Sunday, 7 August 2011

In Focus: AFC Wimbledon

The tale of AFC Wimbledon will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in English football. A non-league club for much of their existence, they were elected to the Football League in 1977, beginning a rapid rise up the pyramid which culminated in their promotion to the top tier just nine years later. In 1988, Wimbledon defied the odds to lift the FA Cup, becoming the first team to have won both the FA Cup and FA Amateur Cup, but it was soon after trophy success the wheels began to fall off.
Forced out of their Plough Lane home, Wimbledon held on to their top flight status for another dozen years after their cup triumph, but finally succumbed to relegation. Following lengthy negotiations and fervent protests, the club were “relocated” 90km north to Milton Keynes and re-branded as the MK Dons. Though such refranchising moves are relatively commonplace in American sports, this move was by far the most high-profile such decision taken by the board of an English football club.
Bereft by the loss of their club, a group of Wimbledon FC supporters formed AFC Wimbledon in 2002 and the fairytale began. They started life in the Combined Counties League but shot up the non-league system and at the end of last season, AFC beat Luton Town on penalties at Wembley to return to the Football League. Saturday 6th August sees AFC take on Bristol Rovers in their first game back in the big time. All the hard work has finally paid off.
All well and good, but what has this got to do with music? Well, for a start, the team play at Kingstonian’sground, Kingsmeadow, which is sponsored by indie label Cherry Records. Plus, the club play an active part in the local community, and have been raising funds by hosting a series of gigs. Joe Rivers caught up with Jim Piddlington, the Commercial Executive of AFC Wimbledon, to talk about how music supports the club but first, how Jim saved Oxford Street’s famous 100 Club.
So, first things first, how did you save the 100 Club?
I wouldn’t say I saved the 100 Club single-handedly but I have no doubt that we had a hell of a lot to do with getting the problem out there in the media and making people aware of it.  At the beginning when we heard that it might be shutting our aim was to raise enough money to buy out the present owner. Unfortunately, as time was short we didn’t raise enough and therefore our plan was thwarted.  In the meantime I worked tirelessly getting the club in the press, on TV, on the radio and buttonholing musicians to do their bit. I managed to get Mick Jagger to do an interview for Planet Rock radio and in one of our first meetings we were deciding who we wanted to play at the club to raise awareness. I said, “Paul McCartney”, to which everyone laughed but in December last year Paul McCartney played the 100 Club as part of the ‘Save the 100 Club’ campaign.  At the end of last year Converse stepped in (pun intended) and have sponsored the club to help it through the bad time it is going through.
How did Cherry Red end up sponsoring the Kingsmeadow Stadium?
Iain McNay, the Chairman of Cherry Red, is a long time Wimbledon fan and has been involved in one way or another with AFC Wimbledon since the beginning. Cherry Red started off sponsoring the President’s Lounge at Kingsmeadow and a few years ago moved up to sponsoring the stadium.
How long have music and comedy nights been run at the stadium? 
We’ve had KingsmeadowLive running a good few years now but the comedy has been at Kingsmeadowsince the 1990s. The last few years has seen KingsmeadowLive grow as a live music venue with the likes of Neville Staple from The Specials and The Beat gracing our stage.  We have got some great gigs lined up for the rest of this year and started booking for next year too. Billy Rath of Johnny Thunders band The Heartbreakers and Steve Dior of the Delinquents are playing in their band The Broken Hearts along with The Sex Pistols Experience here later in the year so that should be a really good gig. Next year I’ve already booked The Selecter in January and Chas Hodges (of Chas and Dave) so as I said, next year is looking good already.
What’s been your favourite gig so far and who would be your ultimate fantasy booking?
My favourite gig here was Neville Staples first show, all the energy you expect and some great songs. My fantasy gig would be an all-day festival, big stage, thousands of people all crammed into the stadium with Paul Weller headlining.
KingsmeadowLive gig which wasn’t help here but held at New Wimbledon Theatre at the end of last year was Mumford & Sons which was a bit of a coup. Marcus [Mumford] is a big AFC Wimbledon fan so they agreed to do the gig for us to help raise money for the club; it was sold out in minutes.
What gave AFC Wimbledon the idea of putting on gigs as a way to raise money?
We have a great venue that lends itself to gigs, a great PA and a capacity of 300; it was a no-brainer to use it to raise money. See some great bands and earn the club some money at the same time? Perfect.
Do you think it’s more difficult for smaller clubs to survive nowadays and how proud of you of what AFC Wimbledon have achieved?
I don’t think it will ever happen again, from trials on the common to the Football League in nine years. I don’t think it’s hard for small clubs to survive these days, I think it’s the middle sized clubs that struggle most, especially ones where the fans are dwindling. AFC Wimbledon is owned by the fans and they have the ultimate say in what happens at the club and every penny AFC Wimbledon make, from fundraising - likeKingsmeadowLive - merchandise, gate receipts, all goes back into the club to help the manager buy players, upgrade the stadium and keep AFC Wimbledon in the black. The AFC Wimbledon story is utterly amazing and what’s even more exciting, is that the story is only half finished. First half, get  back into the Football League. Second half, get back home to the Borough of Merton.
Will you be at Kingsmeadow Stadium for the Bristol Rovers game on 6th August and what are your predictions for AFC Wimbledon in the 2011-2 season?
I wouldn’t miss that game for the world! We are going to have a full house here, it’s live on Sky Sports and the world will be watching. I think we will do alright this season.  Along with most of the team from last season, we’ve made some good signings during the summer and we’ve got some youngsters coming through the youth system, so I’d like to say we will be fighting for a play-off place come the end of the season. That said, I’d be happy with a consolidating year, mid-table, and then automatic promotion next season. [Manager] Terry Brown has steered us to these heights and we all trust him to take us even higher. They say history never repeats; I’m not so sure.
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