Category Archives: Supporter Ownership

The romance of the FA Cup is not only dead, it’s long gone.

AFC Wimbledon and a small club from the seven tier of English football apart, there was little intrigue in many of the third round FA Cup matches. ‘Giantkiller’ headlines are long gone from the competition, as the Premier League’s continued evolution moves its clubs beyond the reach of even those just trailing behind.

Photograph: Wembley, Author’s Own

Sure, there is still the odd minor upset from time to time – but the finances of today’s game in the United Kingdom mean many of the top tier clubs can play a mixture of regulars, youths and those in need of getting 90 minutes under their belt, and still record a relatively easy win over whatever lower division side throws at them.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of passion, excitement and entertainment on display. Dover Athletic’s fixture against Crystal Palace afforded us the opportunity to reflect on just how far the London side has come recently. They won their match comfortably in the end – the hosts’ tired legs succumbing just enough to make the vital difference after a huge effort in the opening half. The fixture might not have been settled definitely until the hour mark; the result, however, never seemed in doubt.

We then switched our attentions to Manchester City, who hilariously fell behind at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The latter are a decent side and were always going to be tricky opponents that needed to be felled with care and precision. However, City piled forward in waves after going behind and once James Milner equalised, there was an immediate fear that a winner would duly follow.

Wednesday ran themselves ragged holding on and could genuinely feel hard done by when Milner’s second hit the back of the net in added time but there was such a feeling of inevitability about it that the commentary team on the day barely acknowledged their ‘brave’ efforts before sending them packing back to the Championship. City, in contrast, were ‘relieved’ to be through to the next round and simply glad of no significant headline coming from the Etihad Stadium.

On then to neighbours United, who made the trip to Yeovil. The tie – the viewers were reminded on numerous occasions – meant a huge deal financially to the home side, who had even commissioned a once-off jersey to commemorate the occasion. Social Media did question this specific idea; however, as anyone involved with a League of Ireland club knows, you have to make hay while the sun shines and, at least in terms of football, that’s a big Premier League team coming to town.

Yeovil’s efforts on the pitch were incredible. They made United look distinctly average in the first half – and it was this encounter, more than any other over the five days, that stood out as an example of what the FA Cup third round really means for football’s minnows today.

To beat a team well ahead of your league ranking, you need to have the perfect day and hope your opponents are not only off form and missing a few of their big talents, but that they’re also thrown further off course by playing against unknown faces, sometimes at a new ground and surrounded by a wall of hostile banter.

Manager and players alike have to get their tactics and approach absolutely spot on. In a game where the smallest of mistakes can result in disaster, the lower division sides just don’t have the physical fitness, skills and players to mix it with the biggest of the Premier League sides any longer. They cannot rely on boggy pitches to slow their opponents down or engage in an arm wrestle to ensure victory. TV money has not only moved football’s biggest names in another realm, it has also moved Premier League clubs into another stratosphere of competition.

The saving grace was, of course, the respective performances of Blyth Spartans, who were 2-0 up against Birmingham City before losing 3-2, and that of fan-owned AFC Wimbledon.

For the latter, despite being defeated by the one and only Steven Gerrard, Monday night’s game showed what being in the 3rd round of the competition still does provide smaller outfits: huge spotlight, the opportunity to showcase your football club to your own local population that are drawn in by a big name draw, as well as an opportunity to tell the world exactly what you stand for – benefits that are not too dissimilar from a League of Ireland club competing in Europe…

In the Dons’ case, the club backed the ‘Justice for the 96’ campaign and refused to move the fixture from their home ground though it could have meant a bigger financial windfall. To put the latter into context, one of Rochdale’s backroom staff described the TV income from their third round game (circa. £25,000) as being ‘huge money’ for his club.

On the night itself we were treated to anecdotes about the AFC Wimbledon players. ‘Great run from Sean Riggs, who wants to be a tattoo artist I believe’, while Adam Barrett was the man that missed the third round draw because he was wrapping Christmas presents. This is a football club, remember, whose founding trust was told starting again and forming AFC Wimbledon was “not in the wider interests of football”.

Yes, commentators, pundits and supporters alike all profess a love for the ‘beauty’ and fairytale stories of the FA Cup year in year out. Yet weakened line ups and its timing directly after the intensely busy Christmas fixture list suggest that the big players are just happy we can settle down to the real business of vying for silverware now that the heart-warming and ‘back-to-grassroots-football’ third round ties are out of the way.

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Two cities, two clubs – but only one Alan Bennett…

A piece I worked on with AFC Wimbledon captain Alan Bennett earlier this year about his time at Cork City FC and the Dons, amongst other things…

Two cities, two clubs – but only one Alan Bennett…

Founded in 2002, AFC Wimbledon is a well-known name to anyone interested in the issue of Fan Ownership in football. The Dons hold the distinction of being promoted five times in nine seasons and will ply their trade once again in League Two – thanks in no small way to former Cork City FC centre half Alan Bennett.

A central element of CCFC’s League-winning squad in 2005, 31-year-old Bennett is captain of AFC Wimbledon for the new term, and took some time out to catch up with City Edition.

“When asked about my CCFC days, I always wonder should I start with following the team of ‘93 from a grassy bank at Turner’s Cross, watching Derek Coughlan’s header in Dalymount Park or going to reserve games in Ballinhassig?

“For me personally it started with a youths game in which my local club, Richmond, played against Cork City youths. I was asked to come in after that, and what followed was a great year as our group won the league, national cup and some additional silverware under Paul Bowdren and Stuart Ashton.

“My senior debut came in the Intertoto Cup against FK Liepajas Metalurgs. I brought my boots ‘just in case’ so coming on as second half sub was incredible. There was a header at the back post that I might have scored and for the away game in Latvia, I played in midfield due to my energy and running ability.

“The club was moving forward into a professional era at that stage. The collapse of the ITV deal meant younger players were being released and coming home from the UK. It meant no more smoking on the bus, no more gravy at pre-match meals, a slight increase in money and full-time training for some.

“I learned to work hard in every training session under Murp (Liam Murphy) and that graft also gets you a long way. Pat Dolan took over in 2003 – and love him or loath him, he was brilliant entertainment. Training was never dull and we made strides in Europe with trips to Malmo, Nijmegen, Nantes, Limassol, and Belgrade. The home games for those fixtures were magic: the energy in Turner’s Cross was incredible and the passion of people immense.

“Pre-season 2005, and Pat was replaced by Damien Richardson. The next season was steadier and with the groundwork in place, we went on to win the league and should have claimed the double. The final game will always be a beautiful memory for me. My grandfather – in his elder years – tore onto the pitch at the final whistle with family, friends and loved ones. Celebrations in the Shed End, fans and players in it together – only people there that night understand how special it was.”

So, the move to Reading?

“In December 2006 Damien asked me to his house in Bishopstown. I sat in his back garden – he talked, and I got a dictionary out. In hindsight he was telling me to prepare for a move to the UK, though at the time I thought he was sharing the secret of life!

“The move itself was done during the last days of the window. Damien called me to his house and I took his dogs for a walk. I left them off the leash and while one stared at me, the other shot off into the fields. Damien wandered out to find me missing a dog, and 15 minutes of whistling later, the suspense ended and I was told that I had been sold to Reading FC.

“We played Man United in my first game that summer. I also got called into the Irish squad and played during a tour of the US. A difficult loan move to Southampton followed, before another loan move to Brentford FC – where I won a league winners medal. I was also promoted with Wycombe and later reached a play-off final with Cheltenham.”

Next stop, AFC Wimbledon and the captain’s armband…

“In January of last season, having captained Cheltenham to the play-off final, I got a call from Neal Ardley (the Wimbledon manager). I wanted to return to London as that’s where I’m based and although it was going to be a massive challenge to get a team in the bottom two out of the relegation zone in half a season, it was an offer that suited me perfectly.

“The history of the club is everywhere and the passion of the people who run it and follow it became evident during the final run in when we were desperate for results. Fans openly voiced their concerns after some bad results, but the support for the club is incredible for a League Two team with average gates of between 4,000-5,000.

“For me, Fan Ownership is an effective way to maintain common sense at a football club, within an industry that lacks common sense. It’s democratic and supporters get to make decisions with regard to all aspects of the club; the only issue being that it’s a lot to ask fans to contribute to the budget and to pay to support the team as well.

“There are obvious similarities between Cork City and AFC Wimbledon. They are fan owned, both are former glories ripped apart by greed, both are being rebuilt by the people for the people, and with past players now managing the clubs, both are now looking optimistically towards the future.

“The season ahead will be AFC (A Fans’ Club!) Wimbledon’s third in the Football League. We, as a group of players, have a duty to preserve and move this club forward and that’s the plan for the season. There are a few rebel Wombles in the crowd and I do recognise the odd ‘Come On Benno Boy’ in the unmistakeable Cork accent. Of course, a few more are always welcome when the league of Ireland wraps up!

– Benno

Interesting times in Belgium

I was delighted to travel to Antwerp in Belgium last weekend, having been asked to speak at a football governance conference in the city (more details here). The progress made in the League of Ireland, in terms of supporter involvement in the game, means that we are actually ahead of our European colleagues in many instances.

Belgium, like Ireland and every other country involved in the Improving Governance Project, has its problems but unless supporters are prepared to organise and try and make a meaningful contribution to solving issues, we may never see real changes happening – at least at grassroots level.

What is becoming more and more obvious as this project moves towards its conclusion (June 2013) is that League of Ireland clubs and supporters groups are not alone. We have many things in common with various entities around our own league and across Europe, and it’s time for us to begin working together.

I hope to get some more thoughts together over the coming days… but, first, a handbook to finish editing.

In the meantime, some pictures of Antwerp (taken with an iPhone 5 rather than my Canon) and a link to a radio piece on Fan Ownership on Newstalk that I was asked to contribute to!

Snow in Antwerp
Snow in Antwerp
The shopping area in Antwerp
The shopping area in Antwerp
Antwerp cathedral
Antwerp cathedral
A close up of the cathedral
A close up of the cathedral
Statue in Antwerp's town hall square
Statue in Antwerp’s town hall square
You can go anywhere in the world...
You can go anywhere in the world…
Antwerp train station
Antwerp train station
Another shot of Antwerp's train station
Another shot of Antwerp’s train station