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Sunday 06 May 2012
A decade of changes at AFC Wimbledon: the Dons Trust

In the fourth of a series of features celebrating a decade of AFC Wimbledon and what has changed in that time, we spoke to the Dons Trust members who helped shape the club.

Kris Stewart was the founding chairman of AFC Wimbledon and he is perfectly placed to offer an insight into how things have changed since the early years. Stewart stepped down as chairman in 2006, but he retains membership in the Dons Trust and is still passionate about the club, as anyone at Wednesday night’s SGM will testify. Tom Adam, who has also been involved with the club since it started, was a pivotal force in driving through our purchase of Kingsmeadow in 2003 and he still serves on the Dons Trust Board.

Stewart says that a major change revolves around the scale of the decisions that have had to be made by the Dons Trust since our formation. While he accepts that big decisions have to be made now as a Football League club, the very existence of AFC Wimbledon depended on buying the stadium nine years ago.

“What is different about the Dons Trust Board? I would have to say that it is less manic now. We had nothing 10 years ago and we had to create our own club. It was not as organised and it was more like hand to mouth in terms of looking after ourselves. Matters on the Dons Trust Board are not life and death now.

“It did not take long for us as a Trust to decide what a great opportunity it was to buy Kingsmeadow. Clubs that do not own stadiums end up in a mess. It would have been bad to be looking around London and Surrey for a ground every two years. I do not know where the club would be now if we had not bought the ground, but it was a huge amount of money for us to buy it. It also involved a major step-up in responsibilities for people at the club and we had to assess if people were capable of running a ground. Then we had to ask if we had people ready for all the hard work and the fans had to be willing to put their hands in their pockets. People had to understand the commitment they were making because it was not Erik Samuelson’s name or my name on the documents, it was AFC Wimbledon’s.

“I think in the Football League, it is more the day- to-day stuff at the club that has seen the major change with more registration forms and documents having to be completed. For the Dons Trust Board, I think it is more a case of having to take a breather when we look at certain things. For example, looking at how much we spend on players and can we afford it? That is certainly different from our days in the Combined Counties League. The Trust meetings now are more mature as we have good members who attend small meetings compared to the massive meetings when we were trying to buy this place.”

Of course, owning your own stadium means that the Dons Trust Board has the comfort, flexibility and security to pick suitable times to make crucial decisions at their meetings. But it wasn’t always like that as Stewart recalled having to scramble around looking for venues in Merton. The exception was when a Dons Trust meeting was held in the House of Lords due to Lord Faulkner of Worcester and his brief membership at AFC Wimbledon.

“Richard chaired the meeting of the Dons Trust when I sold the club,” he added. “I started it by selling my two £1 shares to the club, one to Ivor Heller and one to myself. That was how the club became legally binding. There were massive folders everywhere and lawyers going through the documents. We used to stage meetings in the Phoenix Hotel in Wimbledon, sometimes in the bar and also in the function room downstairs. They did their best and the Phoenix is an institution for Wimbledon as a club, but it was not ideal. We also had meetings in the Fountain pub in New Malden. I can remember a big dog and not being able to find the lights. It is helpful now to have somewhere regular to go that is hassle free.”

AFC Wimbledon’s growth as a fans-owned club was tested in 2006 when Irish businessman Darragh MacAnthony made an approach to buy the Dons, before he became Peterborough chairman. Accepting any potential bid would have gone against the Aims that had been agreed by members only a year or two earlier, according to Dons Trust Board member Tom Adam. But Adam, who played a key role in our purchase of Kingsmeadow, says we were also in a better position to turn down his interest because the Dons Trust had become more business-orientated and had learned to stand on its own two feet.

“It was not a hard decision to say ‘no’ because we had managed to raise over £1 million ourselves when we bought the stadium,” he said. “The whole objective of the Dons Trust was that we wanted to create a club that made us all the owners. I always say to people that we have followed the Barcelona model, though I know it is big leap from us to them. We do not have one single person owning the club who can dictate matters. We looked at his offer and considered it carefully, but we had worked too hard to give up what we had and experience told us that just because someone wants to come in with £2 million, it does not mean they are in it for the long haul. Things have changed quite dramatically with the Dons Trust Board becoming much more business-orientated.”

Adam says the foundations for our growth came with the purchase of Kingsmeadow and it also formed the basis of our move towards professionalism.

“When we started we were an active and motivated group of people who were trying to get things moving, but during the past 10 years there has been a change in approach,” he added. “We have had to change to be able to move through the leagues. There have been two or three people who have helped to shape us into running a business.

“An important step was when we bought the stadium. It was a proper share issue and the prospectus was properly and professionally presented. We raised £1.1 million from the flotation and that was brilliant and it showed how much it all meant to the fans. It meant that we could pay for a lot off for the stadium, which was then worth £2.4 million, and that was significant for the club.

“A lot of people worked hard on that and it has all come together over the 10 years. This has all helped the club to grow. I chaired the Dons Trust Board for three years and one of things that I got going was that the club had nine objectives. The most important ones were making sure that the club was safe from an outside buyer and looking to return to Merton. But the next one was that we would get to the Football League in 10 years and it is great to say that we achieved that early.

“I guess when we were having meetings at the Fountain pub, our expectations were lower. When you are running a club the size that we are now, you have to be more professional that meeting in a room in a pub. Purchasing the stadium put us on a more professional footing and was a big part of us moving forward.”