It seems only yesterday that I last wrote about the possible sale of Kingsmeadow, but events are now picking up pace. AFC Wimbledon fans have voted overwhelmingly (apparently by 98% to 2% – and we must thank those brave 2%) to sell Kingsmeadow, the ground built for and by Kingstonian, to Chelsea FC.
Most of the media reports have contained a paragraph, usually at the end, referring to what will happen to Kingstonian as a result of the sale. (On the face of it, this is an improvement on the situation up to now, when Kingstonian have seldom been mentioned when Kingsmeadow has been discussed.) These articles universally make a comment along the lines of, “Kingstonian will use the money from AFC Wimbledon to move to a smaller, more manageable ground within the borough of Kingston”. Leaving aside that it is heavily implied in all the articles that the money from AFCW is a highly generous donation – when of course it is only partly that and partly a commercial settlement – this leaves the casual follower of this whole episode with the strong impression that Kingstonian FC wants to leave Kingsmeadow.
So let’s make something clear: I do not know a single Kingstonian fan, official or board member who actually wants to leave Kingsmeadow.
Let’s break that down into the usual questions that follow such a statement:
Why did you sell the ground in the first place? “We” didn’t. A brief history: Kingstonian went into administration; a man called Rajesh Khosla bought the club and its assets; he then sold the ground to AFCW and pocketed the money, and then handed over a football club in dire straits to Jimmy Cochrane; Jimmy saved the club from bankruptcy, then sold on to (effectively) the current co-chairmen, who saved the club again and put it on an even keel.
Why don’t you buy it back then? This one’s obvious: there is no way a club like Kingstonian can get its hands on £3 million (or whatever the price is).
Didn’t your board say the ground was too big for you? Yes, they did, and I have no idea why they said that. It isn’t – and it was a stupid thing to say from a PR point of view anyway because it makes it sounds like we’d rather move out than stay. Bulldoze the blue monstrosity at the Kingston Road End (something that I’m sure any K’s fan would donate money towards) and you’d have a perfect non-league football ground.
But if Chelsea are going to own Kingsmeadow, wouldn’t moving to a new ground in Kingston that you owned be better for you anyway? Fair point – yes it would. Firstly it would mean we’d have long-term security; secondly we’d be a much more sustainable club because we’d have control over our own income streams (pitch hire, bar takings etc), which we wouldn’t at a Chelsea-owned ground.
Okay, okay, so why can’t you just stay and groundshare with Chelsea while you explore options for a new stadium? The answer at the moment, as a fan, is that I don’t know. I don’t yet know why we have seemingly committed to leaving Kingsmeadow and spending money groundsharing elsewhere. I presume it’s because Chelsea don’t want us to stay, but at the recent open meeting none of the co-chairmen said that they’d had a proper conversation with Chelsea FC.
Therefore the next step – surely – is for the co-chairmen to speak to Chelsea FC urgently and clarify their intentions. As far as I can see, there are three ways it can go:
a) Chelsea immediately rebuff any sort of approach and won’t even negotiate: If so, what on earth have we got to lose by then waging a hearts-and-minds war with them in the media? There would be no downside (that I can see), and the potential upside of them being shamed into letting us stay for at least a couple of years.
b) Chelsea say they’re not keen, but are open to negotiations: Well let’s negotiate then! If the terms eventually are so negative that we basically can’t stay, then we’d have to leave, but at least we’d have tried.
c) Chelsea actually say they’re open to us staying and working in a partnership, providing we can meet certain criteria: happy days! Surely, surely staying in the town of Kingston is preferable to being nomads moving from groundshare to groundshare. Even if the deal struck was a short-term one (for say, 5 years), wouldn’t this at least buy us time to explore other options for a new ground as they arise?
But whatever happens with groundsharing, be that at Kingsmeadow, or as is currently likely elsewhere, we are still being put in a position where the club will eventually die without a new ground. So what are the chances of that?
To me, the chances look somewhere between slim and none. Land in Kingston is incredibly expensive, and largely unavailable – or earmarked already for housing. The money from AFCW would nowhere near cover a new ground in the town of Kingston, as far as I can calculate. Yes, there are grants that would get us closer – but I just can’t see how a new ground in Kingston is financially viable without more money from somewhere. Apparently the Athletics Ground is not a viable option, but it’s not been explained properly why this is the case, as AFCW’s lump sum would surely allow a massive upgrade of facilities there.
Which brings us to the apparent solution our board are pursuing: build a new ground, but not in Kingston. Reading between the lines of various statements made by our board and the council, it seems as if the site earmarked for a possible new ground in the near future is the current site of Chessington Golf Centre. I actually joked with friends when this whole situation began a year or so ago – and our co-chairmen started very deliberately using the phrase “in the borough of Kingston” as opposed to “in Kingston” when talking about a new ground – that we would end up in Malden Rushett, still technically in the borough but literally as far from the town of Kingston as possible while meeting that requirement. Incredibly depressingly, it looks as if this joke is what may end up being presented to us poor supporters as the future of Kingstonian.
So let me make something else clear: personally, for this Kingstonian FC supporter, a club playing in South Chessington would not be a club that I would actively support. I would still go to the odd game to see my mates (if some of them were still going), but I could not call myself a true supporter of the club, and I would not dig into my pockets like I do currently to try to make it succeed. That’s because I don’t support The Royal Borough of Kingston FC; I support Kingstonian FC, the team that has represented the town of Kingston-upon-Thames with pride (and occasionally glory) for 130 years.
Out of the club’s hardcore support of around 300, this may very well be a unique opinion – although from talking to others at games, I’m almost certain it’s a fairly widespread view – but that really isn’t the point. We’re not saving the long-term future of the club for the 300 people who go on a Saturday in 2015. We’re trying to save the club for future generations of people growing up in Kingston who want to play for their local club as boys and girls, and who want a club to support either every Saturday – or at the very least when a big cup game comes around and the excitement in the town is palpable. The current threat is that Kingston loses its grand old football club: we’ll be homeless, hemorrhaging money away year-on-year in groundshares, and sooner or later go bankrupt. But we’d have ceased to be Kingston’s football club long before we went out of business, because we simply wouldn’t be Kingston’s football club while we were playing elsewhere. Moving to a new ground in South Chessington wouldn’t avoid that catastrophe. Kingston’s football club would still have died; there’d just be a club called Kingstonian playing in a different town.
And I’m sure AFC Wimbledon fans, of all people, can empathise with my view on that.