Reflections On a Lesser Known Wimbledon, by Jozef Opdeweegh

The London district of Wimbledon is synonymous with its namesake tournament and those two weeks in July when the world’s media and tennis fans turn their attention to this otherwise quiet suburb for the Wimbledon Open. Beyond the courts, the town is awash with boutiques and coffee bars; its young professionals, are no doubt attracted by its heritage as the home of my favorite

But wander just a mile or so from its high street, you’ll find a new and very different stadium that has an equally fascinating — and important —story to tell. It’s the home of AFC Wimbledon, a not-so-famous football team, that in a mere twenty years has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a firestorm of dispute that destroyed a club and disenfranchised its followers.

The story of the original Wimbledon FC is the stuff of a comic book legend. After decades in the minor divisions, the team rose in consecutive seasons to the top tier, winning the FA Cup in 1998. Around the turn of the millennium, their fortunes declined, and lacking a permanent ground the owners summarily uprooted the club, moving it 60 miles north to Milton Keynes, a town with no previous connection. A new identity of Milton Keynes Dons was created, and today, they are solidly placed in League One of the English pyramid.

From my perspective, the interesting part of this story is not so much the fortunes of the football teams. Rather, it’s the decision of the owners to relocate a club with a hundred-year heritage to a town that wasn’t even built when it was first founded. At the time of the proposal, the Football Association approved the move, arguing that the owners could do as they wished — after all, it was their asset to manage or market as they saw fit.

The fans, however, saw things differently.

There’s a famous quote about soccer by Bill Shankly, a former manager of Liverpool FC. ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.’ The point he was making is one that the owners of Wimbledon were tone-deaf to: that football is about more than a balance sheet; that the fans are as vital as the players; and that the values and heritage of a club can’t simply be traded like a commodity on the stock exchange.

In the case of Wimbledon FC, the fans turned their rage into a more constructive rebuilding,
founding a new club and eventually, crowdfunding a remarkable stadium. It’s a monument to passion and a belief in the interests of those who care most – the new club is controlled by a supporter’s trust, is embedded in its community, and its team has risen through the ranks to compete (ironically, alongside Milton Keynes) in leagues one and two of the English professional system.

The story though has wider relevance. It raises questions about the interests of stakeholders and the potential conflicts with owners and custodians. Consider the controversy over Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and the uproar from some quarters at his changes to policy and approach to free speech. The exodus of many users to the open-source alternative Mastodon has perhaps echoes of the response of those disenfranchised Wimbledon fans.

I’m not going to comment on the pros and cons of Musk’s takeover, not least because it’s
entangled with left and ring-wing politics, making any assessment too sensitive and subjective. But what’s clear, is that the millions of Twitter users can’t simply be ignored. Nor, as one of the leading social media platforms, should the wider implications of the company’s policy on freedom of expression, accountability under the law, or the ability to protest.

Listening to stakeholders in business doesn’t mean that change will always be watered down. It’s true that in many large organizations there can be institutional resistance to reform. But conversely, there are times when those employees closest to the coalface know that organizational transformation is necessary for long-term value. Nor does it mean that unpopular measures should be shirked — it’s worth acknowledging that in relation to my opening story, the town of Milton Keynes now has a thriving and well-supported football team.

What I’m really getting at here is being attentive to the importance of purpose and mission in those companies and organizations that play a significant role in our lives. We all know that businesses must make a profit, but that can’t today be the sole meaning of their existence. Equally, non-profit and public service ventures — in the arts, sport, and education — must balance their social objectives with a reality check on affordability and remember that the bigger goal is not so much their particular passion, as a healthy, diverse, and flourishing society.

I’m convinced that the key to navigating this maze is having a compass that’s sensitive to values that are commonly held by all involved — be those owners, employees, and customers, or governments, peoples, and their allies. For it is our shared beliefs, applied with some pragmatic flexibility, that bind us together in difficult times. Values can also — quite legitimately — be a way of establishing lines that others may choose not to cross. And that’s fine, so long as we are not mismatched in our understanding.

In seeking such constructive and cooperative outcomes, I believe it’s vital that no one version of the truth be allowed to ‘out-shout’ or cancel another. It’s an irony that those most vocal in calling for freedom of expression, or safe spaces for their views, are often deeply intolerant to alternative perspectives. More than that, it’s inefficiency and a fast track to failure, for in the long term there are no more static companies or countries than those who brook no dissent.

Every leader, no matter how sure of their strategy, should remember Lyndon Johnson’s epithet, ‘if you’re not listening, you’re not learning.’ And in doing so, train their ears to hear the notes that matter, filtering out the background noise to better recognize when their plans are out of key with others who care too. Thirty years into my career I’m more attentive than ever to those metaphorical sounds. Experience is a privilege and a powerful asset, but it’s nothing if applied without due regard for the values and purposes which underpin the more tangible measures of success.

This year, AFC Wimbledon met Milton Keynes Dons in the early rounds of the FA Cup. Despite some stirring of rivalry by the press, the match went off without rancor. In the twenty years since the upheaval, the Football Association has changed its rules and an owner can’t just uproot a club today; meanwhile, the respective fans have found a new focus and moved on from the past.

Wimbledon’s new stadium is called Plough Lane, the same name as the original club’s ground. It’s a fitting blend of the old and new, of learning from mistakes and looking to the future. And perhaps most of all, of holding true to the values that show how clubs, businesses, and communities of any sort, are more than the sum of their parts.

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