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Thursday 21 June 2012
A decade of changes: the AFC Wimbledon matchday experience

In the final part of a series of features celebrating 10 years of AFC Wimbledon and the changes seen during that time, we focus on matchday operations.

Since our early days of being tenants at the stadium, the club has evolved dramatically in terms of providing a better service for supporters. In particular, AFC Wimbledon are now more able to meet the demand for merchandise from supporters and provide smoother access at the turnstiles on matchdays.

While AFC Wimbledon started in 2002 with an excellent fan base, the facilities were not in place to meet their needs, most notably for our merchandising team. Tim Hillyer has been involved in that operation almost from the start and he recalled having to sell replica shirts, souvenirs and memorabilia from the stage on the back bar, before opening up the current club shop after we took ownership of the stadium in 2003.

“In the first season, it was not our stadium and we were given a store room in the back bar where we had to keep all the goods,” he said. “Then on match days we would bring all the merchandise out and pile it onto tables on the stage. The demand even back then was phenomenal and we had to do all the sales in the back bar, where people were eating and drinking. Back then, it was a bit chaotic as we had to get down here when the stadium opened at 11am, sell as much as possible, and then clear it all away before kick-off. We were not open after matches and basically we did not have enough time to make as much money for the club as we could. We did have the Wombulance though, a mobile van that we took to away games, thanks to the hospitality of clubs in the Combined Counties League, and that did very well.

"We got the mail order service started quickly, but a lot of our fans expected a slick, professional service from day one. We had a small range of stock and everything came through very intermittently. The mail order was run from an office in Wimbledon with Mags Hutchison taking the orders and then despatching the goods. It was very much a hand-to-mouth existence in the first season or so.

“Everything changed when the club took ownership of the stadium and we were able to open the club shop. It was a fantastic effort from all the volunteers to put a shop together from what was basically a converted garage. We also got people together with a huge amount of experience in retail, who understood how to assemble and market items in the shop. On match days we now have four or five times more customers, but that is because we are able to open for longer hours. We will be down here at 9.00am and will not get away until about 6.00pm. We are able to manage the flow of customers much better.”

Tim says that he has strived to get people on board in the merchandising team who have professional backgrounds in retail and this has helped to promote AFC Wimbledon around the world.

“We needed a little bit more professional organisation and we have got people now who have retail experience,” he added. “We have people who do not do work for us on match days, but who are involved behind the scenes. We do a fair amount of market research by reviewing websites and contacting other clubs to check out prices for goods and carriage. We have to make sure that we get best price because we need to make a profit as it all goes to the club. There has always been an interest in AFC Wimbledon since the start, but we were not always able to deliver. Now though, with help from the office, we are able to ship goods worldwide to about 30 or 40 different countries.”

The smooth running of the turnstiles has helped make the match day experience a lot more comfortable for AFC Wimbledon supporters. As mentioned in one of our previous features, head of security, Phil Clark, now plays a pivotal role in liaising with turnstile operators to control the flow of spectators into sections of the ground. The high amount of season tickets sold now and online pre-sales contrasts markedly with the Combined Counties League days when supporters could be locked out of the ground due to too many turning up at the last minute. During those times, the club sold most of its tickets on the gate – and that made it particularly difficult for volunteers on the turnstiles as they had to manually count all the cash.

Neil Messenbird, the leader of the turnstiles team for the past 10 years, said: “We had very few season ticket holders then and there would be a lot of cash about at that time. We would put all the cash into one big pile and then have to count it all by hand. After a while we got old of some machines to do that thankfully and everything became much more automated. But now, due to pre-sales, there is hardly any cash on site. A big change is that we used to have sheets of A4 paper on which we had all the numbers written down and keeping track of how many people were in the stadium was a manual process and very difficult. However, now we control the flow of supporters better as there are a lot more tickets sold before match days. We now have more accurate figures for those in the ground in terms of announcing the attendance as a Football League club.

"Now that we are a Football League club, we also have the turnstiles open for the whole of the first-half with three paid staff operating the turnstiles. Previously, volunteers manned the turnstiles for maybe a quarter of an hour and then went off to the bar or to watch the match. We had to change it as volunteers were missing half of the match.”

The organisation of match days as a Football League club is far removed from 2002 when supporters had the freedom to walk around the ground with no pre-allocated seats. “In those days, people could walk all around the ground as there was only one type of ticket, plus seats,” Neil added. “In the first few seasons we did not have allocated seating and people would get there early to sit in a certain seat. That led to a few arguments when supporters had got used to sitting in a certain seat and did not want to give it up. We also had a few incidents when we double sold the same seats twice and we had to sort problems like that out.

“Nowadays, if a game is a sell-out, it can mean a lot less work for our team. We have 20 people working for us on a match day, compared to about 13 in Combined Counties League days. Though there is not as much work for everyone in terms of cash handling, there are more responsibilities in terms of managing the flow of people into the turnstiles and accurately accounting for the number of supporters, which we need to do for the Football League. We are still very grateful for the support provided by volunteers and have a wide range of people from different backgrounds, including judges and accountants, who all want to help us out on match days.”

That sums up the success of AFC Wimbledon in that it has been very much a team effort involving a wide range of supporters in building an increasingly sophisticated and professional Football League club.