As part of the special commemorative programme for our first match at the new stadium, Back To Plough Lane editor Chris Thorpe spoke to AFC Wimbledon’s four founder members.
Ivor Heller, Marc Jones, Kris Stewart and Trevor Williams discussed the past, present and future of AFC Wimbledon after a pivotal chapter in our remarkable story.
For those that missed the interview, it is reproduced in full below.
Gentleman, now is your chance to tell all on how it all started way back in 2002, how did this journey come to begin 18 years ago?
KS: We were owned by Sam Hammam, as everyone knows. He moved us to Selhurst Park and told us that Plough Lane couldn’t be redeveloped to meet the new standards which came into force after the Hillsborough enquiry. We had some fun at Selhurst for a while, but, of course, we knew it wasn’t home and we knew we had to go back. Sam sold the ground to the Norwegians, who had brought up the idea of moving the club to Dublin, which of course fell through.
Then came the Milton Keynes idea, we fought against it, but unfortunately, we couldn’t get two of the three people involved in making the decision onside, leading to them hiking our club up to Buckinghamshire. All of that gets you to 2002.
IH: The reality of what actually happened, the physicality of what happened was that I got a call a night before the decision. I got told the night before, so I called Kris, Trevor and Marc – I’m not sure what order I did that in. I’d already spoken to Kris, Trevor and Marc about the idea and said that we might start a club again and various other people had mooted it as well, but I was fairly well set on the idea that if we lost the fight, it would be the right time to start again. Although I was surprised that we’d lost that fight, I don’t think we knew we were going to lose really in the run up to it, did we Kris?
KS: No that’s right, the Football League had rejected it, it had gone to an arbitration, and then the Football League shrugged their shoulders and basically said they didn’t want to deal with the legal bills so they bumped it onto a commission. The commission started, I gave some evidence to that commission, as did Lou Carton-Kelly, who was the chair of the Trust at the time. We were expecting a decision from the commission around that time, but we weren’t expecting to lose. (Charles) Koppel had made it very clear that they weren’t going to take no for an answer, so obviously during that time we all asked the question, “what happens if we lose?” And people had always said, “we’ll just go again.”
TW: All I remember is talking with Marc on MSN messenger the night before and I think as Kris said, it had always been a nebular idea that people had in mind, without any groundwork being done. I knew what was needed to get us playing football again and what we needed to reach a certain status and all that kind of stuff, but aside from that ingrained knowledge that we all had in different areas, there certainly wasn’t a plan written down. You know if it’s ever been claimed that we had some kind of master plan, it’s just not true at all.
KS: I knew Aldershot had gone bust around that time as they were just threatening to get to the conference, and they obviously started again so that was something which certainly put an idea in my head.
MJ: Just to add to that, I’ve got a cousin who is an Aldershot fan and so I had spoken to him about it, but it was never a notepad and pen, tell me more situation. I just had it in the back of my head that if everything goes wrong for us, we just start again like Aldershot did. I’d been in a meeting with Hammam at the top of Wimbledon Hill at Bayee Village, he took a few of us there for a meal. It was probably a couple of years before and it was definitely before the Norwegians were around and he was talking about Dublin. During that meal he said, ‘I’m the father of this club, if I’m saying we’re going to Dublin, you’re all coming with me’, and I remember saying to him, ‘I would fly from Dublin to Wimbledon to watch us play football, but I would never do it the other way’. He really didn’t believe anyone that said that, he just took it for granted that if he made that decision, we would all just follow along behind him. He asked, ‘well, what would you do then?’ And I said, as deliberately as I’m saying it to you now, ‘we’ll start another football club called Wimbledon’.
In terms of that phone call the night before, we had definitely not had a conversation before about what we do if it all went wrong because otherwise we would’ve already had meetings and had the plans in place the day before. In the end I turned up the next day thinking, “well now what do we do? with the consensus being “now we have to start another football club called Wimbledon, don’t we?”
IH: We got together in my factory and started working on things, we got in touch with the London FA and then I got in touch with Kris and said, “look if you’re going to lead this thing, come in tomorrow morning and we’ll get started.”
TW: I think the thing for me was, as soon as we started doing it, it quickly became apparent to me that it was obviously the way forward early on. Once we started doing it and once we started accepting that the thought of fighting a losing battle and the thought of going to the games was just going nowhere, it was like a switch being flicked. The transition from protesting at games to starting again was almost instant and there was never a second thought. It was the correct decision and it’s proven to be the correct decision.
IH: That is a brilliant way of putting it Trev and that is exactly how I felt, 100%. I remember saying to Marc on numerous occasions that if we couldn’t start in the Combined Counties, we would’ve started in the Wimbledon District League with the aim of getting into the Combined Counties. The period of establishing the structure of the club in those first few years included holding player trials, acquiring Kingsmeadow, and overall giving the club its identity.
What would you say was the toughest decision during that period?
IH: To me the toughest thing was hitting the deadlines, we got the deadlines from the London FA which said that unless we had senior status, we wouldn’t be able to apply for the meeting and by that point there was only 12 days to get the groundshare deal done. Marc set about designing the badge and then presented it at the WISA meeting. We had almost our own brand identity, but we didn’t have a date to get things off the ground. We didn’t have time to mess around. We had to get it done and we got lucky with (Rajesh) Khosla at Kingstonian in my opinion: don’t you agree with that boys?
KS: Yeah definitely, I didn’t know if I had even been to Kingstonian before then, so I couldn’t have said that Kingsmeadow was the place to be. I couldn’t say that it wouldn’t have worked anywhere else as it probably would’ve worked well in different ways at other places, but what we managed to do at Kingsmeadow in the end wouldn’t have worked as well elsewhere.
TW: We were quite lucky to find Kingstonian in the state that they were in. Obviously it was terrible for them, but it did turn out to be our good fortune in the long term anyway.
IH: I 100 per cent believe that the move to Kingstonian has put us where we are today. We were lucky in a sense that the person in charge of them wasn’t a proper football person, so we managed to get things put in place that wouldn’t have usually happened under another owner.
KS: We spoke about other places such as Sutton, Tooting, Leatherhead and even Dulwich Hamlet. But with the deadline, there was an enormous amount of work that people had to do. I’m not sure if I would say any of it was particularly difficult. Obviously, it was hard work, but working from Ivor’s office all we had to do was put the work into finding out all about the Combined Counties League and the Ryman League.
TW: I don’t think it was particularly complicated because the natural momentum came in and you had people like Marc, Kris and Ivor, who were all capable of getting people on board. It was quite obvious from early on that people were going along with it, because if there had been any static, it could’ve stunted our momentum, and it really was full momentum from day one. Everything we wanted to happen happened, everybody who wanted to be onboard was onboard. It was a very positive feeling from our fanbase straight away.
Looking back now, I’m surprised it was that positive, as in someone even said, ‘I want to keeping protesting, but I want my son to have a place to go and watch football while I’m protesting.’ The momentum was just brilliant, and everything we needed we got. If we ever needed anything someone would just come in and do it.
It was never only about us as four people and the lesson for the club going forward should be that when you need people to actually do something you’ll never find a better fanbase to actually do something. When we needed something people would come up with the goods.
MJ: I was also going to add that it was the momentum that not only helped us to do what we did, it meant that no one had the chance to turn around and say that they weren’t sure. That ticking clock, as the others have mentioned, meant that we didn’t have time to stand still and wonder if it was a good idea or not. The way forward was to tell people, ‘trust us, you’ll see it will be brilliant and you’ll find out very soon.’ And if you actually looked at a timeline, like Ivor said, within a week, we had the kit, we had the crest. These are the things that are really easy for people to get behind because as football fans these are the things that make it real for people.
We took all the negatives and it all became positive action. To me, it was like a snowball rolling down a hill: the closer we got to kicking a football, the bigger and bigger it got till, until we got to the Sutton game, where we had everyone losing their minds because it was ours. There was no bogey man sitting in the corner, asking how much money he could get out of it because he could take it off us at any minute. It was a mixture of euphoria and momentum all rolled into one that made it, at the time, unstoppable. It still makes us unstoppable, people still tap into that.
IH: I think we were fuelled by one thing; we were fuelled by righteous indignation and we had that in bundles. No matter where your politics were, what you wanted the club to be long term or short term, what you wanted us to be, all of that was fuelled by the fact that we had the biggest wrong done to us in English football history. It fuelled people to get behind something that was completely nuts.
TW: I think as well it was also an idea and I think the thing that sits in my head and will do until the day I die is that we started doing season tickets on Word documents a week after we formed, and we were selling season tickets for a club that didn’t exist. We had no players, we didn’t have a ground, but people couldn’t buy the tickets quick enough.
I walked into Ivor’s factory the next day after putting them up for sale and there was a queue of people at 7.00 am trying to give us money and that was when it knocked my socks off and I thought, ‘wow, this is just nuts, it really is.’
KS: There were so many things like that which really put it into perspective. So many people had spent so long trying to stop the move to Milton Keynes that suddenly there was something positive for them to do and all that energy from those people was put into saying ‘yes’ to the proposals we had. Everything went so much better than we could have reasonably or sensibly imagined right up to the 10th July when we played a pre-season friendly against Sutton United in front of thousands of people.
TW: I had to go in and ask the referee if we could put kick off back, because there really was loads of people waiting to come in. We ended up kicking off at about eight o’clock!
KS: So many people that weren’t even associated with Wimbledon enjoyed it, you could tell from their reaction just how much fun we were having because fun is infectious.
MJ: Just touching on the subject of season tickets, it says a lot that we followed up on the fact that people had not bought season tickets at Selhurst Park as a way of protest by offering them a way to show love for this new team and club. We stood up to people and told them ‘look they’re going to use your money to fight us legally and win with your money’ and people were really struggling to get their head around not paying in advance to be a Wimbledon fan. It was sort of the first time that the fans had turned their back on the football club. Once that started to become a thing, and the rest of it fell into place, as Kris said, that joyous element of it helped people to understand that they could give us their money and we wouldn’t steal it and run away because it’s their football club.
IH: We had to raise £20,000 to even sign the agreement with Kingstonian, which was eventually signed at the DT meeting next to a fire escape. We didn’t have camera phones in those days, so we had no one to video it!
What’s been the biggest change for the club as a whole since we returned to the Football League and what do you feel has helped us to progress the most?
TW: I would say that the thing that has helped us progress the most was when people were appointed to manage the club.
MJ: In a weird way I would say what has helped us to keep going is that momentum, again, I feel like that momentum is still with us so much in the fact that whenever we come up against an obstacle, you’re tapping into that same sort of spirit. I personally feel like we took what people understand to be Wimbledon Football Club and we tapped directly into it. Now that belongs to us, now we use that. Now when we talk about who we are and what we are, it’s like we’ve taken ownership of that old Batsford/Bassett sort of thing and turned it into our own spirit. That has become sort of organic and it blossoms all the time. So even when we went into the play-offs (in 2016), we all thought ‘we’ve got this covered’, and it spread to the team. Everything has always sort of felt like that. In terms of the biggest challenge, it’s been the ever-increasing tap on people’s wallets! I was at Plough Lane last week thinking, ‘wow, this is massive, how are we going to fill this place?!’
But if there has ever been a sort of Wimbledon way that we should stick by, it should always be that we never accept where we are and we always look to go again to see what happens in the next chapter.
For example, when we were in the Combined Counties League every other team put together a black and white programme that was a few pages long, but we were doing a 60-page programme, full colour job, and people were asking why? The answer to that is because we can! It should always feel as good as it could be, we should always seek that out.
KS: Looking back, I remember the first shirts we had which were just hanging up in Laurence Lowne’s front room and we were trying to work out what on earth we’d been sent and what on earth people had asked for.
MJ: (Laughs) All four of us could’ve fit into it and it still would’ve been too big!
IH: I could’ve used that for a tent, I could have lived in it (laughs).
MJ: Joe Sheerin had it on and it was tied on with sort of bulldog clamps!
TW: It still sold though!
Finally, when did you all think returning to Plough Lane was a realistic possibility for the club and how much does it mean to you about being back where we belong?
KS: It was always realistic. From 1991 when Sam Hammam decided that we should move to Selhurst instead of building something on Plough Lane, we could have absolutely built something there. Marc and I showed Merton Council and Wimbledon Football Club our plans for a stadium on Plough Lane and showed that all you had to do was turn the pitch 90 degrees, so it could always have been done. It was always realistic and I think the fact that we stood on the pitch there at Plough Lane all those years ago and showed them that it’s possible has helped people to believe that everything is possible. When people come together, it’s astonishing what people can do and it’s something which we have built on since then.
TW: It’s crazy for me to think now about how little leaving Kingsmeadow actually meant to me. I don’t mean that in a malicious way to Kingsmeadow because Kingsmeadow was brilliant for us and we wouldn’t be here without it, but it does show me that I only ever saw it as a temporary home.
IH: The clue is in the name, Wimbledon is Wimbledon, I never wanted to remain a Kingston club, I was focused on getting back to our roots.
MJ: We could’ve easily gone to Selhurst Park, saved the money by not paying stadium maintenance etc and started putting plans together for Plough Lane, but we didn’t do that. You have to understand that a football club is about a lot more than getting three points on a Saturday. You could be the worst club in the country, but if you’ve still got a club to go to that’ll do. It’s not about how big Plough Lane is and how impressive it is, it’s about the fact that I can walk down there and walk down the same road and get off at the same train station and arguably drink in the same pubs that I used too. I often say about the new ground that it’s a Dave Beasant kick away from the original ground, that’s the most mind-blowing thing about it. The thing that blows my mind about it is if two multi-millionaires owned Wimbledon Football Club, they couldn’t achieve what we did.
Number one, I didn’t want to be in Kingston because it’s Wimbledon Football Club and secondly it’s someone else’s home, not ours. Number three, the minute we gave up on the idea of moving back to Plough Lane, it wouldn’t have happened.
TW: I always saw Kingston as the stepping stone to going back home.
MJ: For want of a better phrase, I would rather ride the Wimbledon donkey than the Kingston horse because if we had stayed there, we wouldn’t have been reaching for our goal.
I’ve got two kids that watch football, one of them went to Selhurst aged six and one of them wasn’t born at the time. The thing that makes me realise just how exciting this is, is that my 15-year-old is saying ‘wow, we’ve never had a ground this big.’ As much as I loved the old Plough Lane, this is a proper football ground and my child cannot begin to get his head around the fact that he’s going to go and watch us play football there. He keeps saying to me. ‘are we that good dad?’
We’d go to places like Gillingham and Portsmouth and he’d say, ‘they are bigger clubs than us aren’t they’ and I’d say ‘wait until you see Plough Lane, it tramples all over these grounds’.
KS: What gets me is that some people weren’t even alive when we started all of this. We did it for them, we didn’t know that it was going to exist, we had no idea how it would turn out. People’s grandchildren will be watching football at Plough Lane, at a ground that we’ve built, at a club that we’ve rebuilt after it was ripped away from us. All you can say is - wow!
MJ: This is the headline for us as a group of people, what we’ve done is we have righted one of the worst wrongs there ever was. If you find out who Allen Batsford was, you find out who we are and you find out why we did what we did, because he created a way for the club to approach everything we do.
Dickie (Guy) always tells me a story of how they were queuing up to get on the same train as the West Ham team, as that was how the teams tended to travel back in those days, and Allen said to the players, ‘did you see West Ham getting on the train?’ He said: “They’re not any bigger than you and they’re not fitter than you, there’s no reason why you should think they’re better footballers than you.” I’ve always stuck to that sort of attitude: forget about those lot, we’ll do it because we’re Wimbledon, and I believe that makes us more potent than any other football club.
TW: We went with our gut a lot and it felt like the right thing to do, the history of our club should always inform us about what the right thing is to do next. The legacy will always be there, and it was never about us. I keep saying this because we were the four people that just happened to be there, it was never about us as individuals. It’s all stemmed from getting our football club back and it just goes to show that if you start something positive good things will follow from it.
We should also mention the Plough Lane Bond, which essentially got us over the line with all of this. It was a phenomenal achievement and it was again, a marvellous idea by a group of people and we wouldn’t be here without it. It should remind us as fans that this is our responsibility and ultimately it will always be the fans that are the guardians of the club’s moral aspects.
KS: The highlight for us as a club is yet to come as it won’t be here until we walk out back at Plough Lane with the fans in the stadium.
MJ: People used to say to me that the highlight was getting back into the league, but I always said, ‘no, the circle isn’t closed until you can walk down Haydon’s Road and watch a Wimbledon game because once we can do that, you can roll the credits’.
IH: Totally agree with that, it’s time to roll the credits!