Past, Present, Yet to Come

I was wondering if I’d dreamt it.

But no: I checked the records, and there it was.  Forest 1, Wimbledon 1—December 20th, 1992.

I can’t remember anything about the match itself.  I can take a guess at what it was probably like: a lot of fruitless huff and bluster, buried in the cold guts of a long, doomed season.  Another game that Forest were meant to win, and didn’t.

But it was Christmas, and that would have made all the difference.  The joys of the season—they throw their light into the world’s corners, and everything (even a relegation battle) looks a little jollier.

It was half an hour before kick-off, when the two santas came out of the tunnel.  Even in their costumes, they looked different—huge and lean, both plainly athletes.  One black, the other white, furry jackets riding halfway up their forearms.  They made their way into the Junior Reds, and started giving out presents.

Nothing expensive—just sweets, and t-shirts, and calendars.  But that wasn’t the point.  We wanted to know who they were.

A few whispers went up: a few murmurs, and giggles.  We started cottoning on, one by one, but no one could believe it.

It was John Fashanu, and Vinnie Jones.

This was only my second year as a season ticket holder, and I still didn’t know much about football beyond Forest.  But I knew those two.  Fashanu presented Gladiators—this, when families still came together by government order, to watch tele on a Saturday evening.  Awooga.

And Vinnie… well, it’s rather quaint to think of it now, but back then, he was just about the most dangerous man in football.  Today, we’re bombarded with affairs, and gangbangs, and racism, and drugs, to the point where nothing really shocks: it’s all just a big, wearying tangle of mischief.  In his day, though, Vinnie furrowed the brow of an entire nation, just by being hard.  We were appalled by him, yet compelled; outraged, yet admiring.  Every team had one—their designated nutter—but in a world of McMahons and Hurlocks and Van Den Hauwes, Vinnie was tougher than the rest.

He scandalised the game.  He was everything you didn’t want your club to wimbledon2be, and everything you secretly wished it was.  Going round, grabbing people’s bollocks, and making videos about it—Vinnie Jones was just a stiffly raised finger to everything.

These two were the leaders of Wimbledon FC, football’s very own Hole in the Wall Gang.  To see them dressed up and handing out presents was funny, and it was thrilling.  It was a glimpse behind the pantomime of Wimbledon, and all their brutish mysteries.  In those two years, I’d realised that most football clubs were much of a muchness, but these… they were definably different.  They were a story, and a culture, and in all the years we played them, it never seemed to get old.  Yes, they were a pain in the arse; yes, they’d sometimes go a bit too far; and yes, whenever they beat you (frequently, in Forest’s case), it felt wrong.  But they were standard-bearers of a truth eternal: that to be truly special, a football club doesn’t need to be big, or successful, or famous… just definably something.  And Wimbledon, if nothing else, were something.

Lots of blood, and plenty of thunder.  There shouldn’t have been a place for them at the top table, yet we needed them.  They were a compelling and resolute example of what can be achieved, through sheer force of will.

And that afternoon was a beguiling moment of pure Wimbledon; the smile beyond the scowl.  Two warlords, handing out presents.  Even back then, you couldn’t have imagined United doing it.  Or Everton.  Or even Forest, for that matter.

They were that necessary bit of rough: the Clash album that everyone owns, whatever their tastes.

And twelve years later, they were dead.

MK Dons: the club with the new-car smell.

There’s still something off about them.  Still just an antiseptic novelty; still waiting to be broken in, years later.

Saturday afternoon marked the 23-year anniversary of Fash and Vinnie’s Santa turn.  It was a coincidence, but one that threw the whole game into sharp and strange relief.

Because where once stood Wimbledon—impish, fun, and feral—now stands this bland and flaccid thing.  An in vitro club, hailing from the concrete heart of nowhere.  We’ve all had a while to get used to the MK Dons, but that alone shouldn’t make them—or the principle of them—any better.

I watched us play them once before, in 2006.  Back then, they were still just a rootless curiosity: a Frankenstein football club, playing in a hockey stadium.  A bad, doomed joke.

wimbledon1But they survived.  Because for all the promises of boycotts and protests, football’s conscience stopped exactly where it always does—just shy of action.  Pete Winkelman and the FA would have known as much: that the football public would soon be distracted by some fresh outrage, and that eventually, the MK Dons would get a crack at establishing themselves.  At being proper.

And that’s football’s invisible currency, isn’t it?  Being ‘proper’.  It’s what wins arguments, in pubs and playgrounds.  Or at least it was: I’m not sure what it even means, nowadays.  The game is gentrifying itself—more than ever, it wants to be all things, to all people.  It wants to be accessible, and it wants to be seen.  If that means a few compromises along the way, then so be it.  It hasn’t hurt Chelsea or City, after all: can they even remember what they used to be?

‘Proper’.  Maybe—as Mark once said in Peep Show, about loyalty—“it’s just a fusty old word… like sixpence, and codpiece.”

Look at Wimbledon: they weren’t proper.  Not in a puritanical sense.  We spent most of the 80s and 90s saying as much—no ground, no fans, no style, and no history.  Somehow, though, they combined all of that into one resounding bit of capital—a soul.  A way of doing, and of being—a spirit.  They defined themselves through everything that they weren’t.  They were proper, purely in their impropriety.

And there’s the rub, with MK Dons.  Eleven years on, there’s still no substance to them.  You can steal a football club, but you can’t make them matter, because significance and spirit—it’s cumulative.  It’s earned.

It’s like that list of American cities, where it’s ok to sing the blues.  Chicago and Philadelphia: yes.  Orlando?  Not so much.

MK Dons, and their weird fight for legitimacy.  There were only a handful of them there on Saturday: dim-lit and silent, bunched at the back of the Bridgford End.  Who are you, I wondered, and how did you end up here?  These were grown men: repurposed Spurs and Liverpool fans, perhaps.  Gifted a third dimension to their football lives, when the bones of a 115 year-old team were dumped into their crappy town.  People who’ve learned to care, when love wasn’t a hard-wired matter of instinct.

There was a flag, stretched across the blocks of bare, red seats in front of them.  We’re the Dons, it insisted.

Were the Dons.

115 years.  The rich and wild legacy of the Crazy Gang, parcelled into a prefab vanity project.  A club killed, with the swish of a pen, so that the town of Milton Keynes might have a football team.

Was it really worth it?

It was weirdly sour, as wins go—what with the injury to Pinillos, and twenty unnecessarily edgy minutes at the end.

It was a win, though.  You can only beat what’s in front of you.

I just wasn’t sure what that was.  Because it’s a different feeling, turning over a Cardiff, or a Leeds—even a Millwall.  You know what to expect from them, as teams: you’re braced for it.  And back in the day, we were always braced for Wimbledon.  Them, and their embedded sense of challenge: a team who had hard hewn into their DNA.

wimbledon3That’s what it meant to be different.  That’s what soul does for you, and spirit—it fills in the blanks.  It fights your fight, without a ball being kicked.  Wimbledon, unabashedly themselves, rode that wave for years.

Considering it was our fourth home win on the spin, I left the ground a little less chipper than I’d anticipated.  It was typical bloody Forest: making hard work of a game that should have been wrapped up in the first half hour.  At least, though, I still had a team to be annoyed with.  Because looking back to that afternoon in 1992, and the handful of Wimbledon fans who travelled up that day… a few would have gone with the MK Dons, and almost all of the rest fell naturally into step with AFC.  But one or two would have packed it in entirely.  The ones who lost their football club to indifference, and impotence, and callous, wicked greed, and who couldn’t ever hope to feel the same way again.  Could you really blame them?

Love your football team.  You only get the one.  Be glad of them, for their surprises, and their moments of wild joy, in amongst the high-piled crap.  And by all means, wonder what else you could be doing with your Saturdays… just hope to God that you never need to find out.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

And Vinnie—I’ve still got the calculator.

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