How John Green Became Involved In Lower League English Football -The Toast

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This profile–like the modern pentathlon, Shakespearean dramaturgy, and some old-school “Vlogbrothers” videos–comes in five parts.

800px-WimbledonFC1896Part I

In 1889, a group of schoolboys from Old Central School in southwest London formed an amateur football club called Wimbledon Old Central FC. The club won a few amateur and semi-professional league titles over the next two decades before a meeting in 1905 resulted in members electing to drop ‘Old Central’ from the name, changing it to Wimbledon Football Club. (That initial club was forced to dissolve soon after, but a new club rose out of those ashes and became Wimbledon Borough, though they ultimately changed their name to Wimbledon FC to reflect their heritage.) The side spent several decades as a mainstay in English non-league football, winning titles in the Isthmian League and the Athenian League in the early 20th Century, as well as reaching the FA Amateur Cup Final twice in 1935 and 1947. The club had an incredible run of success in the 1970s, winning three league titles. At the end of the 1977-78 season they secured their highest honor to date when they were elected to the Football League, marking Wimbledon’s transition from amateur to professional football.

Soon after their election, Wimbledon won promotion to the Third Division, but were relegated the following season. Their difficulties were such that the club’s chairman started considering a move to Milton Keynes. (Those plans ultimately went nowhere, and a few seasons leader that gentleman left to take over as chairman of Crystal Palace, taking Wimbledon’s manager at the time with him.) The club continued to struggle throughout the 1980s but slowly found their form. At the end of the 1985-86 season (in the Second Division), Wimbledon defeated Huddersfield Town 3-0 to secure promotion to the top flight- nine years after being elected to the Football League.

Pegged as likely relegation candidates their first season in the First Division, Wimbledon’s scrappy team–dubbed “The Crazy Gang”–spent most of the season near the top of the table, ultimately finishing sixth. Their greatest success came at the end of the 1987-88 season, when Wimbledon defeated Liverpool 1-0 in the FA Cup Final in one of the most stunning upsets in the history of English football.

Despite being a charter member of the newly-established Premier League, the club began a steady decline throughout the 1990s. Plans to build a new stadium in Merton came to nothing, and new Football Association guidelines released in the wake of the Taylor Report meant that staying at their home in Plough Lane was untenable. In an effort to control costs, the club entered into a groundshare agreement with South London rivals Crystal Palace, and began playing their home fixtures at Selhurst Park. Their form dropped precipitously, and despite some respectable runs in the FA Cup and League Cup they mostly finished in the middle and lower end of the table, with relegation being an ever-present threat.

At the turn of the millennium, a new business consortium sought once again to bring league football to Milton Keynes. Several clubs such as Luton and Queens Park Rangers were approached for a potential move, but none expressed any interest. But a new chairman at Wimbledon opened the door to talks, and in August 2001 the club formally stated their desire to relocate to the Buckinghamshire suburb. The move provoked widespread disapproval from fans and observers throughout the country, who feared the arrival of American-style franchising in the English game. The FA initially rejected the club’s application to move, insisting that the consortium establish a non-league club and earn a place in the Football League via promotion. The consortium, led by Pete Winkelman, appealed the decision, and the FA ultimately agreed to convene an independent commission to hear the case and offer a verdict. In May 2002, the independent commission voted 2-1 in favor of the club’s move to Milton Keynes, a decision widely condemned by fans of the club and the British sporting media.

The club played one last season at Selhurst Park to dwindling attendances before relocating to Milton Keynes in September 2003. At the end of the 2003-04 season, which they spent in administration, the club was relegated to the third tier of English football. When they began their League One campaign in August 2004, they bore the name Milton Keynes Dons. The South London club with over a century of history was, for all intents and purposes, dead.

url-3Part II

In 2006, John Green was working to establish himself as an author. He was living in New York with his wife Sarah, who was a graduate student at Columbia University. His second novel, An Abundance Of Katherines, was published earlier in the year. In his downtime, Green developed an interest in online video, becoming active in the fan communities for popular YouTube personality Ze Frank as well as the groundbreaking metafictional series “lonelygirl15.” Near the end of the year, he began a discussion with his brother Hank- who was living in Montana and pursuing a Masters degree himself- to start a new online video project. The series, dubbed “Brotherhood 2.0” and heavily influenced by Ze Frank, would have John and Hank ceasing all text-based communication for one year, talking to each other exclusively via four-minute-long YouTube videos. Hank posted the first video on January 1st, 2007, in which he explained the premise of the project: John was to post a video in response, to which Hank would respond further, and so on every weekday throughout the year. “Does this make us crazy?”, Hank asked in the first video. “Probably.”

The series became a drawn-out conversation between the brothers carried out in public on a burgeoning online video platform. Most of their viewers were people they knew in real life, but slowly the series gained a sort of cult following. Their popularity exploded in July of that year, when Hank’s video blog for the day was an unplugged guitar and vocal performance of “Accio Deathly Hallows“, a song he composed to express his anticipation for the upcoming release of the seventh and final installment of the Harry Potter series. This video was featured on YouTube’s front page, and quickly gained the attention of Harry Potter fans. By the end of 2007 they decided to keep their video project going. The series was rebranded as “Vlogbrothers,” and the fan community ultimately became known as “Nerdfighters.”

The initial series is ongoing, with John uploading videos on Tuesdays and Hank responding on Fridays. The brothers also started to branch out. At the end of 2007 they began the “Project 4 Awesome,” in which they and fellow Nerdfighters created videos over a two-day period just before the holidays to promote and raise money for various charity organizations. (The 2013 edition of the project raised over $800,000.) In 2012 they began a foray into educational video, using a grant from YouTube to launch two new web series, “Crash Course” and “SciShow”. Hank co-created a new series called “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”, a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice told through video blogs. They also launched an online business called DFTBA Records (taken from the Nerdfighter community’s mantra, “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome”) that sells merchandise related to their own projects as well as music from other talented artists within the community.

Amidst their expanding portfolio of projects, Hank quietly started a new channel called “Hankgames,” part of a growing YouTube trend called “Let’s Play” in which users post footage of themselves playing popular video games. His first video, posted in late 2010, featured the beginning of a playthrough of, fittingly enough, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

799px-Womble_Till_I_Die!_Plough_Lane_gatesPart III

As the Milton Keynes consortium’s appeal was nearing its conclusion at the end of May 2002, there was a gathering sentiment among Wimbledon supporters that they would not necessarily follow the club north to Milton Keynes (as Pete Winkelman, the businessman who became the public face of the relocation, suggested). Among the supporters there was talk about forming a new club should the decision not go their way, although given the belief that the FA would never allow franchising in the English game most of this talk was speculative. When the commission delivered their verdict paving the way for the move, Wimbledon fans found themselves with a difficult decision to make- follow the club north up the M1, or find some way to maintain Wimbledon’s footballing heritage in the community.

In its report, the commission addressed the speculation around a new club directly, saying that “resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, ‘Wimbledon Town’ is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so that they could go back to the position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football.” Undeterred, a consensus was reached among Wimbledon supporters who wanted to turn their protest movement into something positive following their very public defeat; as one prominent supporter put it, they “just wanted to watch some football.”

Two days after the FA decided to uphold the commission’s verdict, supporters announced their plan to form a new club called AFC Wimbledon. A few weeks later, fans and the media attended the unveiling of the new club’s crest, kit, and manager, as well as the announcement of open tryouts to be held at the end of the month in Wimbledon Common. It was also announced that the legal entity behind the club would be owned and operated by The Dons Trust, a nonprofit supporters’ trust pledged to maintain at least a 75% ownership of the club. AFC Wimbledon would be owned and operated by their supporters, ensuring that they would never succumb to the fate that befell their spiritual predecessor.

The new club, having entered into a groundshare agreement with fellow non-league outfit Kingstonian FC, began life in the 2002-03 season in the Combined Counties League, in the ninth tier of English football. That season, AFC Wimbledon drew larger home attendance figures than Wimbledon FC, who were playing their last season at Selhurst. As Wimbledon, and later Milton Keynes, struggled to maintain a place in the Football League (suffering relegation in their second season), AFC Wimbledon went on an unprecedented run of success. Their second season saw them finish with 42 wins, 4 draws, and no losses, making them the only English football club across all tiers to finish the season undefeated. They secured promotion to the Football Conference (the summit of non-league football) in 2008. That year they also progressed to the First Round Proper of the FA Cup, ultimately losing to Wycombe Wanderers 4-1. (They would lose by the same scoreline the following year in the First Round, that time to Millwall.) Despite some disappointing early exits from cup competitions, their league form remained strong, and the club’s intentions became clear- the Football League, or bust.

The club had another mission concurrent with its sporting ambitions- to reclaim its history. Milton Keynes Dons legally owned the history and trophies belonging to Wimbledon FC- including the replica trophy and medals from their 1988 FA Cup victory- and the club continued to insist they were the continuation of Wimbledon’s footballing heritage. Winkelman maintained that AFC Wimbledon fans had betrayed their club, that they “left their team before their team left them.” He also made clear he had no intention of handing over Wimbledon FC’s history and trophies to AFC Wimbledon, stating that their fans “abdicated their right to it when they all walked away.” Nevertheless, Wimbledon supporters continued to demand that Milton Keynes return the old club’s history. The Football Supporter’s Foundation sided with AFC Wimbledon, refusing to admit Milton Keynes supporters to the organization and encouraging fans of other clubs to boycott away games at Stadium mk. In 2006, both parties came to an agreement: AFC Wimbledon supporters would stop encouraging a boycott of MK Dons and allow their supporters to join the FSF, and in return the Buckinghamshire club would drop all claims to a history before 2004 and transfer Wimbledon FC’s history and replica trophies to the Borough of Merton. The trophies were handed over in August 2007, and are currently on public display at Morden Library.

At the end of the 2010-11 season, AFC Wimbledon qualified for the Conference National promotion playoffs. After dispensing with Fleetwood Town in the semifinals, the Dons faced off against Luton Town in the promotion playoff finals at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. In front of a crowd of over 18,000 people, AFC Wimbledon fought Luton to a 0-0 draw after extra time, forcing a nerve-wracking penalty shootout. Following two stunning saves from goalkeeper Seb Brown, the Dons’ promotion hopes came down to a single penalty kick from their team captain, forward Danny Kedwell. With their fans in attendance and back home in London holding their collective breath, Kedwell sent the keeper the wrong way and fired a screamer into the back of the net to win the penalty shootout 4-3.

Nine years after the FA’s fateful decision to take their club away from them, Wimbledon supporters once again had a team to cheer for in the Football League.

hqdefaultPart IV

In September 2011, John uploaded his first contribution to Hankgames, which until then had mostly featured Hank and his wife Katherine. The video was the first in what would become a long-running series called “The Miracle Of Swindon Town,” which followed the highs and lows of the team he managed in a career mode campaign in the 2011 edition of the popular video game franchise FIFA. In this series he managed Swindon Town FC- whom he redubbed as the “Swoodilypoopers,” part of ongoing habit of assigning silly nicknames to players and teams within the game- with the stated goal of guiding his fictional team from League Two all the way to the Barclay’s Premier League. His first season lasted about twenty episodes, ending with secured automatic promotion and the culmination of a surprising giant-killer run in the FA Cup. (The Swoodilypoopers, though heroic in their efforts, lost to Manchester United 1-0 after extra time.) Through hard work and a bit of luck, Green’s Swindon Town secured a place in England’s top flight, beginning their new life as a Premiership team in episode 58 (notching a shock 5-1 win away at Wigan Athletic).

But the drama on the pitch was only part of what made The Miracle of Swindon Town so compelling. John Green, being the master storyteller that he is, constructed complex and interwoven narratives around the team’s players. The stars of the show were the team’s strike tandem, both named (with several winks and nods) John Green and John Green. (They ultimately became known as Bald John Green, for his great hairless dome, and Other John Green.) In Season Two a bit of speculation developed among the fans (stoked by the narrator) about why Other John Green’s shirt listed his name as “Bennett”- it was ultimately revealed in episode 21 that it was Other John Green’s maiden name, and was changed to Green when he married his husband… Bald John Green. Rather than blowing up into a scandal, the narrator would explain, the supporters celebrated the news and were proud to have two players who were not only openly gay but married to each other.

The same sex marriage between these two fictional strikers became one of the bigger subplots in the story of the Swoodilypoopers, but not the only one. There was the story of Fat Lucas, the first choice goalkeeper nearing the end of his career and struggling to maintain not only his form but also his sobriety; Cteve “Stone Cold Steve With A ‘C’” Austin, the promising young talent whose party animal lifestyle threatened to keep him from becoming a breakout star; Voluptuous Péricard, the Cameroonian journeyman defined by his two great loves, his club and his wife; French The Lallalalalalana (the nickname a reference to an inside joke among Green’s fans), the industrious young English winger determined to make a big splash in the Premier League; and “One Size” Fitz Hall, the veteran center back who worked hard to earn respect in the dressing room and was ultimately rewarded by being named Vice Captain. All of these characters were initially based on real-world footballers (Adam Lallana, for example, has made a name for himself as captain of Southampton and has a chance at travelling with England to the World Cup this year) but Green’s policy was to treat them all as completely separate, fictional entities and to make up new backstories for them on the fly. Green’s voice-over narration- in addition to calling the action on the pixelated pitch, offering his take on current events, and reflecting on things happening in his career and personal life- gave us insight into the lives and personal struggles of a roster of fictional footballers that lived partly in a video game and partly in the collective imagination of the fans. Indeed, Green often solicited input from viewers to fill out the story, from nickname suggestions for new players to songs to sing during goal celebrations.

It should be noted that the Swoodilypoopers, like all great fictional underdog teams, had a certain bumbling quality to them. This was due in part to the squad’s relatively low average skill rating, but also due to Green being, by his own admission, not very good at playing FIFA. His struggles to master the game- which mostly boiled down to remembering which buttons on the gamepad did what- became part of the series’ particular charm. One of his signature “tactics” amounted to performing slide tackles on opposing players, regardless of their position on the pitch, distance from his player, or, indeed, whether or not the opposing player even had the ball. It became such a recognizable trope that the Unnecessary Slide Tackle became a running gag in the series. As a general rule, when Green’s frustration increased, so did the frequency of slide tackles.

The series lasted more than 200 episodes, ending with Swindon Town winning the domestic double (the Barclay’s Premier League title and the FA Cup). After a bit of soul-searching, and input solicited from his fans, Green decided to start a new series rebooting the Swoodilypoopers in FIFA 13 (dubbed “Swoodilypoopers Strike Back”), once again on a quest to elevate Swindon Town from the depths of the Football League back into England’s top flight. The second series lasted two seasons spanning 80 episodes, taking a dark turn at the beginning of Season Two when their talismanic target forward Bald John Green chose not to extend his contract in the close season and instead signed with Catalan giants FC Barcelona. It was a simple quirk of the game’s player morale algorithm, but Green incorporated it into the story, highlighting the player’s absence and its effect on the chemistry in the dressing room. As the season wore on, Manager John Green (who by this point was a fictional character in his own right) became increasingly harried, which led to questionable managerial decisions; including signing players based mostly on their names, their hair color (he developed an irrational affection for gingers), and whether they previously played for Swindon back in the previous (and unrelated) Swoodilypooper series. His narration took on a more erratic tone, with frequent references to The Great Gatsby. “They’re wrong!” John exclaimed in one episode. “You CAN repeat the past! We’re all borne ceaselessly into the past! Like BOATS!”

The series ended in episode 80. Just before a promotion playoff final against Southampton, John revealed that the in-game board of directors had decided not to renew his contract, regardless of the outcome of the game. (Southampton would go on to win 1-0.) The story of the Swoodilypoopers was over.

368px-AFC_Wimbledon.svgPart V

AFC Wimbledon’s first season in League Two started well, but they soon lost their run of good form and began to struggle. They finished the 2011-12 in 16th place, only 10 points clear of the relegation zone. The following season proved even tougher, with longtime manager Terry Brown being sacked in September 2012. He was replaced the following month with former Wimbledon FC player Neal Ardley, whose job was simple but not remotely easy- keep AFC Wimbledon in the Football League.

Soon after his appointment, he was tasked with guiding the club through a day supporters knew would come eventually: a face-off against Milton Keynes, whom they were drawn against in the Second Round of the FA Cup. The tie drew widespread attention throughout the country, reopening old wounds and raising navel-gazing questions about the state of the English game. Milton Keynes won that match 2-1, but as far as Wimbledon supporters were concerned, a more important moral victory belonged to them.

The team’s fortunes improved dramatically after the festive season, losing just seven games between New Years and the end of the season in April. Their final game of the season was at home against Fleetwood Town. The Dons began the day in the relegation zone, and realistically needed a win to stay up. Wimbledon went on to win 2-1, prompting a massive pitch invasion after the final whistle.

During their at-times tumultuous stretch in the Football League, the team came to the attention of John Green. A long time fan of the beautiful game, his primary loyalties lay with Liverpool, whom he started actively supporting following their dramatic come-from-behind win over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final. But AFC Wimbledon’s story intrigued Green, and he started to track their efforts to remain in the English league system. He mentioned the team’s upcoming FA Cup tie against Milton Keynes on Twitter, bringing the club to the attention of his fan community. Later, as he was deciding how to move forward after the end of the first Swoodilypoopers series, he mentioned the possibility of starting a new series of games playing as AFC Wimbledon in FIFA 13. He ultimately decided to stick with Swindon; partly due to fan feedback, partly due to renewed vigor after attending a Swindon home game while in the UK promoting his latest novel, The Fault In Our Stars. After the end of the second Swoodilypoopers series, there were no new FIFA videos from John, and several fans wondered if this was the end of John Green talking about life and current events while playing video game soccer. It turned out he had other plans.

“When I saw that [Hankgames] was suddenly making money, I felt like it would be fun to do something interesting with that money,” said Green in a Q&A on Reddit. “We do a lot of charity work in our community, but I wanted to do a weird/interesting sponsorship. […] Then I figured maybe it would be enough money to be a reasonably important sponsorship for a League 2 side, and AFC Wimbledon were the obvious candidates.”

In late 2013, Green approached AFC Wimbledon about becoming a sponsor of the club. At the beginning, Green said “…they were surprised and had no idea who I was, [but] they were immediately enthusiastic.” They eventually came to an agreement, and Green became the newest sponsor of the club. In November of that year, Green launched a new series on Hankgames, playing FIFA 14 as manager of AFC Wimbledon- or, as he dubbed them, the AFC Wimbledon Wimbly Womblys. (A play on the real-world club’s nickname, the Wombles, and past Hankgames references to British television institution Doctor Who, whose eponymous hero once described time as “a big bowl of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.”) In the premiere episode of the series he announced that the ad revenue earned from the new series would finance a sponsorship agreement. The deal- described as being worth “very low five figures”- made Green one of the club’s largest sponsors.

“This has been one of the most exciting and unique sponsorship deals that I have been involved with,” said the club’s Commercial Director Ivor Heller. “John’s knowledge of the club is astounding and goes to show what a global reach AFC Wimbledon has.”

As part of the agreement, Green was given the opportunity to have advertisements placed along the touchline at the stadium (Kingsmeadow) and in the matchday programmes. The designs for the new ad hoardings were crowdsourced to the Nerdfighter community, with their debut coming in January 2014 before a home fixture against Torquay United.

In that Vlogbrothers video the week the project was announced, Green described AFC Wimbledon as “… a truly extraordinary football club. It’s owned and run by its fans, there’s no big money behind it. Their chairman is a retired accountant. They were the first club in England to have a Football Fans Against Homophobia banner at a game. Basically, they’re the most awesome football team in the world, I want to help them stay in the Football League.”

800px-Playoff_final_AfcWimbledonThe globalization of the sport has brought a host of changes to English football- not all of them bad, but most requiring some adjustment. The growth of social media, a degree of access foreign fans have to the latest information that would have been nearly unimaginable 20 years ago, and the explosive popularity of the FIFA video game franchise (particularly in the States) have all conspired to create an environment in which even small League Two clubs are becoming global brands. How individual clubs will respond is still to be determined, but every team in English league football, no matter how small, will need to sort it out eventually. The questions raised by higher profiles are especially important for the supporter owned clubs in the Football League- Portsmouth (who just recently came under the direction of their supporters’ trust), Wycombe Wanderers, Exeter City, and, of course, the Dons.

AFC Wimbledon is, and by rights will always be, owned by their supporters. For all the good this model does for the club, the community, and the English game, it’s not without its drawbacks: namely a hard limit on the extent to which the club can benefit from sources of revenue beyond matchday income. The very nature of the club makes it singularly allergic to wealthy foreign investors- no Middle Eastern oil tycoons or Malaysian businessmen or Russian oligarchs will come calling, and if they did they would be politely turned away. Yet the reliance on matchday income and a fledgling “12th Man Fund”- the We Are Wimbledon Fund- necessarily limits the club’s ambitions; indeed, supporters were driven to hold fundraisers during the spring and summer of 2013 to get the player acquisition budget over £1m before the transfer window opened. The club has long term ambitions over the next decade, including a new stadium in the Borough of Merton (the current proposal would have the club take over a greyhound racing park in Wimbledon FC’s historical home, Plough Lane) as well as promotion to the Football League Championship; yet with their limited funds the team is struggling to stay in the league they’re currently in. (As of this writing, AFC Wimbledon are 24 games into a 46-match season, and sit in 14th place on 31 points, 8 points clear of the relegation zone.) For a club owned and operated by their fans, the best way to increase their revenue stream and support their ambitions on and off the pitch is to expand their supporter base. With millions of viewers subscribed to their various YouTube channels, and a devoted fan community spanning the globe, this American novelist and internet celebrity may have brought AFC Wimbledon a wealth of new fans.

James Bridget Gordon is a writer and new media artist living in Chicago. They blog about internet culture, politics, and soccer.

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