Should Celtic and Rangers be forced to follow AFC Wimbledon's path?
Despite years of rebuttal, Rangers and Celtic continue to make eyes at the Football League. But can a parallel be drawn with a certain club in south London? Matt Thompson ruminates.
It took a week shy of nine years for AFC Wimbledon to officially daub out the legacy with which Raj Parker and Steve Stride stained their club. Of course, a special mention must go to the FA for its role in diminishing both its own reputation and that of the game for allowing such an important and, crucially, footballing matter to be decided by an independent commission. A commission that, at a vote of two to one, elected to duly uproot what they saw as nothing more than the sum of assets, and replant it; time has since shown that all that ever moved to Milton Keynes was a league position and a squad.
The summer after their inaugural season, the Dons faithful were revelling in a third-place finish, the sting of not being promoted at the first attempt no doubt numbed by the impressive 11-game winning streak that concluded their season, as well as heady thoughts of the future. Around the same time, the Scottish Premier League’s chief executive, Roger Mitchell, went all Gloria Gaynor and told the Old Firm they weren’t welcome anymore. This prompted the Ugly Sisters to immediately start making eyes at those in charge of the Football League. They, vision impaired by collapse-of-ITV-Digital-goggles, sensed a financial lifeline and held the equivalent of “would we regret it in the morning?” talks; condemning us all to another tedious summer of speculation about the arrival of Glasgow’s finest.
With each passing season, AFCW progressed, not always through the leagues but always true to their mantra. They stagnated between 2005 and 2007 but in doing so found Terry Brown, the man who would eventually lead them to League Two. They also stayed true to the club’s democratic culture in resisting Darragh MacAnthony’s fortunes – he and his ‘fun’ went off to Peterborough and AFCW continued to climb. And with each passing season, too, the Old Firm and English leagues flirted with one another, generally peaking around Christmas and May when the two clubs had accelerated enough away from the pack to make the league redundant and when one or the other had the title wrapped up, respectively.
With AFCW’s meteoric rise, we have also seen the irrefutable decline of the SPL and the Bhoys and ‘Gers with it. The television deals that so emphatically bank-roll its neighbour to the south are far from replicated. Rangers and Celtic are now slowly sinking in the ship they scuttled when electing to take the lion’s share of the TV revenue; so ended plausible competition; so ended wider interest beyond Old Firm derby day.
The decades-old notion that somehow Rangers and Celtic are entitled to a place in the English Premier League has become all the more laughable, but that in no way means that they therefore instead deserve to be transplanted into the Football League. Besides, existing regulations would require all 72 league teams to agree to such a move. While there may be a sense of entitlement in Glasgow, you’d be hard-pushed to find many teams at the top end of the Championship who’d consider their claim to compete in the top division is any less than that of Rangers or Celtic. So, in the knowledge they can’t start at the top, perhaps now they’ll look to the bottom and attempt to emulate the team born from the ashes of a club Celtic purportedly attempted to buy in 1997? Perhaps now Wimbledon can provide both Celtic and Rangers with another route in?
Is it plausible? Of course it is. AFCW have shown, along with Aldershot and Accrington before them and Chester and FC United following their path, that it is possible to take a team from non-league to the professional leagues just so long as you have the right combination of engaged, passionate individuals and more money than anyone else. The Dons’ Chief Executive, Erik Samuelson, said of the team’s inaugural season that the reason they didn’t achieve promotion was because two other teams outspent them; come the following season he “made sure” they won the league.
AFCW entered the pyramid at the ninth tier, five promotions away from the Football League. Their story is not unique because of what they achieved, but how quickly they achieved it. It would not be too great a stretch of the imagination to see Celtic and Rangers, with their access to resource both in quality of player and money, eclipse the achievements of AFCW, if allowed.
They may not even have to go to quite the same extents. FC United board member Jules Spencer revealed that with their admission to non-league football, they were told by the FA they had to start as low down the pyramid as was practically feasible; as such, they were buoyed up at least one league by the fact that they attracted fans in the low thousands, removing any possibility of them playing in a league that didn’t finance security – you would expect a Rangers or Celtic team to command even greater interest.
The issue with it is in the logistics – putting aside the fact that Rangers don’t have two pound coins to rub together at the moment – UEFA and the FA are very touchy on the subject of leagues extending beyond their national borders; this season, French top-flight new-comers Evian Thonon Gaillard were scuppered in their attempts to play home games at the Stade de la Praille in Geneva, just 35 kilometers away from their home. And with the recent jitteriness of the home-nations as a result of Team GB, any inclusion beyond England and Wales may be considered to count further against them when FIFA inevitably tries to wrestle away their disproportionate power. It is unlikely that Gretna (dec.) having played south of the border until 2002 will prove a very compelling argument either.
The simple fact is that Rangers and Celtic’s interest in joining the more profitable English Leagues will not abate. In fact, you can expect it to step up, perhaps even to the point where the AFCW model is a plausible consideration. The Old Firm have contributed as much to the SPL’s downfall as they have to its legacy – it is all related to rampant self-interest that forced the short-sighted SFA to accept a duopoly which has damaged the competition beyond all repair, so long as they remain a part of it.
The Old Firm has been left with a dire situation for both teams who must now surely be looking at England with even more urgency – the Promised Land: a stage worthy of their billing. They are teams with history and European pedigree; they point to Spurs, Villa, Sunderland and their millions, and assume it is regrettable that they do not have the chance to be richer than they are. The heart bleeds.
But perhaps it is the FA who should be taking notice should the Gruesome Twosome get ever more fretful about them not returning their calls. After all, it was the same rampant self-interest that gave birth to the Premier League in the first place. The redundancy of domestic competitions is endemic and we may find UEFA’s stance softening should Real Madrid or Barcelona get any more restless.
While the Premier League may have remained more competitive than others, the hoarding of the billions it generates is creating a greater divide. It is estimated to cost a club £30million in lost revenue if it is relegated. The horrific withdrawal symptoms – often amplified by money spent in an attempt to stay up – has seen some teams go in to freefall. The suggestion is that promotion and relegation is the problem, which was rightly met with outcry – but the question remains: how much longer will it be before it all becomes redundant anyway? How many clubs that work their way up the Football League and see those ahead come plummeting back down past them, chewed up and spat out by the Premier League, will not instead attempt to model themselves more on West Brom, the perennial yo-yoers, with a business model built around the expectation of relegation? Eventually, might clubs even prefer to remain in the Championship rather than gain promotion?
The pyramid analogy is apt: the bottom is more important than the top and the elite clubs of the Premier League need those underneath far more than they’re needed. If the top clubs want to benefit from the context of a consistently competitive league system, then they’ll need to accept that the revenue should be shared, proportionally, between all 92 clubs.
Of course, the problem is that most Premier League sides are barely sustainable now; rescinding any money may just about kill them off, so perhaps the “European Super League” is looking more likely – a decision that will most likely be made by television networks rather than any governing body – because, as the Old Firm and the SPL will probably find out, it is always easier to remove the top of the pyramid than the bottom.