Tag Archives: AFC Wimbledon

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

Supporters are the Heart of the Game

What a couple of weeks. I had the great privilege of doing two really worthwhile things this month. On November 7th, I represented FORAS, Cork City FC, the EC Project I’m involved in and Irish football (in general) at a Supporters Direct Europe event at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Three days later (November 10th), I had the opportunity to open the Heart of the Game conference hosted in Cork for people involved in supporters-run clubs and trusts in Ireland. Both were incredible events and I was delighted to be in any way involved.

I come from an active family. By that I mean that I have had some great role models in my life. One of my grandfathers was a driving force behind our local GAA club (Whites Cross) for decades, the other lived most of his life on Derrynane Road – just a stone’s throw my Turner’s Cross, (one of) my spiritual homes. The former was a community man, an advocate for anything that kept people involved; the other someone who believed that you have to be prepared to stand up for what is right and fair.

The women in both of their lives were equally important to me. My grandmother was a woman that worked hard for everything in her life. Nothing came easy, but that was never an excuse. My Nan was an inspiration – a woman before her time, who believed that life was about chasing your dream. In chasing your dream, you live. She asked me one Christmas what I would do in life if I could do anything. I honestly told her that I would like to run a football club…

Becoming involved in FORAS and in Cork City in more recent years has brought me into the company of some incredible people – not only within Supporters Direct but in clubs and trusts across Ireland, the UK and Europe. The biggest thing I’ve learned? That Irish football is not alone. No national league is without its issues, no football association gets it right the entire time.

In putting together the speakers list for the Heart of the Game conference, I wanted anyone that attended to hear the sort of inspirational stories that have convinced me that supporters are integral to the very future of our game. Cork City FC have never had more ambitious owners that the 650 shareholders behind the club today. We want success off and on the field. Our priorities and objectives are many, and large in size – and sometimes in anxiety to get the small stuff perfect, we forget about the far bigger picture.

Results from an online supporters survey – with over 1,500 participants – were unveiled at the conference. Many headlines subsequently focused on the following Word Cloud, where fans were asked to select two words that described the running of football in Ireland. I don’t thing Irish football is corrupt, I don’t think many Irish football supporters think it is but there is a huge level of frustration out there and that, for me, is one of the main things that these survey results speak to.

My fellow Board member at Cork City, John Kennedy, and Phil Frampton of FC United of Manchester spoke passionately and in depth about the potential that football-related community projects have. These initiatives give something back to the communities that produce both our players and supporters but there are significant and unquantifiable benefits to a club for the effort they put in over many, many years.

A session on governance followed with speakers from Cork City and UCC in Sean O’Conaill, AFC Wimbledon in Kris Stewart and a representative from Swedish football in Lena Gustafson Wiberg. All spoke powerfully – and on the back of personal experience – about the types of challenges that football faces and the importance of always doing things right.

Chaired by Emmet Malone of the Irish Times, a panel that included ex-League of Ireland manager Damien Richardson, CCFC boss Tommy Dunne, journalist Alan Smith and David Toms from the School of History in UCC gave a great insight into the growing quality of players within the League and why, at last, the national squad is seeing one former-LOI star after another claiming a senior cap. Riccardo Bertolin, from MyRoma Supporters Trust, also spoke about the experiences of trusts in Italy and the particular challenges being faced there right now.

Phil Frampton, Kris Stewart and Kevin Rye (SD) led an honest and insightful discussion on Fan Activism and the difference it can make the following morning. Another great panel followed with Tim Murphy (Cork City), Stephen Ryan (Fota Wildlife Park), Siobhan Meehan (PR consultant) and John O’Brien (Sunday Independent), all of whom spoke in great detail about what clubs and trusts need to consider in trying to improve the Match Night experience and marketing of their own activities.

It’s all about the story you tell and how you tell it you see, and LOI clubs can no longer expect sports fans, journalists and the general public to go to these games without working hard to improve the product on offer first. Facilities, in particular, came up time and time again.

The conference culminating with an overview of Uefa’s SLO project. This session featured Stuart Dykes (SD) and Lena, the SLO at Djurgardens – and by the end no one in the room could have failed to see the potential of the role.

There is great potential in empowering football supporters to make a difference – first within their own organisation or trust and then extending that into their own football club and eventually their national league.

There is also nothing to be feared by empowering supporters. Yes, we are fans but we are also professionals with skills, expertise and knowledge to bring to the table. We want a club to support in decades from now and we can contribute to moving the game onto a more stable footing – particularly in here in Ireland.

I’ll finish up with some words from President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, who as a Galway United fan, was kind enough to send a message of support to everyone involved.

“As a strong supporters of the League of Ireland over the years, I am very encouraged to see football supporters coming together like this for the first time to develop ways of addressing the long-term challenges facing football in Ireland.

“I trust that your discussion at the Conference will be fruitful and will help to achieve the common goals of strengthening the long-term sustainability of our domestic game.”

Download: Message from President.

The League of Ireland is gaining friends in high places – it’s time we start utilising them!