Phoenix football – the clubs that would not die.
Sunday the 2nd of December will see the most shameful fixture in the history of British football, as AFC Wimbledon take on Milton Keynes. This is not a derby, and it is not a rivalry. Arsenal v Tottenham, Cardiff v Swansea, Newcastle v Sunderland, Liverpool v Everton and Manchester United v Man City are just some examples of the fierce rivalries within British football. While the fans of these clubs often dislike or even despise each other, they do at least recognise the right of the other to exist.
This is not the case for the FA Cup second round tie at Stadium MK between Milton Keynes and AFC Wimbledon. This is not a game based on rivalry or dislike, but the shameful theft of a football club. Milton Keynes are a football club who simply should not exist, while AFC Wimbledon are a tale of true strength in the face of adversity. Not even Hollywood itself could come up with such a clearcut story of good versus evil, and AFC Wimbledon will surely have the support of the entire football public outside of Milton Keynes.
Instead of focusing on the odious tale of Milton Keynes and the football club that should not exist, the story of AFC Wimbledon is a rare example of the good in British football and supporters who are prepared to fight back against the modern game. While AFC Wimbledon are by far the most successful to date, there are a number of clubs that have either been wound up and come back to life thanks to the fans, or were founded due to opposition to the way the original club was run.
This is the story of the fans who fought back and the clubs who refused to die.
Formed in 2002 after being betrayed by the FA and the creation of Milton Keynes, AFC Wimbledon held open trials on Wimbledon Common, with over 200 players turning up to compete for a place in the first ever squad. Angered by the move and the statement that it was “not in the wider interests of football” for Wimbledon to rise from the ashes, the club began life in the ninth tier of football.
Finishing third in their first season and narrowly missing out on promotion at the first attempt, they would not make the same mistake twice. They began their second season with a staggering 21 wins in a row, ending the season unbeaten with 130 points from a possible 138 and a goal difference of +148. Perhaps unsurprisingly with that level of league dominance, they also collected the Premier Challenge Cup contested by teams in that division. There was no stopping AFC Wimbledon now, as they won the league once more, finishing comfortably clear of Walton and Hersham in second place by nine points. They did finally lose a game however, as a record 78 game undefeated streak in the league came to an end.
AFC Wimbledon had progressed extremely well up until the 2007/08 season, but it was at this stage that things truly took off. Manager Terry Brown was appointed after the Dons had lost to Bromley in the playoffs the season before, in what was to prove a magnificent appointment. Brown would become a true club legend, starting in style by winning promotion to the Conference South via the playoffs. Trailing Staines Town 1 – 0 in the final with eight minutes to go, two goals in two minutes saw the Wombles turn it round and move a step closer to a return to the Football League.
Brown was far from finished there, as AFC won the Conference North at the first attempt. The title was sealed on the final day of the season with a comfortable 3 – 0 win over St Albans, with a capacity crowd of 4,722 on hand to witness the Dons fourth promotion in seven seasons. Interestingly, at the other end of the table that season were Fisher Athletic, who would go bust before being relaunched by the fans.
It would take two attempts for the Dons, but a return to the Football League would eventually be completed in the most dramatic of circumstances. They had finished 8th in the 2009/10 season, some way off the playoffs despite a number of good results. If Wimbledon fans feared the journey back to the Football League was running out of steam, these fears would soon prove to be unfounded in the 2010/11 campaign. Big spending Crawley Town would win the title, finishing 15 points clear of second place. However, it was the Wombles themselves who took second position, qualifying for the playoffs.
AFC would see themselves take on Fleetwood Town in the playoffs, who are also a reformed club having come back to life in 1997. There was no time for niceties from Wimbledon however, who demolished their opponents 8 – 1 over the two legs of the semi-final, including four goals from striker Kaid Yusef Mohamed. This set up a playoff final at the home of Manchester City, taking on the long-term Football League side Luton Town. Showing the extent of the damage done to both clubs in recent years, 23 years earlier, Luton and the original Wimbledon had met in an FA Cup semi-final.
Like many playoff finals it was hardly a classic, with no goals in the 90 minutes or the extra time period. Penalties would settle the game at the Etihad, with the tensest of finishes for one side to complete their fairytale return to the Football League. After Luton missed their opening kick, it looked as is Mohamed may go from hero to zero. Having fired his team to the final with four goals, he missed from the spot and let Luton back in to the shootout. However, Luton missed their next kick, allowing Wimbledon hero and top goalscorer Danny Kedwell to step up. With an entire football nation behind him, he made no mistake and Wimbledon were back.
Wimbledon have thrived in the Football League, staying up comfortably in their first season and currently clear of the relegation places once again, despite conceding 11 goals in the first two matches of the season. Whatever the result when they take on the Milton Keynes abomination, they have proved they are indeed not only in the wider interest of football, but a true inspiration for any disenchanted football supporter.
F.C United of Manchester (FCUM)
Formed by Manchester United fans after Malcolm Glazer took over the club in 2005, FCUM are the team of choice for those who wish to rebel against the owners and modern football in general. Supporters own the club and have the right to vote on various issues that arise. Whether a fan donates £1000 or £1, they have the same say in the way the club is run. Issues which can be voted for include the kit design, season ticket prices and who sits on the board. The FCUM manifesto states:
- The Board will be democratically elected by its members.
- Decisions taken by the membership will be decided on a one member, one vote basis.
- The club will develop strong links with the local community and strive to be accessible to all, discriminating against none.
- The club will endeavour to make admission prices as affordable as possible, to as wide a constituency as possible.
- The club will encourage young, local participation – playing and supporting – whenever possible.
- The Board will strive wherever possible to avoid outright commercialism.
- The club will remain a non-profit organisation.
In other words, the club is about as far away from the corporate machine that is Manchester United as possible. The manifesto includes the team never having a shirt sponsor.
The club also received strong support from AFC Wimbledon, with a lot of help given by the Wombles in the early years of FCUM’s life to get the club going. Just like the Dons, the red rebels started life well, winning three promotions in a row, two of these as champions. Things have stalled slightly since then, with FC United beaten in the playoff final of the catchily titled Northern Premier League Premier Division. The last two winners of this league are Chester Football Club and F.C Halifax Town, both of whom are supporter founded phoenix clubs.
With the club currently sharing Gigg Lane with Bury FC, one of the long-term goals is a stadium of their own, an ambition they hope to achieve by the start of the 2013/14 season.
Chester Football Club
Chester Football Club are one of the most recent phoenix clubs, starting life in 2010 after the protracted death of Chester City as a result of the ‘leadership’ of Stephen Vaughan. In a time where many clubs have suffered from disastrous owners, Vaughan stands as one of the very worst. From financial crisis to arranging a minute’s silence at a match for an associate who was a notorious gangster, Vaughan and the rest of his family did almost everything possible to alienate supporters. Huge debts were run up, which in turn meant players did not receive their wages for long periods, with the issue coming to a head in February of 2010 as the squad went on strike. This meant the club failed to fulfill the scheduled fixture with Forest Green Rovers, causing Chester City to be suspended from the league. This was the second game cancelled in a short space of time, with the meeting with local rivals Wrexham cancelled due to Vaughan failing to pay a police bill.
Chester’s financial woes had gone on for some time before this spate of postponements, but they proved to be the final straw. The club was wound up in court after a hearing lasting less than a minute, no representative from Chester City even bothering to show up at the hearing.
The gates to the club were closed, but it was a time for celebration rather than mourning for the supporters of the club. Finally the battle was over, and they could focus on rebuilding the club from the ground up. The group City Fans United (CFU) had formed in 2009 to fight for the future of the club, and it was this group who instigated the rebirth. With little over 400 people attending the last game played by Chester City, supporters in their thousands have got behind the reborn version with a record crowd of over 5000.
Things have also gone extremely well on the pitch, with a perfect record of two seasons played, two promotions as champions. In their first campaign they won the title by a tiny margin, triumphing by virtue of their goal difference being two better than that of Skelmersdale United. Chester left nothing to chance in their second season, winning promotion to the Conference North in style. They finished 21 points clear of Chorley in 3rd (Northwich Victoria came 2nd, but were relegated due to financial rule breaches).
Chester Football Club certainly seem as if they will join AFC Wimbledon as a fan run club in the Football League sooner rather than later, with just two more promotions needed. 15 games into the season, they are again top of the league with a game in hand. AFC Wimbledon vs. Chester Football Club in the Football League in the near future? Don’t bet against it.
Fittingly, as Chester recover from the actions of the acts of vandalism against the club from Stephen Vaughan, Vaughan himself served a spell in prison for an unrelated incident. A definite victory for believers in karma.
FCUM are not the only new club to be set up by supporters of a highly successful Premier League side. AFC Liverpool were formed in 2008 by a group of fans who felt the current prices at Anfield robbed supporters of the chance to enjoy the match day experience. Founder Alun Parry commented at the time: “I’ve been going to Anfield since the late Seventies when I was six years old. A season ticket in the Kop cost £45 in 1985, today it’s £650, which I know is a lot cheaper than some other Premier League clubs, but in inflation terms, prices should equate to £98 today.”
AFC Liverpool currently play in the ninth tier of English football, with one promotion to their name so far as well as two League Cup trophies while playing in the tenth tier. The club does not attract as much support as many of the other ‘protest’ sides, but the idea of AFC Liverpool was always to be a ‘little brother’ to Liverpool rather than direct opposition. While they will almost certainly never get close to the Football League, they have proved that fans do not have to put up with the insane ticket prices of the Premier League and the circus that comes with it.
Like Chester City before them, Darlington FC are another example of a club killed by an initially popular owner who proved to be the clubs undoing. Despite playing at Feethams for 120 years with a capacity of 8,500, Reynolds decided the club needed a stadium which could hold 27,500 people. Naturally, he named this ridiculously large new ground after himself and declared he would take Darlo to the Premier League. He made wild attempts to sign Paul Gascoigne and Faustino Asprilla, with Asprilla even being paraded to the fans in a Darlington shirt before eventually backing out of a deal by fleeing the country. Many people suspected that Asprilla did not know what division Darlington were in, and made a sharp exit once he discovered their lowly status.
Reynolds was sent to prison in 2005 for tax evasion and money laundering, leaving Darlington losing thousands of pounds a week without a rich owner to cover the losses. The club battled on, including a benefit match featuring such star names as Paul Gascoigne, Kenny Dalglish, Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle. A good crowd for this game helped the Quakers to raise £100,000, but it was a short-term fix and financial mayhem continued. Darlington would have a succession of owners during this period, including Stewart Davies who had offered high interest loans to a number of clubs struggling after the collapse of ITV Digital, property tycoon George Houghton and their final owner, Raj Singh. All of these men promised at one stage to save the club, but in the end the white elephant of a stadium was too much.
Darlington had their last glorious moment of their long history at Wembley in 2011, as a 119th minute goal won them the FA Trophy against Mansfield Town. In May 2012 Darlington met their demise, as failure to come out of administration in a way suitable to the FA meant they were forced to change the name of the team and start life as a brand new side in the ninth tier of English football.
A fans vote was held to decide the new name of the team, with Darlington 1883 chosen ahead of such options as Locomotive Darlington, Community Football Club Darlington and AFC Darlington. 1883 reflects the history of the club, with the initial side being founded in this year. Of course, being a new club, the Quakers no longer had to play at the stadium which caused their downfall and began a groundshare with Bishop Auckland in a ground holding around 2000 people. Along with a whole new squad and backing from the fans, this meant the financial issues which had plagued Darlo for so long were finally a thing of the past.
Darlington 1883 are currently top of the Northern League Division One, four points clear of second place and having won all 12 of their home games so far. With 70 goals in just 22 league games, Darlington 1883 have finally given their long-suffering fans a reason to be cheerful. With the team attracting good support both home and away and the positive atmosphere around the club, 1883 could be another phoenix club to make it back to the Football League.
S.V Austria Salzburg
One of the worst examples of a clubs history being torn up in the name of commercialism is the story of Austria Salzburg. Three times champions of Austria and former UEFA Cup finalists, Austria Salzburg had a proud history and a loyal fanbase. All of this changed when energy drink company Red Bull took over the club in 2005, declaring “this is a new club with no history.” The violet colours of the club were changed to red and white, the badge was changed to reflect the “Red Bull gives you wings” advertising slogan and Austria Salzburg became Red Bull Salzburg. The majority of the fans fought long and hard against these changes, but the only concession Red Bull were prepared to make was allow the goalkeeper to play in violet socks. This was the moment the fans knew their fight was lost, and a new club was founded in the 7th tier of Austrian football.
The club achieved phenomenal support from fans who were not prepared to simply roll over and let the money men do what they wanted. With supporters adopting the slogan ‘Never changed passion for glory’, they would have thousands of fans in leagues that not even one man and his dog would normally turn up to watch. With this support and financial backing from supporters, the team steamrolled their way through the lower echelons of Austrian football. In the first four seasons of Austria Salzburg’s existence, they won the league every time as the moved into the third tier. Out of 104 total league games in this period, they won 90, losing just 7.
Win or lose, the fans and the players have a real bond at Austria Salzburg. Pictured below are the players shaking the hands of the fans at the end of an away game, something which you cannot imagine the average modern-day footballer taking the time to do in a million years.
Having spent two seasons in the third tier, Salzburg are pushing for promotion again this season, which would take them just one promotion away from a return to the top flight and a showdown with the corporate shell of a club which took their place. The Violette are second in the league, just two points off the top and conceding just seven goals after 17 games. Only the team in first gets the chance to win promotion, meaning Austria Salzburg must overhaul Liefering S.V to continue their journey back to the top of Austrian football. As in many European countries, the reserve sides of top teams play in the lower leagues. One of these teams who share the third tier with Austria Salzburg are those of a certain Red Bull, with the only meeting of the season so far ending in a 1 – 1 draw.
The club found a place in my heart after helping to protest the rebranding of Cardiff City at the start of this season, showing more opposition to the rebrand than most actual Cardiff fans themselves.
The Austria Salzburg story goes on, but one thing can be sure. They will never bow to modern football and change their passion for glory.