The decision facing the Football Association arbitration panel deciding Wimbledon's appeal to re-locate to Milton Keynes will be one of the most far-reaching in the history of the game.
The Football League board refused the club's original application on the grounds that, under the membership criteria agreed by the clubs to prevent abuses in the wake of the notorious Brighton case, the new home would not fall within "the conurbation from which the club takes its name or with which it is otherwise traditionally associated". Clearly, the proposed move is a pure business decision, which ignores the tradition of the club, unless you count the fans' success in resisting unwanted upheaval, such as Ron Noades' attempt to move in at Selhurst Park in 1981 and Sam Hammam's flirtation with Dublin's fair city.
Wimbledon fans and national supporters' organisations are right to be concerned again. I have long found that, while appeals boards constitute a necessary safeguard, they occasionally take an idiosyncratic turn along the path of democracy. Swindon Town, for example, were demoted two divisions by the Football League for what most in the League felt were some fairly blatant financial transgressions which assisted their progress as a club. When an FA appeals board reduced the sentence, out of understandable compassion, the then Football League president, William Fox of Blackburn Rovers, was furious. That particular ex-Lancashire Fusilier would willingly have taken on the entire council of the Football Association single-handed and it is no exaggeration to state that deep in the roots of such acrimony lay the formation of the FA Premier League.
Alan Sugar followed suit in challenging the FA when they imposed a similarly draconian punishment on Tottenham Hotspur for like offences and it was to avoid exposing their members to legal cross-examination that the governing body travelled the arbitration road. Again, the penalty was reduced, and I have lost count of the number of times I have been accused by fans of capitulating to the bigger club while little Swindon got done.
And yes, the authorities have sometimes bent in the wind. An Eighties predecessor of William Fox as president of the Football League, Jack Dunnett, somewhat belied his Labour MP principles by espousing a policy of natural wastage, contemplating clubs going to the wall as financial pressures made a smaller League look ever more likely. Fortunately for the game this harsh and untidy outcome did not come to pass, for clubs always managed somehow to be baled out. Sadly, I believe it was Mr Dunnett himself who was declared bankrupt after he left football.
Now that Arsenal have secured their all-important planning permission to build a bigger stadium in Islington, it's interesting to speculate whether the League would have sanctioned their re-location from the Manor Ground in Plumstead to Highbury had the current regulation been in force when they upped sticks as a cash-strapped second-tier outfit in 1913.
Given that the club was earlier known as Woolwich Arsenal, deriving from the royal munitions factories of south east London, it seems unlikely that they would have met the criteria for a move to a quite different and more economically favourable area 10 miles away on the other side of the river.
Had the League raised any objections to what was a major move at the time, and on to the territory of Tottenham Hotspur and Orient, both playing within a radius of four miles, they would no doubt have come into conflict with the Arsenal chairman, Henry Norris. Sir Henry, as he subsequently became, was a wealthy, self-made property developer and Member of Parliament, who acted as chairman of Fulham and Arsenal simultaneously (and had earlier attempted not only to ground-share at Craven Cottage, but also to merge the two clubs). History indicates that Norris combined the ambition of David Dein with the oratory of Ken Bates.
Chelsea joined Spurs, Orient and local residents in resisting the move, but after a meeting lasting into the early hours, the League committee simply rolled over and – rather as Jack Dunnett was later to do when encouraging artificial surfaces – allowed the re-location on the basis that there was no rule in the book to prohibit it.
Although it would be appropriate in a way if Milton Keynes, the concrete city where no one walks anywhere, were to herald the brand new dawn of franchised football, what's wrong with them developing their own club, as Rushden & Diamonds, not too far away, have done? I was worried, when Wimbledon's latest move was first mooted, by the encouraging noises emanating from the Football League. I trust there remains a robust will to argue for the true traditions of the game and its supporters when the arbitration panel convenes.Reuse content