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By Tony Attwood
The allegation that Arsenal is a franchised club is one that has been thrown around by our noisy neighbours ever since we moved to Highbury in 1913 – although to be fair I don’t think the word “franchise” was used until much later.
In fact “Franchise football” as a phrase didn’t become popular until 2002 with the creation of Milton Keynes Dons out of the Wimbledon league team (who won the FA Cup by beating Liverpool once upon a time).
The matter has come to my mind not just through writings here but also because subject to replays MK Dons could just play AFC Wimbledon (the club formed by disgruntled fans of the original Wimbledon FC league team) in the FA Cup. It has caused a lot of chat on the Supporters Direct news group, and a lot of use of the word “franchise”.
I had the temerity to ask about that word on that discussion group, and what it meant. Did it, I wondered, refer to the movement of a team more than a certain distance from its old ground? Woolwich Arsenal moved 12.5 miles to Highbury in the summer of 1913 – was that just a bit too far? Or was there another definition?
Few on the news group took that issue up, but the point was made that if a club moves without the OK of the majority of supporters then that is franchising.
Of course we don’t know what the 3000 or so hardy souls who turned up to say goodbye to Woolwich Arsenal at Plumstead in April 1913 felt about the move to Highbury, but we might guess they weren’t knocked out at losing their local club. So on that definition Arsenal became a franchised team.
But then when Brighton started their long search for new ground after being thrown out of their stadium in Hove, with the move to Gillingham and later Withdean they too became a franchised team. However from what I can tell among friends in Brighton (I was a student there, hence the connection) the move next summer to Falmer will be very popular. So franchising comes to an end – maybe.
I also think there were a lot of objections to the move by Bolton from the city to the industrial park some years back. So, on this basis they must be a franchised club too.
So it goes on. Lots of clubs have moved – indeed moving was commonplace in the early days of football, and consultation with fans was (and in many cases still is) rare.
Indeed for most clubs consulting with supporters is a problem in itself. Do you talk to all those who turn up for a game? Or the shareholders? Or the season ticket holders? The members of the supporters club?
In the case of AFC Wimbledon where the owners are fans they have a greater chance of representing opinion – but imagine a situation in which AFC Wimbledon get promotion from the Conference to the 4th Division, and then on up to the Championship. Not an impossible state of affairs. Crowds will grow, but “membership” might not. The pressure on the ground will be impossible and a new ground will be needed.
At that point AFC Wimbledon would need to move – and possibly a fair old distance because they are a London club and as we know space is at a premium in the capital. How ironic if the majority of the supporters in the ground disagreed with the supporter-owners about where to move. Then the club set up in reaction against the creation of MK Dons would be a franchise club!
Of course it is unlikely, and I only mention the point to show that in my personal view the definition of the oft used word “franchise” really isn’t strong enough – and that is before two other issues have been brought in.
The franchise argument in its current form only looks at clubs moving, and the fans left behind. But what about those who benefit from the move? And what about the situation where a new club is created artificially.
Let’s start with the people who benefit. Consider Woolwich Arsenal’s move north of the river. If we are going to look at the full picture we need to include the huge number of new people who saw Arsenal in the 1913/14 season as a result of the move. The average crowd rose from 9,000 in the last season at Plumstead to over 23,000 in the first season at Highbury.
If the people who lost their club by its move from Plumstead were disenfranchised surely those who started to go and watch division II football at Highbury were enfranchised? Should their views not be taken into account?
But there’s more. Arsenal were broke in 1913, and could not exist on crowds of 9,000 and declining (the 9,000 average only being achieved by a few higher crowds earlier in the season). If Arsenal had stayed south of the river there is every chance that after the resumption of football in 1919 there would have been no Woolwich Arsenal FC because the club would have been completely broke.
So it is possible (although I admit, by no means proven) that the club could have stayed in the south, out of deference to its few local fans, and then gone bust and deprived those who otherwise would have gone to Highbury of seeing games there.
The other point is that clubs can be artificially created. Should such clubs be brought into the franchise discussion? Consider Chelsea. There was an old athletics stadium, which had fallen into disuse. The plan was to use it as a coal depot. But suddenly the notion arose – let’s make it a football stadium. So a club was formed around the stadium, and with no players, an unconverted stadium, and no history, Chelsea were given a place in the second division of the football league.
If we are considering MK Dons being given a place in the league, our of Wimbledon’s demise as a London club, should we not also consider the franchising of Chelsea?
My point here is not that the move of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes was right, but rather that trying to generalise the notion of what happened there into a broader concept under the word “franchising” is just plain daft. If a word or phrase is needed then let’s find it, and define it, so at least we know what we consider to be the key issues. If we think that fans should be consulted, then what fans?
As matters stand many clubs might be franchised – Millwall for example with their removal from their original homeland, is a good example. Maybe Woolwich Arsenal – but then since most fans seem to have been happy with the move from Highbury across the road to Drayton Park, maybe they were franchised, but stopped being franchised at the time of the second move.
Maybe in the end it is better just to talk about individual cases, because no two cases are the same. With Arsenal let’s include in the discussion the key points…
- A club on the edge of financial collapse
- A club whose support had deserted it (not least because of the closure of the armaments factories)
- A club whose move brought in much larger crowds than at any time in its previous history
… and let’s make a judgement out of that, not out of some ill-defined word like “franchise”.