Salut! Sunderland warmly welcomes Ray Armfield*, a Wimbledon supporter who’s seen all the highs and lows from the Crazy Gang and Wembley to the out-of-town move up the motorway. He’s chuffed to be on the brink for return to near the club’s old Plough Lane ground, thinks Sunderland are bound for immediate promotion and recalls a shivering visit to Roker Park many years ago …
Salut! Sunderland: you must be delighted to be back in south west London but even more so at the prospect of a new stadium, taking you so close to Plough Lane again. What does it mean to Wimbledon supporters to return to roots?
Ray Armfield: seeing Wimbledon’s football club playing back in Wimbledon for the first time since 1991, will be very emotional. My son is 29, has been a supporter since he was four, but has never seen a “proper” home game. On a practical level, it means we can accommodate more spectators (our present ground is 93 per cent full on average each home game) and use the resulting revenue streams to both build the team and develop our academy and foundation within the Merton community.
We are having to get used to some unfamiliar names in League One (our own recruits included). Who in your squad do you value most highly and where could you do with strengthening?
At the moment, central defender, skipper and player of the year Deji Oshilaja is probably our jewel in the crown. We’ve already reportedly turned down a £400,000 offer from Ipswich Town for him in the recent window and if the “Bermondsey Baresi” continues to perform well, I fear we might struggle to keep him when the January transfer window opens.
Are you old enough to remember the Crazy Gang era? If so, what memories – or, if not, handed-down memories?
At 56 and having been a Wimbledon supporter since 1971, I’ve seen us ride the football roller-coaster all the way from the Southern League to the Premier League, the 1988 FA Cup win and then having to start again in the Combined Counties League and our subsequent rise up to League One. It’s rarely dull! Most of the best Crazy Gang stories are probably unprintable, but worth bearing in mind that playing-wise it wasn’t all long balls and short haircuts, those boys could play a bit as well, which is why most of them eventually left for big transfer fees.
In Neal Ardley, of course, you have a stalwart from the past as manager. How do you rate him – and the owner Erik Samuelson – and how far can he realistically take you?
Neal went through a bit of a sticky spell last season when less patient crowds and less patient boardrooms might well have turned on him and looked elsewhere. Thankfully, we aren’t a hiring-and-firing club, he steered us to League One safety and backed by some modest investment, we looked to have recruited pragmatically and well this summer, putting round pegs in round holes and playing to our strengths.
Being a supporter-run club, Erik Samuelson isn’t THE owner of course, he’s one of about 3,000 of us who are Dons Trust members. He takes a guinea (£1.05 for anyone aged under 100) as a salary as he says “it sounds posher than a pound!” He was also a boyhood Sunderland fan too, but I think his loyalties are firmly with the Dons now, so I doubt if he’ll be walking around the boardroom in a half-and-half scarf! How far can the club go? Realistically, and looking at clubs like Burton Albion, our new stadium at Plough Lane could give us the impetus for a cheeky push towards the Championship in a few years time.
Who has given you most pleasure in Wimbledon (or MK) colours?
Probably our former goalkeeper Dickie Guy. You may recall him saving a penalty against Peter Lorimer at Elland Road in 1975. He was my favourite player and although people say you should never meet your heroes, He was mine then and he still is. Dickie is now the club president. I meet him regularly and he is quite possibility the nicest man in the world.
And who should really have been allowed nowhere near the club?
Former chairman Charles Koppel, who knew nothing about football, nor cared about it, but was installed simply for one purpose only, to help hijack Wimbledon FC 50 miles up the M1.
High and lows as a supporter?
Plenty of highs. I suppose being at Wembley and seeing us win the FA Cup in 1988 takes some beating. But watching the re-birth of the club, standing on bales of hay as makeshift terracing at Sandhurst Town, through to being at the Etihad to see us reclaim our Football League place in a penalty shoot-out wasn’t bad either. And beating Milton Keynes in out first meeting at home was VERY satisfying.
Lows? Standing outside the FA offices in Soho Square in 2002 and being told they had approved the move to MK. Then having to go home and see my son sat on his bed upset, having taken down every single WFC poster off his bedroom wall won’t be forgotten easily either.
Your thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city and region, Jack Ross?
They are a famous name and a famous club of course. The biggest that AFC Wimbledon have met in the Football League to date. They have a passionate support who have been through a lot – especially recently. I recall my only trip to Roker Park in the 80s. We got beat, Alan Cork got sent off, but before the game, we sat shivering on our coach as it parked up in Seaham, with the temperature having dropped about 15 degrees since we left London. An enormous police sergeant boarded the coach in shirtsleeves, saw my girlfriend putting on several jumpers, laughed and said “If you think it’s cold now pet, wait until its winter up here!” Don’t know much about Jack Ross, but I hope he’s given time and patience.
Were you surprised at the way we tumbled through the divisions?
Without perhaps knowing the full story why, yes. But then Manchester City did the same and they aren’t doing too badly now are they?!
Hand on heart, where will the two clubs finish this season?
You will be automatically promoted. I’d be happy with mid-table for ourselves. And a bit of a cup run would be nice too.
What did you make of the World Cup? As good as many say or were you happy to get back to league football?
I actually enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. I didn’t see every game, but those I did, I enjoyed. Russia hosted it very well and like much of the country, despite the cynicism, I got caught up in the whole #ItsComingHome thing which I thought was brilliant for the nation. Really hope that Gareth Southgate can continue that momentum into future tournaments. But in the summer I have cricket – I’m a Surrey CCC member – to help me through the close season domestically!
The Neymar question. Will VAR succeed in combating cheating of various kinds or is the culture too embedded in the modern game for anything to have a great effect?
It will always have teething issues as it is introduced and becomes more widely used. Its sort of worked in cricket, but then the pace of the games are different. Have a feeling I will come to dislike players making the TV gesture towards officials with their hands as much as seeing them wave imaginary yellow cards at referees.
Will you be at Kingsmeadow (or Cherry Red Records Stadium if we must) for our game? What will be the score?
I’m a season ticket holder, of course I’ll be there! I think the game will resemble a cup tie, given the full house and the tight confines. I’d like to think it will bring out the best of our team and might just unnerve one or two of yours, who may not be used to it. So I’ll go with 1-1.
* Ray Armfield on himself: I am the programme contributions editor and a club fundraiser. The first role is a very grand sounding title, but in reality I’m a volunteer who provides and sources copy and content for the programme. I usually write a League One news round up, a page looking back at our history and then much of the details on the away side – player pen pictures, club records, players who have played for both, a match preview and also try and source a visiting fan to write something. On the fundraising side, I’m one of a small team that runs an annual Silent Auction – of AFCW and other sporting memorabilia. We’ve raised around £45,000 to date. So as a well-known supermarket says. ‘Every little helps!’
Interview: Colin Randall