turns out. Bearing in mind that the capacity of Kingsmeadow is less than 5,000 (varies depending on arrangements for away fans), after 3 home games this season the average attendance is 4,424. Along with the fact that there are an increasing number of all-ticket games which have been sold out, the confirmation that Wimbledon's football club, both then and now, is comfortably among the top 100 best supported clubs in the country and with the potential for more, is indisputable.
Where does that leave any accusation that Wimbledon fans didn't support their club in great enough numbers? It leaves it completely rubbished. Unless one is going to claim that all football clubs from division 4 (League 2) and downwards aren't well enough supported and don't deserve their football team, then this one is a complete non-starter.
So what of Milton Keynes, which we were told deserved a football team more than we did (by both WFC's owners, Winkelman and the FA Commission report), surely there are some crushing statistics available to bear out that claim? Surely the case must have been overwhelmingly clear to grant permission? Errr... no.
If you read the FA Commission report, the full extent of their study appears to be the acceptance of hearsay:
"19. In the early part of last year WFC concluded that the MKSC proposal they had been exploring represented the best option. The potential fan base is huge. 8 million people live within one hour’s drive, and 2.2 million within half an hour’s drive. Milton Keynes is said to have the largest population in Europe without a professional football team."
There is nothing else in the report that explains its conclusion that, "Milton Keynes provides a suitable and deserving opportunity in its own right where none exists in South London." Much is made of Winkelman's "enthusiasm", but the report completely omits any attempt at justifying this analysis of Milton Keynes as deserving an opportunity to have a Football League team. The Commissioners didn't even bother to check the erroneous assertion that Milton Keynes was the largest population in Europe without a professional football team. It made a nice soundbite, but it wasn't true then and it wouldn't even be true now, despite MK's continued growth. Indeed you don't even have to look outside England for bigger places without a professional football team!
Note Dudley above MK on that list even now, 10 years later, and others like Wakefield were ahead of it at the time. When so little attempt has been made to check the validity of the statements made to the Commission about Milton Keynes' suitability for a football team, what are we to make of the damning comments they make about Wimbledon's suitability? Did it escape their notice that more than 8 million people live within an hour's drive of Wimbledon?
There's no evidence that the Commission was presented with any of the details of football activity in MK up to 2002 to back up the claims that it was deserving of a professional football team. And the reasons why are fairly obvious - it was a catastrophic catalogue of failure...
Milton Keynes Borough
Bletchley Town and Milton Keynes City
Milton Keynes County
Milton Keynes Town/United
Wolverton Town (plus 3 other name changes)
Virtually no trace of any of these clubs exists now - much like the oldest football grandstand in the country that was at Wolverton and which was 'saved' in much the same way as Wimbledon FC were. To see it now makes a mockery of the concept that anything has been 'saved'.
But I digress, back to MK's supposed greater suitability than south London...
And what of the achievements of these clubs in the name of Milton Keynes? Not one of them ever progressed past the equivalent of today's Spartan South Midlands Premier League (level 9 of the pyramid, which Wimbledon's friends at the Oxhey Jets are playing in) and if any of them ever made so much as the first round proper of the FA Cup then I can't find a record of it. Attendances? There simply aren't any records online - none of the teams ever got high enough for the data to still be available and club websites, if there were any, are long gone. There's no evidence of any club even getting close to regular attendances approaching 1,000.
To put it in perspective, the current highest average attendance in the division most MK clubs existed in, is 152. In the similar levelled United Counties League Premier, it's Kings Lynn Town at 652, but next highest Sleaford Town is just 212. All the MK clubs were playing at the equivalent of the CCL that Wimbledon restarted in, but never progressed above it, so even though the records aren't online it is clear that none of them either achieved anything either on the pitch or through the turnstiles that could possibly justify the Commission's conclusion that, "Milton Keynes provides a suitable and deserving opportunity in its own right where none exists in South London." Indeed, reading that assessment now, it is beyond belief that two of the three commissioners could make such a statement bearing in mind the actual facts.
In the nine years that have passed, what has been achieved in Milton Keynes? Surely such a "suitable and deserving opportunity" must have put South London to shame and outstripped it by a huge factor? For the Commission to have ruled as it did it can't possibly have ended up a close call, surely...
Wimbledon FC - div 2 - 2001-2 - 6,961
Franchise FC - div 3 - 2010-11 - 8,512
One can argue all one likes about the technicalities of divisions, away fans, cheap children's tickets, travel to Selhurst Park and all the rest of it, but the cold, hard final analysis says that last season the so-called overwhelming justification for moving a Football League place to Milton Keynes amounted to 1,551 people. 1,500 people - and the football club still doesn't own the stadium or benefit from the additional income streams generated by it, so it's no better off in MK than it was at Selhurst Park from the additional revenue side of things.
All that, for 1,500 extra on the gate, after tens of millions of pounds have been spent, a football club destroyed and the endless anger and argument that followed.
And what is it the Franchise customers tell each other about all this?
"I was as surprised as anyone that the move was sanctioned but when they came that was that you just play with the hand you're dealt. I was (and still am) amazed that people still make stupid rancorous comments about us. We weren't the cause of Wimbledon's demise; their previous owners, their lack of local support, their precarious finances and deliberate fan boycott saw to that."
How easily the old lies trip off their keyboards as justification for their actions. Trying to mollify their own guilt by still pretending it was our fault and we deserved it. Take a look at the numbers... what Franchise customers deserved was a Spartan South Midlands Premier League team. And until such time as they actually create a local club that they then propel through its own efforts up the football pyramid, that's all they ever will have deserved. But in the meantime, the least they can do is to stop clinging to the lies and misinformation that even the FA Commission repeated, and face the facts about how their town was gifted a Football League place.
And let's be clear, I don't expect them to give up that League place or even stop attending Franchise - I expect them to stop lying about the facts, stop whitewashing the guilty parties and stop pretending their franchised football team has anything to do with Wimbledon by dropping the 'Dons' from their name.