Admiral, AFC Wimbledon, Football Manager: Locked in football history

Andi Thomas
Admiral Wimbledon shirt
Admiral Wimbledon shirt

There’s no correct way to play Football Manager. It’s a single-player game, for the most part, and so you can define the parameters of your own pleasure. Want to steamroller everybody as Paris Saint-Germain? Have at it. Want to manage PSG and Manchester City, then sell all the former’s stars to the latter at hilarious knockdown prices, for even more efficient steamrollering? That’s between you, your conscience, your gods, and your laptop.

But still, there is a correct way. Ethically, morally…you know there is. Start at the bottom, work to the top. Take the lowliest little club to the highest heights: all FM stories are their own adventure, but those are the true epics. Started unemployed, did you? With no reputation to speak of? Be still my beating heart.

As such, the sponsorship deal between AFC Wimbledon and Football Manager (or Sports Interactive, or Championship Manager) isn’t just the longest running in the Football League. It is also the most appropriate. Admittedly, AFC Wimbledon haven’t yet won 10 Champions Leagues in a row using a janky 2-6-2 formation. Or even the FA Cup. But clambering up from the Combined Counties League Premier Division to League One is about as close as modern football will permit.

They weren’t even in their sponsor’s game when they started out again.

It is, perhaps, impossible to imagine modern football without Football Manager. The game is there, you suspect, in the origin stories of the analytics nerds and the amateur experts, the hipsters and the ITKs. Some clubs use the databases, and all receive applications from FM players when the manager’s job comes up (‘I’ve no IRL experience, but…’).

The launch of each seasonal update is an event marked by a frenzy of content and hype, joy and fury; it’s rather like deadline day, only with a bit less shouting.

But perhaps, too, it is impossible to imagine modern football without AFC Wimbledon. Without all that led to AFC Wimbledon: the forced dislocation of Wimbledon FC; the institutional contempt for the club’s fans and anybody else that complained; the creation of the new club in Wimbledon; the peculiar arrival of the new club in Milton Keynes; the opening of the new Plough Lane just down the road from the site of the old.

None of it should have happened, but it all did, and perhaps one consequence of that can be seen in how we imagine football clubs today. The answers that we came up with then inform the world we watch football in now. You can do a lot to a football club, if you can afford it. Almost anything. But you can’t do that.

AFC Wimbledon back
AFC Wimbledon back

Suppose Wimbledon had gone quietly. Suppose the fans had done as they were meant to do, accepted that their interests were not the wider interests of football, and drifted off to their closest non-league side, or to Crystal Palace, or to a bitter, nostalgic yearning. Suppose the AFC project had, for one reason or another, never quite clicked into place. Seems lunatic in hindsight, of course, with Wimbledon-in-Wimbledon once again a normal football club with all the mundane things that go along with it: a shiny new stadium, a Womble mascot and concerns about promotion or relegation just like the rest of us.

Would we have seen more and bigger franchising? (A Budweiser advert released a decade after the unpleasantness joked about moving Arsenal to the Peak District.) Would we have seen the same splenetic reaction to the Super League, which promised not a physical departure but a sporting one? As the arguments about Wimbledon and Milton Keynes played out through the late ‘90s and early noughties, the broader nation – the part of it that likes football, anyway – was forced to consider what a football club is, and why, and who gets to decide that, and the importance of place in it all.

For that’s what was established, along with a new club. A founding principle: a football club is of a place, and moving it is not just controversial, but existentially problematic. It will not be the same club. Clubs have moved, of course, before and since; some historically, before football was really settled, others more recently and more quietly, without the scandal. But there was a victory in Wimbledon’s defeat, a sleight of hand. They went and moved the club, but when they got to where they were going, it was empty.

It’s a fine blue, isn’t it? Bright and rich and classy. Tastefully threaded with yellow pinstripes for Admiral’s first effort, which AFC wore while winning promotion to League One, and then thin pale hoops for two years of staying up. Anybody growing up in the ‘90s might have presumed that Wimbledon FC wore dark blue, a grim and forbidding navy, but they wore the bolder shade from just after World War 1 through to 1993; they wore it all through their march up from non-league, and they wore it to Wembley when they humbled Liverpool.

AFC’s first shirt, for the 2002-03 season, was designed by Marc Jones, founder member and football kit enthusiast: “I copied the 1975 kit design…it was blue with yellow underneath the sleeves. I intentionally made the kit look like the one that non-league Wimbledon famously wore against Leeds to say to people, ‘don’t worry, we’ve been a non-league club before and last time we were in this position, we were a great, famous side’. That was the Wimbledon that the world started to understand and know about.”

The blue is making a statement. Us again.

Admiral book.
Admiral book.

Marking the first year of replica shirt sales, when Admiral linked up with Leeds United and changed the British football landscape forever, an initial 1,974 individually numbered, hardback books are now on sale on a pre-order basis, These will be the only books of this type produced, before a softback version is released for retail in August 2024.

Blending newly commissioned photography with archive images, original design sketches and contributions from collectors, presented with Glory’s hallmark approach to design, the book also features:

· Longer-form essays on notable kits and their context from some of football’s best writers, including Harry Pearson, Rob Bagchi, Daniel Gray, Andi Thomas, Ian King and Ian Plenderleith;

· Contributions from famous fans including Maisie Adam, Mark and Paul Watson, James Brown and Guy Mowbray;

· Academic insight into the design, manufacturing and socially pioneering nature of shirts from Professors Jean Williams and Andrew Groves;

· Recollections from players and managers who have worn them, including Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Sue Smith, Peter Shilton, Roy Hodgson, Viv Anderson, Mark Hateley, and many more; and

· A comprehensive illustrated Admiral kit directory by designer John Devlin

The hardback version of the book is available only through Admiral and once they’re gone, they’re gone, so secure yours now here.

Long. Live. Admiral.