Your Soul for a League Spot

Your Soul for a League Spot

I’ve tried to avoid getting embroiled in the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth that’s characterized the last 10 months of AFC Wimbledon fanhood, but after reading REPD’s latest match report, I feel like getting something off my chest. To be clear, I generally agree with what REPD has to say on most topics and I even think I agree with the main thrust of this last post, but the following passage seems to demand a response:

Which leads me onto this section – what does need to change? We all have our answers, but I wonder if half our problem is this “AFCW Ethos” that we’re clinging onto?

It all seems very gentlemenly, putting more energy into be “seen to do the right thing”, even at the expense of us getting it wrong. It’s been a mindset that has been carved out for the last ten years, and all of a sudden it looks out of place.

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The culture of the Football League is more in the Rochdale types than the softly ones like AFCW, especially lower down, and we quite simply need people in who reflect that reality. If a new manager is a bit of a cunt, so be it. If he would rather spend the pre-match planning tactics rather than giving out team lists to the carvery, more power to him.

We’ve tried being nice, of “doing the right thing” and it’s now failing big time. As much as I don’t like us trying to relive 1981-88, we could do with some of that mentality throughout the club right now…

I hope I’m misinterpreting, but this reeks to me of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And, judging by the comments on WUP, it’s not just REPD that feels this way.

Careful what you wish for

I find the construction of this dichotomy (“do the right thing and fail” versus “be a cunt and succeed”) bizarre. Surely this is more nuanced than that. So why do I keep hearing people leap to the same conclusions? Why are so many fans so eager to turn their backs on a philosophy that’s worked so well for us? Is a string of poor performances really all it takes to sell out your ideals?

That’s not the spirit that made this club. That’s short-termist knee-jerkery.

Make no mistake, our “ethos” is what got us to the League so quickly. If we choose to turn our backs on if — if we forfeit our identity in the name of results — then we become no different from any other club. And then, without a philosophy to cling to in the face of poor results, just watch how fast we plummet back down the way we came.

Let’s be clear: I’m not in favor of Wimbledon being forever a club of lovable underdogs. I reject, however, the sentiment that we have to sacrifice our identity for results. In fact, I think the real root of this string of losses is that we’ve already begun to do as REPD advocates.

We’re already rejecting our core in order to “fit in with the big boys”, and in the process, giving up on the three things that make AFCW unique in the otherwise bleak and unappealing football landscape: humor, loyalty, and integrity.

The good old days

The days of Non-League football were far from glamorous, fun-filled strolls. But from fish puns to silly banners, humor was an immediate and important hallmark of the club. It not only knitted the fans together, but it bonded the players to the club as well. A strong sense of humor warded off fan pressure and boredom. It made the club as a whole feel more like a family and less like a bland, corporate, customer-supplier interface.

Before the promotion, the closeness we felt — largely due to the fun we were all having — inspired a fierce loyalty. The players and staff became family, and who fires family? This comes up for a lot of criticism, but this, too, was a strength.

This closeness meant that players and personnel could feel comfortable to learn on the job. They didn’t fear the sack at the first mistake. They didn’t avoid risk for fear of being the scapegoat. So when they succeeded, they felt a strong sense of reciprocal loyalty to us, the fans who were so tolerant of them.

Ours was no team of supermen, but our belief gave them belief. This was the upward spiral of positive psychological feedback upon which our heady ascent was built.

The bad new days

But since the promotion, the humor has ebbed appreciably. Not just on the back of poor results, either. The club has tried to “grow up and put on a serious face”, tried to project the image of a Real League Club™, but has thus far only managed to put a sense of distance between the board, the staff, the players, and the fans. We’re all very serious, surely, but was sport ever supposed to be a serious diversion?

Now, in spite of the new stand, attendances look down, the ground is quieter, and the sense of “we’re all in this together” seems gone. This sense of distance has, in turn, led to a sharp decline in our collective loyalty. Although most notably and shockingly on display in the wholesale clear-out of players before last year’s campaign began, the recent loanee shopping spree is also sadly indicative of the club’s sudden lack of patience and feeling.

We shipped out a team, brought in a load of mercenaries and now we’re shocked that we don’t see those individuals gelling into a coherent whole on the field. When before we engendered a culture of trust, players are now benched or replaced after just a few games.

As the old humor and loyalty slumped, so too has the quality of our football.  And now we’re talking about sacrificing further the traits that made this club so beloved so that we might — maybe — get some better results.

There goes our integrity, too.

A quick parable

Allegedly, when Pep Guardiola was interviewing for the Barcelona first team job, he was asked which big signings he would make. His reply was “None.” He saw Barcelona’s problems as systemic, not a mere personnel mismatch. He wanted to sell the big names and promote youth. And any players he kept — even players labeled as bit-part bench warmers — he insisted on playing regularly.

The board was appalled and asked him why, to which he responded that the loyalties of a promoted player are undivided; that if he puts his complete trust into the team, they’ll kill themselves to reward him for it.

He wanted to emphasize more boldly the uniqueness of Barcelona, not copy everyone else’s model. The academy was a strength. The skill and elegance of the midfield was a strength. The clear sense of identity was a strength.

The genius of Guardiola was that he played to Barcelona’s strengths.

So what should we do?

The change required is much larger than just bringing in a new manager. We need to take a hard look at the organization, too. We need to ask ourselves, “With one of the tiniest budgets in the League; with a totally different organizational structure; with such a unique history and fanbase, what advantage are we afforded by acting like the other clubs?” I would argue that there is none.

We should not go seek out the Steve Evans characters, because they are not the necessary evil many AFCW fans seem to think they are. We should not adopt a kick-n-rush style, since we don’t have the players for it (nor the money to buy new ones). We should not be tempted to embrace gamesmanship in the name of winning at all costs.

By all means, we should let Terry go. He’s been out of his depth and shifting blame for far too long. But we should bring in a manager with a sense of humor, loyalty, and aesthetic that matches Wimbledon’s. And we, the fans, need to make it clear that we will vocally support this manager and his team so long as he champions the club’s structure and identity.

Our identity is our strength, and it should be inviolable.

When a player steps onto the pitch; when a fan takes their seat; when a coach strides out of the tunnel, there should be no grave surprises, no “shakeups”. There should be a well-understood agreement about how our players will play, how our managers will represent us, and how our fans will act.

And it’s this unity of vision that will make this club great, that will unite the fans behind the players and marry the players to the fans. That’s what propelled Wimbledon skyward in the 80s — their tenacity and togetherness, not their rough and tumble style of play — and that’s what got us this far, too.

It’s time for us to double down on our ethos. Nothing less will bring us success.