Clarets Mad meets Womble Simon Wheeler

Life was never going to be the same again for Simon or in fact any of the Wimbledon fans as they were starting their fight to prevent the club from relocating to Milton Keynes, a fight that was eventually lost after a three man commission shamefully allowed the move to go ahead.

I caught up with Simon this week as the now franchised club prepare to play at Turf Moor but this time he and his fellow supporters won’t be there. Simon spoke about his years as a Wimbledon fan, the last year and the future when I caught up with him this week.

In a frank and honest exclusive interview this is what he had to say:

Wimbledon are not the most popular of clubs in Burnley for those of us with long memories, and a certain FA Cup tie, but what has it really been like as a Wimbledon supporter over the period since from the non-league days to today?

I hope Wimbledon WAS not the most popular of clubs in Burnley, and the people of Burnley recognise just what Wimbledon supporters have suffered. Nevertheless Franchise F.C. didn't beat Burnley in the FA Cup, a club called Wimbledon did, and A.F.C Wimbledon have a rightful claim on that victory as the history and heritage rightly belongs to the supporters!. Saying that the support from Burnley fans has been unbelievable and Burnley supporters should take great pride in continuously showing the football world that they are a special community club. Special thanks to the Clarets Independent Supporters Association (CISA) and the London Clarets for passing the WISA motion and asking their members to boycott the away fixture when Burnley F.C. have the unfortunate task of visiting Franchise.

I wasn't alive in "non league" days. I barely remember the early 1980's. There was even talk of moving to Milton Keynes in the late 1970's, Wimbledon supporters fought off two mergers with Palace in the early and mid 1980's. However, on the pitch it was it was all smiles with an exceptional community spirit. Admittedly there were a few heartaches, the early 80's was a period of yo-yoing being the fourth and third division. Once we had settled there was no stopping us, as the meteoric rise to the First Division was completed in under 10 years of election to the football league. We were always being told that we wouldn't last! The FA Cup victory was of course fabulous, a wild dream.

The 1990's brought heartbreak as we left Plough Lane. We were always promised a return back to Merton, with various sites being mooted. Even at the last game against Palace at the Lane, the Club didn't fully admit where we were going or that we were indeed moving. Success continued on the pitch at Selhurst, but there was always something missing. It wasn't home, it never felt like home and to be brutally honest it never felt like the Club were doing enough to try and get us back home.

Tell us about the move away from Plough Lane, how it felt at the time and how long you really thought you were going to be away from the place you called home.

The move away from Plough Lane was a bitter blow, I am positive with hindsight we would have fought it, and that is sadly a serious regret. However, it always was inevitable with the introduction of the Taylor report, and although leaving was extremely sad, it was understood. Selhurst Park never felt like home, it is a soulless ground and we seriously missed the intimacy that Plough Lane offered. We lived in the hope that the Football Club and the Council would find us a suitable site and develop a stadium that the Community of Merton could be proud of. Selhurst Park was always said to be a temporary option, and originally five years was mooted as the time that we would be away from the Borough of Merton.

How was the news viewed when Sam Hammam sold out to a Norwegian consortium, the consortium that eventually brought about the arrival of Charles Koppel?

The news was viewed with shock, but also with cautioned optimism!. The Norwegians are two of the richest men in Europe, had built Molde a ground by filling in a Fjord and were promising a return to Merton. With their financial backing supporters felt we were the closest we had been in years to returning home. Suspicion was there concerning Dublin, and ultimately it has been proved that Sam Hammam sold the Norwegians Dublin and the financial riches that it would bring them personally.

Was there an instant dislike to Koppel, what did you think of him in the beginning?

There wasn't an instant dislike to Koppel. Koppel came in during the close season after relegation. Hammam had relinquished control after his much publicised spat with the Norwegians and had sold the remainder of his shares. Koppel chatted to the supporters and regularly repeated the same old tape about returning to Merton, we didn't buy the club to share someone else’s ground etc. However, in between saying things like "We will stick a pin in Plough Lane and work outwards", he always refused to rule outright Milton Keynes.

How and when did you first hear of the plans for a move to Milton Keynes?


It was something that had been in the back of our minds for some time. It was a question regularly asked when the Football Club were holding meetings with WISA and the Vice President's Club. Koppel always refused to rule it out.

We heard of the news about Milton Keynes two days before the letters arrived on our door mats stating that the football club had signed an agreement subject to the authorities' approval to relocate to Milton Keynes. This was a severe contradiction of Koppel's promises about working with the supporters and keeping the supporters informed before making a decision on the ground issue.

Were they taken seriously or as a joke?

At one time probably a joke, we were linked with Dublin, Glasgow, Cardiff, Milton Keynes, Basingstoke. The six months prior to the announcement it was taken with caution, a niggling thought in the back of our minds. Two days before we all received word it was contingency plan, i.e. what if it is true. The day the letters arrived it was shock, sadness, horror and tears, but a strong urge to fight Koppel and Milton Keynes.

Was it ever thought that it really might happen?

It was always a possibility. Optimism grew that it wouldn't after our demonstrations and the Football League Board's refusal to sanction the plans. It soon became clear that Koppel would drag it through the Courts if necessary and would try every trick available to get his property deal through.

Concerns started to rise when the Football League Commission couldn't reach a decision and passed the buck the to the FA. We held a vigil outside the FA when their three man commission was meeting. Crozier said the FA disagreed with the Franchising of football. The decision was deeply upsetting, deeply concerning and the report appears flawed in so many areas.

What has the last year really been like?

Prior to AFC Wimbledon horrible. We hadn't enjoyed the football, we were protesting at every match, we were writing letters, we were staging vigils etc. You name it we have done it!!!!!, and it is a credit to Wimbledon supporters that we have remained united throughout a traumatic year. A special thank you must go to all supporters from other clubs that have participated in our protests and have supporters the campaign.

When the final news came through that permission had been granted for the move - what were the emotions and feelings? What did it really feel like?

Devastating, I first heard of the news and cried. I didn't really want to go to the FA as I didn't know how I would react. I did go in the end and was glad that I did!!. Friends and fellow Wombles were all there. I can't remember much of the day, the WISA committee were running around trying to lift heads and doing the odd interview. How Kris Stewart, our ex Chairman and now Chairman of A.F.C Wimbledon coped I do not know, but he was an inspiration.

I chickened out of calling my father to tell him the news, I waited to call him until I was certain that he must have heard it for himself. I couldn't bring myself to call and say "Dad we lost, your football club is dead". In the evening we all went to the Fox & Grapes and Marc Jones was running around the place, saying we can start again, a new Wimbledon. The rest is history!

What next?

Well we are enjoying football again, which is fantastic. WISA will continue to fight Charles Koppel, Franchise Football Club and its proposed move to Milton Keynes. We feel we have a duty to Football to stop the franchising of football within England. We have been fully backed by the Football Supporters’ Federation, and have jointly launched the Football Fans say no to Football Franchising Campaign. Party At the Park was the last real demonstration, although things are in the pipeline for other activities and demos. Keep your eyes peeled because we have certainly not gone away

Is it full commitment to the real (AFC) Wimbledon and how much does the fight go on?

Everyone is fully behind AFC Wimbledon, the fight goes on until we win. We may never get Wimbledon FC back but the colours, badge, history and trophies we deserve. We are the rightful owners, AFC Wimbledon is Wimbledon FC, Franchise FC has no connections with Wimbledon or the Borough of Merton.

What are the feelings towards the few who have continued to support Franchise?

Pity, they are always welcome at AFC Wimbledon. There are some that say they are continuing supporting the club until a ball is kicked in Milton Keynes, I genuinely hope they decide to come to AFC Wimbledon. In all honesty the numbers are minimal, Koppel only cares about money not supporters. I don't consider people that find Milton Keynes an acceptable move to be Wimbledon supporters!, and I don't consider them to be supporters of football. Strong words but football is a community game, and football clubs should benefit the communities from where their name derives.

You are involved with WISA. What are your thoughts on the way they have conducted themselves over the past year and what recognition do they have amongst the supporters.

I am biased but WISA has fought a flawless campaign. Widely regarded as the most influential ISA in the country, we received recognition by winning the ISA of the year award. Our members have all behaved impeccably under testing circumstances. The Dons Trust now the largest trust in the country derived from WISA, with Lou Carton-Kelly, once vice chair of WISA setting the Trust up with WISA backing.

What are your thoughts on ISAs in general? Should all clubs have them and why should supporters join them?

ISAs always will have a place to play in Football Clubs. It is a sad state of affairs that ISA memberships normally increase rapidly when something is going wrong at a football club. Trusts are fantastic and give supporters an opportunity to purchase shares in their Club and they can work alongside ISAs (a fact that Brian Lomax of Supporters Direct will testify too). The major advantage of ISAs is that they are totally independent from Football Clubs. WISA is independent from AFC Wimbledon, The Dons Trust own AFC Wimbledon. WISA will raise points with the Club and Trust if we feel it is appropriate. It is necessary to point out that ISAs are not only about complaining and moaning, praise should be given to Clubs too, if they deserve it. ISAs keep necessary checks and balances within Football Clubs.

And why should people join them?? So that their club's ISA can air their views, and don't forget the larger the ISA the more powerful is the voice.

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Clarets Mad would like to thank Simon for giving up his time this week and would also like to wish him, WISA and everyone connected with AFC Wimbledon the very best as they come to terms with what has happened and start to move forward. They have all been a credit to football during this last year and the football community should be very proud of them.

But please, just be careful who you draw should you have a good FA Cup run.