With the Portsmouth FC saga going from tragedy to farce this week when it was revealed that every player was going to be sold or released and that next season’s team would be recruited primarily through free transfers, garage sales, charitable donations and open casting, like managing a lower level club in Worldwide Soccer Manager, my thoughts inevitably turn to how the situation would be handled in the US. Not that any club would be allowed by the league to drop so heavily into debt, unless it was a deliberate move to facilitate the transfer of the franchise to a new city (I’m sure you can name plenty of examples yourself here but I am a little hazy on US libel laws so I’ll leave it at that – feel free to email me though because you only truly understand a country once you understand its sport, and you only truly understand its sport once you get to grips with all the skullduggery, favoritism and unspoken, implicit, underhand favors that go along with it that every supporter knows but can’t reveal to outsiders). Franchising is simply not an option in the UK.
I have never understood the concept of sports franchising. Sure, it makes business sense but in the UK it is an alien concept – teams are built from and welded to the community in a more organic way than a sports franchise moving to a newly built stadium in any US city – like the root system of a tree, the team grows outward through its supporters, workers, players and others, intertwining itself into their lives and histories as inextricable as one of those trees you see poking out of an overgrown temple in the jungles of South America.
To see why franchising has no future in the UK, we look back to the only example perpetrated in recent times – the infamous move of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes.
Wimbledon, as late as 1988 had won the FA Cup and risen from the Southern League to the First Division in a matter of 10 years. Never one of the big draws in London, nonetheless they had a loyal fan base who stuck with them, even though their chairman, Sam Hammam, sold their previous Plough Lane ground to Safeway Supermarkets in 1991, and had to travel to South East London from the South West to watch them at their new home of Selhurst Park, as tenants of Crystal Palace. Two Norwegian businessmen bought the club but in 2000 after relegation from the Premier League, they announced their intention to fold unless the club could be moved 80 odd miles north to Milton Keynes where a stadium would be provided for them by a craven consortium of local businessmen.
A note to American readers – Milton Keynes itself is something of a one-note joke in the UK as a byword for everything post modern and crap about the country. It is built along a grid-system, similar to a US city but with roundabouts at every intersection instead of traffic lights. The place was originally a network of five villages until in the 70s when a city centre was suddenly built overnight and declared to be a new city. Everything about the place is imported and “modern” so it is a nightmare of concrete, steel and glass, architecturally out of fashion from the very beginning; it is the epitome of soulless modern Britain. It’s most famous landmark previously was a sculpture of some concrete cows grazing by the road so you get the picture. I worked there for three years previous to my emigration to the states and while it is not as outright depressing a location as Luton for instance, it is definitely an elaborate hope-trap.
Anyway, a Football League Commission disgracefully gave the move the go ahead and Wimbledon became the first league club for over a century to move locations. Within days and to their eternal credit, the vast majority of the Wimbledon fans formed AFC Wimbledon at the lowest league level available. They began a meteoric rise bounded by the goodwill of every genuine British football fan and five promotions later now rest in the Football Conference, one promotion short of re-entering the Football League.
Their bastard offspring became the focus of a genuine sustained boycott from the rest of the right-thinking football fraternity. They were barred from membership of the Football Supporters Federation and nicknamed Franchise FC or Frankenstein FC. Despite my three years in the city, I never set foot inside the stadium and never will, never gave any money or succor to their existence and proudly held the boycott flag high. In a crawling yet correct gesture in 2007, the Milton Keynes Dons (as they were now known) reassigned the name and honors of the old club, including their solitary FA Cup, back to AFC Wimbledon, thus severing all ties with the old organization.
Maybe it’s the distances involved but I never truly understood why LA Rams and Seattle Supersonics fans haven’t taken to the streets with burning torches and pitchforks at the theft of their teams?
Despite averaging just over 10,000 and hovering outside the playoffs in League One, we are all waiting for the day when AFC Wimbledon return to the league and smite their ill-gotten progeny – only then will football have regained a little of its long lost soul and remind everybody that, especially in England, sometimes the least important factor are 22 players chasing an inflatable leather-coated sphere around a pitch.
Guy Bailey is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.