Return to glory
David Beasant doesn’t stand a chance. It’s May 14th 1988, and Wimbledon’s goalkeeper stands in front of one of Europe’s deadliest strikers, John Aldridge.
This is FA Cup final day, back when the FA Cup final is the most watched football competition on earth, and the sun hangs high in the north London sky.
Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool coach, squints to watch his number eight finally set himself to take the momentous penalty. There could be no better man for the job. Liverpool have recently celebrated winning the league title, their sixth in nine years. Aldridge is the league’s top scorer in his first full season. He effortlessly filled the boots of Anfield legend Ian Rush, who had left to discover football in foreign climes. Aldridge has scored his last 12 penalties.
David Beasant doesn’t stand a chance.
The final is 60 minutes old and Wimbledon FC are on the verge of the greatest upset in world football. Liverpool are unofficially the best team on the planet – unofficially, because English teams are banned from European competition after 39 Juventus fans died in a crush during their 1985 European Cup final against the Merseysiders.
Wimbledon, aka the Crazy Gang, a team of uncompromising journeymen, shysters and scumbags, have become the fly in the ointment of the football establishment. Five years previously they were in the fourth division. In 1978 they weren’t even in the league. Rarely is their 15,000-capacity Plough Lane ground anything more than half full.
They play route-one football. Vinnie Jones patrols the defence. John Fashanu plays up front. And David Beasant, captain as well as goalkeeper, is the butt of many joke claiming he is unable to catch and hold a ball. His nadir would come when he injured himself by dropping a bottle of salad cream on his foot.
David Beasant doesn’t stand a chance.
But somehow Wimbledon have found themselves 1-0 up on this glorious spring afternoon. Lawrie Sanchez scored in the first half. Liverpool chances were missed. Goals disallowed. And Beasant is playing out of his skin. A penalty is given. No one has ever missed a penalty in an FA Cup final at Wembley. No one.
Dalglish squints into the sun, the referee blows his whistle and Aldridge runs towards the ball to put an end to this sorry charade.
David Beasant becomes the first goalkeeper ever to save an FA Cup final penalty at Wembley.
Erik Samuelson sits in a tiny, functional office at the Kingsmeadow stadium that gives few hints he is the architect of a football revolution. The CEO of AFC Wimbledon is a numbers man, a former partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, no less: an accountant in a profession that blames the bean-counter for everything that is wrong in modern football. He talks in a soft north-east accent (he grew up a Sunderland fan) that hides a dark humour, starting with an admonishment for calling his beloved club “AFC”.
“We’re not bloody Arsenal,” he scoffs.
Perhaps it is ironic that a man with finance in his marrow has, in an era of big-money football, been part of a fairytale story that has gone something like this: in 1988, Wimbledon win the FA Cup, and it is held aloft by David Beasant following his miraculous penalty save against a broken John Aldridge. Their Plough Lane ground is sold to the Safeway supermarket chain and they become homeless. The team is liquidated in 2003 and then relocated to the sterile roundabouts and boulevards of Milton Keynes, as if it is some cheap Little League baseball franchise, and rebranded as MK Dons. Angry, the fans move to start a new club.
AFC Wimbledon are born. As a fledgling club, they start at the bottom, in the ninth tier of English football, essentially playing in parks. They hold trials on Wimbledon Common. Nine years and five promotions later, on 21st May this year at the new Wembley stadium, AFC Wimbledon are promoted back to the league – 23 years and one week after the club’s greatest achievement at the old Wembley. It is a story of one club, three systems, to paraphrase the Chinese Communist Party.
Erik’s love affair with AFC Wimbledon began in 1987 thanks to his young son.
“I had taken my eldest boy Peter to Plough Lane when he was seven. He chose to support Wimbledon at school. I don’t known why. He loved the colour of the kit,” he recalls. But a game against Arsenal almost strangled his obsession at birth.
“We were dire. Peter won’t let me forget, but he asked if I would buy him a scarf, and they were that bad I said: ‘You won’t want to watch them again.’ Seven-year-olds, and quite a few adults, don’t understand what a good and a bad game is. I’ve never been forgiven for that act of meanness.”
Wimbledon got under Erik’s skin, even though the team followed up with a match against Charlton – “the worst game of football I’ve ever seen in my life”. He started travelling to away games, then got a season ticket and, once the team moved to Selhurst Park to groundshare with Crystal Palace, realised he had passed the point of no return.
“The momentous day came when we were playing Sunderland, that was in ’95ish, and my son asked me why I wasn’t shouting for Sunderland.” he says. “People like the outsiders. People like the underdog. Football supporting is irrational. If it was just based on who was the best, all the lower-league teams wouldn’t exist. It gets into your blood.”
“People like the underdog. If it was just based on who was the best, lower-league teams wouldn’t exist” Erik Samuelson, Chief Executive
Wimbledon’s nomadic existence at Selhurst Park while their home ground was sold for development was one of British football’s great scandals. So much so that when Safeway, a client of PricewaterhouseCoopers, discovered that Erik was a Wimbledon fan, they asked for his help. The supermarket chain had been on the receiving end of some awful publicity over the move, and had been told by the council to knock down one of the stands as it was in danger of collapsing. Safeway asked whether Erik could organise some Wimbledon fans to come and commemorate its destruction. Little did they know it would inadvertently radicalise him.
“I met the resistance movement!” he laughs. “WISA [Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association] and I arranged a visit, and that’s how I got involved in the club.” In 2000, after 14 years in the in the top flight, including eight in the Premier League, financial reality finally took its toll and Wimbledon were relegated. Two years later the FA gave permission to the owners to relocate the club to Milton Keynes. Wimbledon were dead.
“I wasn’t in the pub on the common to hear the news,” says Erik. “I was in a taxi and heard it on the radio. It was desolation. If you are not a football fan I don’t know how you can understand how it feels. It was devastating. It was almost like a bereavement.”
WISA helped set up the Dons Trust, a new not-for-profit organisation owned by the fans that would run a new team: AFC Wimbledon. Erik would become its financial director and then its CEO on a peppercorn wage of one guinea, after retiring from PWC when he realised he wasn’t doing any work any more.
But first a team had to be built, and a now-legendary open trial was held on Wimbledon Common.
“Three or four players did come from that trial,” Erik says hesitantly, aware that a myth has developed surrounding it.
“Not many players, though. What is definitely true is that our first captain came from the trial. Joe Sheerin. Even now he is the most talented player we ever had. He was a trainee at Chelsea. He only played once, as a sub for Zola. Not bad, is it? But he had terrible injuries. I went down and saw some extraordinary trials. There were some there, you thought: really? But there were some decent players.”
The next nine years passed in a blur: the first game against Sutton United, when at least 5,000 fans turned up; AFC Wimbledon’s first goal, which was scored by none other than Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator at the heart of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal; the 78-game unbeaten run, which remains a record in British football; buying Kingsmeadow, Kingstonian FC’s old ground, to end two decades of homelessness; five promotions; and, finally, the Conference play-off victory against Luton in May that sealed their promotion to League Two, just one division below the MK Dons.
“AFC Wimbledon will be the poorest team in the league. But what is most important is that
the club’s ethos is kept intact”
“I understand the media are fascinated by that… I think the odds are down to 15-1 that we will meet MK Dons in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy,” Erik said, referring to the glee that neutrals and some Wimbledon fans would feel if the two faced off. Others refuse to recognise MK Dons’ very existence. But Erik isn’t like that. It would simply hurt too much to remember the day his football club died.
“It would be horrible. I don’t want it to happen.”
A ten-minute walk from AFC Wimbledon’s Kingsmeadow stadium, manager Terry Brown power-eats a bowl of pasta with his group of players. They are all gathered in a cricket clubhouse rented from King’s College London for training. These days the team is professional – even if the players only get paid £300 a week – and train twice a day, with a rest in between.
The players are young, almost all of them under 23. For Terry, who took over in 2007 and has masterminded AFC Wimbledon’s return to the league, their youth is a necessity due to the club’s tiny budget. Taking a chance on young players is romantic, but it’s also cheap.
After his lunch he walks down to the porch at the front of the clubhouse, and sits overlooking the grounds as his young charges gather on the grass in front.
“We have young, talented boys, and this club is not a hard sell,” he says. Nearby, a shaven-headed man emerges from a silver sports car, mobile phone pressed to his ear, and pulls one of the players toone side. While the fan-centric ownership model and a close relationship between the players and the fans has proved to be an inspiration to other clubs – like FC United, set up by disgruntled Manchester United supporters after the club was bought by American businessmen – league football has brought the darker side of the modern game to AFC Wimbledon. Agents.
“To this point we haven’t paid any agents’ fees,” Terry says. “They [the players] ain’t getting paid a bundle. What would [the agents] earn – 30 quid a week? But people will come along and nick ’em”.
Preparing for the new season, Terry is aware that AFC Wimbledon will be the poorest team in the league. But what is most important is that the club’s ethos is kept intact. “The fans are making the decisions here. I do football, Erik does the finance. It’s a democracy and we are proud of that. I’m accountable to the fans and I teach the players to respect the club. It’s a humbling experience.”
But what happens next? Is there even a place for a team like AFC Wimbledon, in a game where Manchester City, just three promotions away, can secure a reported $400 million sponsorship deal? Can Wimbledon’s egalitarian model compete?
“How far can this model take us?” Terry asks rhetorically. “Do we even want to change the model? We will hit a glass ceiling. But where is it? I don’t know. We are proof it can be done.”
Could AFC Wimbledon emulate the old Wimbledon and make it to the Premier League?
“The Premier League is a different beast,” Terry answers. “But will the fans be happy being a Rochdale and staying in the same division for 18 years? Probably not. I’ll know more about what we can achieve
“I’m accountable to the fans and I teach the players to respect the club. It’s a humbling experience” Terry Brown, Manager
The agent has now finished talking to the player and, without removing his phone from his ear, returns to his car, his business finished.
“When I first came here four years ago, everyone was telling stories about how great Wimbledon were,” Brown says before returning to his players, who are now gently goading him as a photographer takes his picture. “But these boys are creating their own history.”
Back at the ground Erik has important business to attend to. The fire brigade and the police have arrived to conduct a health and safety inspection.
“There was just me and two men in a room talking about health and safety last season,” Erik says, exasperated, as large-necked men in clip-on ties stream in demanding cups of tea. “There are 20 in there now.”
Big crowds are expected next season, more than AFC Wimbledon have been used to. Lapsed Wimbledon fans have drifted back, and the club’s story has struck a chord far outside the borough of Merton. They have become something of a touchstone for the fans who want to take the game, and sport in general, away from its inexorably corporate future. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have been on the phone from the US, where the death of a franchise is a common situation from which none have ever bounced back. Next season, BBC1’s ‘Football Focus’ will be running a monthly story on AFC Wimbledon: the team that has been kept alive by a core of fanatics and refused to lay down and die.
“23 years and one week after the club’s greatest achievement at the old Wembley, AFC Wimbledon are promoted back to the league”
Before we leave, Erik has one last thing to show me. It’s a small circle of gold: Vinnie Jones’s winner’s medal from the 1988 FA Cup final. It isn’t out on display. It has no ribbon, and lives in a brown envelope in the club’s safe since Jones donated it to them a year ago. It’s smaller than you’d imagine, and lighter. Once it represented the slaying of Goliath, a never-to-be-repeated golden age of the underdog. But not any more. Now a new Wimbledon are making their own history.
Erik returns the medal to its brown envelope, folds it into his back pocket and walks to the kitchen to make 20 cups of tea.
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