Barbarians At The Gate – K’s Go To Kingston Council

In a (long overdue) first for this blog, some writing from someone else. Taimour Lay went to see what Kingston Council think about our future last Tuesday…and I’ve only just got around to posting it on here. Apologies to Taimour. Hopefully Kingston Council will be more proactive than me…

 

In the wood-pannelled mock-antique finery of the Guildhall council chamber, as solemn prayers are read and the Mayor enters to reverent silence, it’s easy to forget that K’s were born a good 50 years before this building even went up in 1935. Kingston’s heritage is as much about communities, continuity and collective memory as it is bricks and mortar and “invented tradition” – but more on that later.

We were here on a wet Tuesday night for a little slice of local democracy [which mostly appears to involve Tory and Lib Dem councillors casting pantomime looks at each other]. A petition calling for the protection of Kingstonian’s status as the town’s senior football team had gathered 600 signatures since October, granting us the right to present it to the full Council on 15 December.

The timing turned out to be propitious – just last week AFC Wimbledon got the go-ahead from Merton Council for New Plough Lane, meaning the sale of Kingsmeadow to Chelsea will be completed soon, with K’s homeless by the end of the 2016/17 season. If ever there was a time to shout “K’s matter!”, this was it.

There was a good turnout from fans – around a dozen in the public seats, most in K’s shirts, including former chairman Jimmy Cochrane [who bought the club from Khosla in 2005], current co-chairman John Fenwick, Colin Deadman, Yioryos and Tina, Ali Kazemi, Simon Grier, Paul Foley and a few others whose names I still don’t know despite 15 years of terrace promixity [knowing but also sort-of-not-knowing other K’s fans is one of our strange community’s virtues].

Part-time Villa fan Jamie Cutteridge duly stepped up to a teak table and microphone and used his allotted 5 minutes to say a number of things, including:

…. There’s this indelible connection between a football club and its place. Back in the good old days, when football was football, the club was an expression of the community, a place where fans came together to be part of something bigger, something that reflected their home. When you go to the Chelsea you’re a consumer, at Ks you’re an integral part of a voluntary enterprise. You win together, you lose together. It’s a glorious mess. It’s church. It’s family. It’s home. It’s K’s. It’s Kingston. 

And now, that home, quite literally is under threat. The recent approval of AFC’s move to Plough Lane coupled with their decision to sell Kingsmeadow to Chelsea and the Premier League club’s apparent desire to be sole users, will leave Kingstonian homeless. This leaves both practical implications – where on earth do we play? – and emotional implications – it’s our home, our fans were involved in building it. Many fans are left confused by the apparent lack of covenant or agreement over the use for the ground – the youth team from a West London Premier League side doesn’t seem to fulfil the suggested remit of the borough’s senior team. To what extent there was, or wasn’t, a strict covenant is debatable and may be academic now, but clearly there was some agreement on the use of that land, some protection for the borough’s senior football team, a protection which your predecessor council in the 1980s saw fit to put in place. But with no apparent agreement to protect us, and those decisions made, it looks like, either for the short, or the long term, that future, those fans, those connections to Kingston, will lie outside of the town.

We understand that the club and council have been in conversation about possibilities and we realise, that in Kingston, facing the brunt of the South East’s housing crisis, that there are no easy solutions. But Kingstonian matters. These names on this petition matter. It matters when you get asked the score on a Saturday night when you’re walking down Kingston high street in those famous red and white hoops. The shirts in this building matter. And as much as a last minute winner against Lewes might feel like it matters, what matters more than anything is Ks continued existence, and its survival at the heart of our town. 

But the 600 names I have with me ask one thing – Keep Ks in Kingston. Not just in Kingston Borough. For many Ks fans, the idea of just keeping Ks in the borough would be a pyrrhic victory. It’s better than nothing but it takes the club away from its roots, because Kingstonian, its glorious history and idiosyncratic name, represent Kingston. They represent the market square, the River Thames, the bridge, Tiffin school, the pedestrianisation of the town centre, Banquet Records, the university and this very council. They’re not the Borough’s club, they’re Kingston’s club. 

The reality is this: two deals have dramatically altered Ks future– Rajesh Khosla’s sale of the lease to AFC, and AFC’s sale of that to Chelsea. Despite any donation from AFC, generous or otherwise, we ourselves can’t keep K’s in Kingston. Be it a deal with a developer or intervention from this council, the future of this town’s club no longer lies in its own hands. There is a real danger of drift, of years of uncertainty and homelessness draining the life out of the club. 

Last week the whole country celebrated the return of AFC Wimbledon to Merton, and a local council prepared to stick its neck out and bring them home. Will you do the same? The decisions made over the next few months and years, by you, our elected councillors, are going to define the next 100 years of Kingstonian. It’s not the 300 fans that will watch us play East Thurrock this Saturday that are counting on you. It’s generations of Kingston children, decades of wandering souls who end up behind the goals and find a home there. It’s those that have gone before, all the way back to 1885, those there now and those yet to come. This is Kingston’s team. This is Kingstonian. Keep Ks in Kingston. Thank you.”

Cue woops and applause [mainly from me] and then a series of short responses from the councillors [a full debate will follow next year]. Councillor Tolley declared his interest as a K’s fan and sponsor but disappointingly failed to tear off his lumberjack shirt to reveal the red and white hoops beneath. Tolley said that K’s remain an integral part of the town’s community and heritage. Losing the club would, to some, be akin to losing All Saints Church.

Then Tory Council leader Kevin Davis made his curious contribution. I know we’re meant to be building bridges/making friends/suspending disbelief but the tone he struck was somewhere between withering dismissal and wind-up. It was certainly a surprise that he chose to use this occasion to say “we’ve been here before. It feels like every few years, we’re asked to rescue K’s” – prompting us to ponder when exactly Kingston’s Tories have previously roused themselves to ensure our survival. He also said “I know we all want to see K’s in the Premier League but let’s be realistic”, seemingly unaware of our limited top-8 Ryman ambitions.

Davis was, at least, honest about the challenges and the limited role of the Council. Merton had it “easy”, he said – all that council had to do was grant the planning permission, the site-work had been done and the momentum came from elsewhere. The “two issues” for K’s are finding a “major development site of at least 5 acres” [and “there aren’t [m]any in the town, whether private or council owned”] and finance [“I’m not privy to the sums K’s are receiving but I gather they’re more than generous”].

Intriguingly, he added as an aside that the Chelsea Chairman “had come to see me” but there hadn’t yet been any substantive discussions over K’s future. He also revealed that “the K’s directors [sic] are meeting another developer tomorrow” for exploratory talks.

Other councillors made positive, if vague, noises. Liberal Democrat Rachel Reid, who’s been known to come to K’s, and whose ward is in Chessington where the rumour-mill suggests a new mixed housing development may be in the offing, offered her support. Tory councillor Geoff Austin, a K’s patron, spoke while wearing a club tie. Diane White, speaking after the meeting, said she’d be with us on Boxing Day for the Dulwich game.

Another councillor asked that “politics be left out of this” but the sizeable elephant in the council chamber remains that any site, if it is found, will bring issues of housing, affordability, community value and infrastructure to the fore – the very things on which this council is likely to disagree.

After half-an-hour, that was that and the meeting moved on to arguments over “high-rise” towers, during which one Tory councillor bemoaned “ugly” modern developments in the town, though she failed to single out the Noodle Stand by name.

See here for the Comet’s coverage, in which Davis accused Councillor Tolley of being a “barbarian” for making the [entirely sensible] comparison between K’s and Kingston’s heritage: http://www.surreycomet.co.uk/news/14149106.Kingston_Council_leader_calls_opposition_councillor_a__barbarian__over_Kingstonian_debate/

There’ll be a full debate next year. Please come. The more barbarians at the gate, the better…

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