I am the resurrection
Written by Chris Smith. Originally published in Issue 06.
The relationship between a person and their chosen football club is strange, beautiful and almost impossible to describe. From a young age, most of us are bound to a club by geographical location, family ties or even just plain old glory hunting. Our club is a constant source of love and hate (let’s be honest: it’s mostly hate), one of the few constants in a life that’s ever-changing.
No-one has captured the love between a man (or woman) and their club quite as well as Sir Bobby Robson, who wrote this wonderful and heartbreaking passage in his book ‘My Kind of Toon’:
‘What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.’
Robson’s ode perfectly captures why we love our clubs and will continue to do so despite everything, although it plays to another emotion too: the fear that our club is nothing more than television contracts, marketing departments and executive boxes, and that all of the passion, noise and pride are window dressing for a corporation that would happily kill a season ticket holder to secure a lucrative deal with an official noodle sponsor.
What remains after the corporate machinery is gone? Is a club just what we physically perceive - the hired gun players, the sponsored kits, the ludicrously named stadium - or is it, as Sir Bobby suggests, something more?
Most of us never have to confront that fear. Top flight football clubs, flush with money, are practically immortal. It would take an act of extreme incompetence or a sudden collapse in the value of TV rights to bankrupt any of England’s big boys.
Even clubs in the lower leagues are somewhat insulated from the threat of oblivion, despite their tendency to fly close to the financial sun in their attempts to reach the top division. There have been more than a few high profile administrations and winding up orders over the past decade, but there has almost always been a consortium ready and willing to pull a club back from the abyss based on (usually misguided) dreams of glory.
However, an unfortunate few have had to confront the fear that their club is little more than spreadsheets and bank accounts. The list of clubs that have disappeared completely is fortunately small, but the impact of a club ceasing to exist is huge; it affects fans, businesses, the local community and much more. It also poses the question: does a club still exist even after everything that officially constitutes it is gone?
The answer, fortunately, seems to be yes.
The two highest profile post-millennium club deaths are Hereford United and Wimbledon. They succumbed for very different reasons, but both have shown that, like Sir Bobby suggests, the passion, pride and feeling are strong enough to keep a club going even after the creditors/consortiums have apparently killed it off.
Wimbledon’s story is a low point in the history of English football, the moment that the game arguably sold its soul for money and profit. It all started when a consortium led by music mogul Peter Winkleman cooked up plans for a mega complex in the heart of Milton Keynes, housing a big ASDA, an IKEA and a honking great stadium.
The only problem was that Winkleman didn’t have a high profile team to fill the stadium. Step forward Wimbledon. Still groundsharing Selhurst Park with Crystal Palace (a ‘temporary’ measure that began in 1991 and ended in 2003), a subsidized move to an existing stadium made a lot of financial sense - even if the ultimate cost was the club’s soul. In 2001, chairman Peter Koppel confirmed plans to move the club to the National Hockey Stadium despite opposition from the majority of the club’s fanbase.
The fans weren’t the only group opposing the move either; both the League and FA stated their disapproval too. Despite this, the move was still approved after an independent review by a three man panel.
Wimbledon fans were left with two choices: continue supporting the club despite the move or support someone else. Most went with the latter option, with one enterprising group forming AFC Wimbledon in 2002. It was a stark change for most fans: fresh from watching League One football at Selhurst Park, they were suddenly supporting a ninth tier side at Kingsmeadow, a ground shared with Kingstonian.
AFC Wimbledon’s story since then has been nothing short of remarkable. They’ve been promoted six times in 13 seasons, reaching League One last year after a dramatic play-off final. They also hold the record for the most games undefeated in a league, embarking on an incredible 78 game streak that puts Arsene’s Invincibles to shame (even if the quality of opposition wasn’t quite as good).
The club now sits at the same level as the team they replaced in London and the possibility of the phoenix club - established just 15 years ago - taking over the club that was so cruelly stolen from them is suddenly very real.
Hereford FC’s comeback has been quite remarkable too. Formed by a group of supporters after Hereford United collapsed under a mountain of debt in 2014, the club was also introduced into the league pyramid at the ninth tier. Their achievements since then have more than washed away the sour taste of United’s sorry end; they’ve broken the attendance record at Edgar Street (the stadium they successfully reclaimed) numerous times, with the pinnacle being a crowd of 4,983 at their FA Vase semi-final tie against Salisbury, and have won promotion twice.
The real highlight of the post United years, however, was a trip to Wembley for the FA Vase final. Hereford lost 4-1 but just being there, so shortly after all seemed lost, was achievement enough.
So maybe Sir Bobby was right. Perhaps there is more to a club than marketing departments and corporate sponsors. Maybe, beyond all the money and nonsense, the passion and pride of fans is the essence of a football club. Football still has a soul; you just have to look a little lower to find it.