Glory Bound

Alan Edwards shares a dream, and hopes for the future

 

Here is a parable, not from the footlights, but from the ‘theatre of dreams’, the football field. A story of how football fans reacted when a team’s owners disregarded its history and traditions and moved not just the goal-posts but the team and its ground to new territory. Readers may begin to see a parallel with recent events in the CofE.

Beginnings

Despite a history going back to the early days of football, which included winning the Amateur Cup at Wembley, with their centre forward the only man in Wembley history to score four headed goals, Wimbledon F.C. (‘the Dons’) only entered the national sporting consciousness in 1975 as the first non-League team for half a century to beat a First Division team (Burnley) in the FA Cup on the First Division team’s own ground, and followed this by drawing at then all-conquering Leeds, only losing the replay to an own goal.

Then followed a period of rapid advance, building on sound foundations laid by their pre-fame benefactors, the Black brothers, Baptists both, one an MP the other a sponsor of the early Billy Graham crusades. Football League status was gained in 1977, the old First Division less than a decade later and in 1988 the FA Cup, as the longest odds ever winners, beating Liverpool, the Dons keeper being the first to save a Cup Final penalty.

Rapid progress of the kind won a century before by the Anglo-Catholic Revival and in the century before that by its Evangelical counterpart, two spiritual streams which made glad the House of God and which still make glad New Directions readers.

Soccerati disdain

Back to the Dons where rags to riches on the field was not greeted by riches off it. They continued to occupy their humble stadium in Wimbledon. Their players were among the lowest paid in top football and their unsophisticated footballing tactics made them the scorn of the ‘soccerati.’

Their disdain was similar to the episcopal disapproval of the ‘detestable enthusiasm’ of Wesley and the persecution of the nineteenth century ritualists, many serving in parishes as unfashionable as Wimbledon’s Plough Lane stadium. If the Dons had their awkward squad members like Vinnie Jones, Anglo-Catholicism had its Mackonochie and Dolling.

The unfashionable team confounded its critics by becoming founder members of the new Premier League and their fans rejoiced. In 1933 the Oxford Movement’s centenary was also greeted with rejoicing, and commentators outside the Catholic constituency wrote that the movement had captured the Church of England. A generation later the same was said of newly confident Evangelicalism. Yet, both within football and within the church, forces were at work that were to turn triumph to tragedy.

New ideas

A different style of ownership came to control Wimbledon F.C. Premiership football demanded a new approach with commercial principles calling for bigger and better stadiums, more ‘relevant’ (any bells ringing?) to the twenty-first century. To achieve this, the owner decided that the team should move away from its traditional South London home, with suggestions ranging from Dublin to the eventual decision, Milton Keynes, where the ‘unchurched’ (sorry, unfootball-provided) could be reached. An interim move saw ground-sharing with Crystal Palace, a halfway stage to the final move. Revolution by gradualism is not confined to the CofE.

When in May 2002 the Football Association approved the move to Milton Keynes, and over a century’s history was disregarded, as a long standing fan, I felt many of the emotions that I had experienced in November 1992 when the CofE moved its ground.

However, at what appeared the moment of death for Wimbledon F.C. renewal also appeared. From protests against the original decision to move to Crystal Palace had come a vigorous Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (WISA), – FiF (or Reform) wearing a football scarf. Within days of the FA sanctioning the Milton Keynes move, the fans launched a continuing football club, AFC Wimbledon, entering it in a minor league with the aim of maintaining the Dons heritage and community links and winning its way back to the Football League.

Shares were issued via a trust, a method of ownership preventing a future elite taking over or selling out, a ground bought (over £1m being raised for this purpose), players and a manager recruited, all initially working for expenses only, backed by an army of volunteers. A foreshadowing both of the sacrifices that a Free Province might entail, should FiF imitate WISA, but also of the enthusiasm that can be stimulated once there is a shared vision. AFC Wimbledon has achieved one promotion and, at the time of writing looks certain to gain another, and regaining Football League status seems inevitable.

It can be done

Support is among the best outside the League. The team that went to Milton Keynes soon accompanied its change of home with a change of name and became MK Dons (jestingly called ‘Franchise FC’ by many); successive relegations sadly look in prospect, and the hoped-for great crowds that the change was supposed to bring have not yet appeared. Cue for football fans in FiF to remember the hopes that were pinned on female ordination in 1992 and to chant ‘George, you’re not singing any more.’

More than the playing success that AFC Wimbledon has so far achieved is the evangelical fervour that unites fans from committee to terraces, a veritable koinonia. Power has come to the people – the unachieved aim of so many Church of England and governmental initiatives, unachieved because the reality has been ever more power to the centre.

‘This is what football should be about’ is a frequently heard comment when AFC fans meet together, echoing the comment that PEVs are showing what episcope should be about. It is perhaps significant that the enthusiasm is not an inward looking one. The football in the community scheme flourishes and the fans raised the largest sum for the tsunami victims of any team outside the Football League.

To the criticism that AFC Wimbledon is a new club, the fans reply that it is the old team and its traditions (‘that ole time religion’) reformed and renewed – the CofE’s claim since Tommy Cranmer was FC Anglicana’s top scorer.

In the same way that the predictions that Resolution C parishes would wither and die has been confounded, so has the forecast that AFC Wimbledon would not last a season. Many of the old fans have remained, others that had given up have returned, and new fans gained, significantly many of them young folk. Another pointer to the future of a Free Province?

The links that I have been drawing may seem far fetched, but Our Lord’s parables drew upon the everyday things of life to make a point and in modern Britain nothing is more everyday than football – try and escape from it on TV.

 

Alan Edwards is a bookseller,

AFC Wimbledon Trust member

and FiF season ticket holder

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