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Football “Franchises” – Right or Wrong?

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In a summer bereft of football, the release of fixture lists this week provide some form of respite for fans starved of action. Away trips are plotted, long weekends at some of the more far-flung fixtures are planned, and best mates are pleaded with not to hold their wedding on a certain date as it clashes with “the big one”.

But among all this, select fans from League One teams will also be studying the Conference fixture list, specifically AFC Wimbledon’s home games. This isn’t to do with loyalty to the London team, per se, but there are plenty of supporters who will object to visiting the MK Dons and will choose to visit Kingsmeadow when their team is away at the Stadium M:K.

Even though it’s now been seven years since the FA gave permission for Wimbledon FC to be moved to Milton Keynes, many fans still remain angry at the so-called franchising of the Dons and have never accepted the Pete Winkleman-owned vehicle.

But to observers from countries such as USA and Austrlia, where franchising is the norm, the fuss over one team (and not even a large team at that) relocating must seem somewhat confusing.

Not the first, maybe not the last

The MK Dons aren’t the first team to have upped sticks and moved in search of more money. The majority of teams who do this are often at non-league level, usually merging two teams to create an artificial club, as opposed to moving the club elsewhere. Rushden and Diamonds, Hayes and Yeading, and Dagenham and Redbridge (who themselves came from Redbridge Forest, another merged side) have all done this in the past.

But the actual uprooting of a club from one part of the country to another is still rare and, before the Dons, the most high profile move came back in 1913. Woolwich Arsenal from Plumstead were moved from south east London up north to Highbury, right by the tube station, and simply renamed The Arsenal.

At the heart of all this was, even back then, money. The club’s chairman, Henry Norris, also owned Fulham and had originally attempted to merge the two clubs. When that failed, Norris identified prime space in the capital in which to establish a football club and, despite protests from fans at the time, Arsenal moved north. The rest, as they say, is history.

Given that Arsenal were so successful in their relocation, it is fair enough to ask why more clubs didn’t simply move to a more profitable and accepting area if they were struggling for money.

The importance of community

First of all, it’s worth noting that Arsenal’s success didn’t just come about because of the relocation, although this did play a large part in their subsequent growth. Arguably, Norris’ feat of talking Arsenal into the First Division in 1915 had as much to do with fast-tracking them on the way to where they are today.

That year, Arsenal had finished 5th but, for no good reason and with more than a suggestion of dodgy dealing, were promoted at the expense of Wolves and Barnsley, both of whom finished above the Gunners. Norris, somehow, talked Arsenal into the top division.

But the idea that teams can be traded between cities, like players move between clubs, is one completely alien to the English game. Franchising just doesn’t enter the English mentality of football.

Many teams were started as works teams. Woolwich Arsenal was formed by workers at the munitions factory. Newton Heath (later to become Manchester United) was formed by workers on Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. It doesn’t take a genius to guess at the origin of Horwich Railway Mechanics Institute, another team who relocated (to Leigh) in the belief it would help the club.

If it wasn’t workers looking for a kickabout, then often the church played a large part in forming teams. Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester City and Bolton, among others, were all formed around or by local churches. You wonder what the founders would have made of what the clubs have become today.

The majority of the clubs, then, were so rooted in their communities that it seemed inexpedient to move them to elsewhere. Even with some of the smaller league (and indeed non-league clubs) football was inextricably linked with the community. When the team was doing well, it often coincided with an upturn in the fortunes of the rest of the area.

Even in a short time the history and identity of the football club became interwoven with the history of the area. Rivalries were established, and football teams became badges of regionalistic pride. Liverpool v Manchester United, Swansea v Cardiff, Newcastle v Sunderland, even Exeter v Plymouth were all caught up in something that went beyond football. Franchising these teams and taking away the cultural identity would be unthinkable.

MK Dons mark 2

This may be a slightly simplistic way of explaining why franchising is so contrary to the principles of English football. The length of history and community roots means it would be seen as an abomination if somebody tried to uproot, say, Southampton to a place without a league club such as Cornwall.

It’s also why the football community reacted so strong to Wimbledon’s relocation. The Dons may not have been pulling in the same sort of crowds as other London Premier League clubs, but they had plenty of history, including their rise from non-league to FA Cup winners.

Moving the club to Milton Keynes left 3,000 displaced fans and, ever since the formation of AFC Wimbledon, both teams have argued that they have the rightful claim to the old Wimbledon’s history and trophies (although both, strictly speaking, are new teams).

There’s also a feeling that teams who are ‘franchised’ and take over a team’s league position are interlopers who haven’t earned the right to play at such a level.

It’s why the spectre of Methyr Tydfil moving to Bridgend was met with horror from both Methyr’s fans and the wider footballing community.

Owner Wyn Holloway, who’d taken the club to the brink of liquidation, raised the spectre of the club moving from the valleys to the Welsh town as he looked to offload the club. It wasn’t just the club that was for sale – it was the Martyrs entire place in the football pyramid.

Although Bridgend were in the League of Wales, Methyr, in the Southern Premier, would have been an interesting and attractive proposition for any side looking to break into the Conference or the League. Thankfully, the scheme came to nothing and the authorities appeared lukewarm at best to the idea.

Holloway and Bridgend are unlikely to be the last to try and relocate a club away from its spiritual home, as owners or ambitious businessmen look to do a quick one. Thankfully, the footballing authorities seem reluctant to view the Wimbledon situation as anything other than a one-off at this current point in time, although that’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.

Made in America

This all may come across as a criticism of the current American model of soccer. It isn’t meant to be. Indeed, if the MLS had tried to replicate the way English football was born, it would have probably died an unlamanted death a long time ago.

If you’re looking to establish a major football league in a country that hasn’t previously been known for its love of the game the franchise method is, at the moment, quite possibly the best way to go about it, as both the States and Australia’s A League are currently showing. It also makes more sense to implement a system that’s closer to what the public are used to with other sports.

And as the game grows and the clubs develop their own history, rivalries and even places in the community then that attachment to an area grows – just look at the current situation with DC United.

The MLS side are having issues over their stadium, raising the spectre that one of the MLS’ best-known teams could be forced to move, or franchised to another city. DC United fans, along with bloggers, are campaigning to keep the club in the capital.

There’s nothing wrong with franchising done in the right time and place. But that time and place isn’t the English game. Moving a club from its roots still feels wrong, and no matter how many years pass, AFC Wimbledon will no doubt continue to get “away” fans partaking in their own small ongoing personal protest against the creation of the MK Dons.

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