ERIK SAMUELSON has been closely involved in one of football’s greatest stories: AFC Wimbledon. He spent 18 months researching, interviewing and writing ‘All Together Now’ and gives a taste of what was involved in the massive project.
Erik: I’m not sure exactly what triggered my decision to write this book. It went from being a vague idea to something I’d talked about so much I felt I had to do it. It was also to give me a project in retirement, which proved to be a very lucky decision because it gave me a focus during lockdown. And everyone says it’s a great story, so it needed telling. I didn’t want to work to someone else’s timescale and I wanted to avoid it being an ‘as told to’ book; with very few exceptions, those don’t work for me. So I decided to write it myself. And being involved so closely from the beginning gave me unique insights which I thought might interest people. I wrote it as the narrator of the story. Obviously I appear in it from time to time, but the book is about the club, not me.
(ii) Give a sense of what went into writing the book, the number of interviews, photos sourced, library visits, watching old DVDs and YouTube. etc.? Was there an interview or interviews that were particularly difficult to pin down and was there material you wanted to get into the book but were unable to fit in?
Erik: I’d never written anything much longer than a programme page but the process seemed obvious. After all, I was writing a story that already existed; I didn’t need to invent a plot, characters and locations. So out came the spreadsheet. In column A I listed the chapter headings. Column B was each chapter’s key events, Columns C, D etc. listed the key people. After ticking which people were central to which events I had a rough interview structure. Then came the reading material: all the news items and match reports on the heritage web site; DT board minutes and papers; thousands of my own emails and documents; the South London Press from Battersea Library; raiding the Non League Paper archives; googling key events; re-reading various agreements, contracts and letters. Plus the visual media; Womble Til I Die dvd; Football Hurts; the first ten years’ highlights compilation; YouTube highlights; the club site itself; and photos from numerous sources. Finally, the interviews. Only a small number of people chose not to be interviewed; most people were amazingly accessible, open and frank. I was so daunted by the research list that I thought I’d interview someone and see how it went. It was also a way of forcing myself to write it – once I’d taken up people’s time to talk to me I felt I had no choice other than to get on with it… My first interview was David Fowkes of the London FA on 4 October 2019, about six months after I retired. He guided the founders through setting up the club. Over the following seventeen months I interviewed 80 people, some multiple times, so I ended up with 96 tapes, comprising 117 hours and 36 minutes of recorded material (the obsessive accountant in me just had to add them up…) That is nearly five solid days of interview time. Transcription took at least 2 – 3 times as long until Clare Richardson kindly offered to help, although by then I’d done over 70 of them myself. I wrote about five chapters ahead of my interview and reading schedule. Towards the end I looked at various books as a check that I’d missed nothing out. ‘This Is Our Time’ was a particularly valuable resource and I also dived into Herbie Knott’s unpublished record of our first season. I’ve no idea how proper authors go about things but this worked for me. Was there material I wanted to include but couldn’t? Yes, lots. I was advised not to include some material because it would breach legal agreements and I left out some stories that would have damaged the club. To include everything would have needed a substantial expansion of an already long book, so some stuff didn’t make the cut.
Over 17 months I interviewed 80 people, some multiple times, so I ended up with 96 tapes, comprising 117 hours and 36 minutes of recorded material
(iii) Along the way what were the things that surprised you (even in your privileged insider position as the former CEO of the club). Any parts that gave you particular joy (or perhaps disappointment) to uncover and include in the book?
Erik: The conversations were a joy. I call them conversations because allowing the interview to ramble within a broad structure unearthed a host of material I don’t think I’d have obtained by other means. A couple of people asked to be interviewed by email but I refused; I needed to be able to pursue anything that caught my attention. I didn’t learn anything significant, but there were some great anecdotes which were new to me. The biggest surprise was that some people couldn’t recall anything at all about what I thought were major events in the club and, I assumed, their lives. However, they weren’t alone; one interviewee talked about a big row at a DT board meeting. I had no recollection of it at all. I’ve checked – it did happen and I was part of it, but I still can’t remember it. I became very aware of how memory changes and distorts things. An article in the New Scientist really struck home when it said that the more often you tell a story the less accurate it gets. The logic is simple – at every telling you add a little bit, or forget a detail, or simply embellish it. Then that version forms the basis of the next time you tell it, when it changes some more. An example of this was when I asked Seb Brown about ‘that piece of paper’ he was looking at during the shoot out in Manchester. Seb told me it contained five players’ names but only two of them were still on the pitch. So I reminded him that in ‘This Is Our Time’, he said it was four names with only one still on the pitch. He couldn’t believe he’d remembered wrongly so he dug out the paper from his dad’s loft. It was four and one, but frequent telling had changed it. It was an entirely innocent example of the vagaries of memory. And I’ve now got a photo of the list to disprove some fans’ theory that it was blank. All this went to reinforce my view that people will tell me that I’ve got lots of things wrong. All I can say is that whenever possible I’ve compared people’s recollections to documents that were written at the time. If there was no independent evidence then I’ve taken the version that sounded most likely. I’d welcome anyone pointing out mistakes, so long as they understand that their memory is probably as imperfect as mine!
I’d welcome anyone pointing out mistakes, so long as they understand that their memory is probably as imperfect as mine!
(iv) Did you have a favourite interview or interviews during your research, any particular anecdotes/scenarios you can share?
Erik: Trevor Williams and Dave Anderson were particular fun. Pre-lockdown, Dave came to my house for our chats and Eileen said that all she could hear was non-stop laughter. Trevor is also very funny and his passion always comes across. Plus he has great stories from having been in the dressing room throughout the years. I enjoyed Alan Bennett telling me how Simon Bassey lured him into joining us, Jon Main explaining how he nearly owned an Aston Martin, and Stuart Douglas’s pact with Andy Barcham. I was told early on not to expect to make any money out of the book, but I’d prefer that you read the anecdotes in context, not here. (If I do make any profit I will give a percentage to the Foundation.) But here’s one brief story which reminded me how little decisions can affect history. I interviewed Gary Brabin, the Luton manager. He told me that when they were practising penalties, Jason Walker took a Panenka-style penalty, exactly like the one that Seb saved. Walker’s teammates gave him such a hammering for not smashing it that Gary decided he didn’t need to reinforce the message. I’m very glad he didn’t…
(v) So throughout the 400-plus pages of the book what stood out for you over all these years at the helm of AFC Wimbledon’s remarkable rise from the Combined Counties League days?
Erik: I reluctantly signed up for a film about the club and I was relieved when it didn’t get made. A film requires a hero and that would distort what happened. In the real world, new heroes emerged when they were needed and then quietly stood back when their bit was done. That’s largely why the book has its title. What stood out as I wrote the book was the sheer number of people who contributed to what we achieved and the massive range of talents and energy they brought to our success. I hope I’ve managed to bring that out, rather than only lauding a small number of individuals, important as they were. I will have forgotten some people – I can only apologise to anyone I’ve inadvertently overlooked.
That’s largely why the book has its title. What stood out as I wrote the book was the sheer number of people who contributed to what we achieved and the massive range of talents and energy they brought to our success. I hope I’ve managed to bring that out.
(vi) Is that the end of your writing days, given the enormous amount of time it has taken you to get it to print or has it developed an urge to write some more, perhaps on another topic?
Erik: I don’t know. I’m not an author and I don’t want to be. This subject was something about which I had a unique insight, having been at the centre of things for so long. I can’t think of another topic for which I’d have the drive to dedicate another year and a half of my time. I’d like to get a balance back in my life and do some different things – like a trip to the Ashes in December, lockdowns permitting!
As to the scale of the achievement, I think what we did together is quite extraordinary. Every non-Wimbledon football fan I meet thinks ours is a great story.
(vii) To everyone’s great disappointment fans have been unable to get inside Plough Lane and watch the Dons matches. Has the new ground lived up to your hopes, dreams and expectations from those early planning days? What scale of achievement has AFC Wimbledon and its fans pulled off in getting back to Plough Lane?
Erik: For me the idea of having a new stadium was always more important than what it looked like. I went to the first game and there were quite strict rules about where we could and couldn’t go. So I’ve not really seen it properly but the important thing is that it is there and it is ours. My only disappointment, and it is a major one, was that there were no fans there. I want the place full, with fans raising the roof. As to the scale of the achievement, I think what we did together is quite extraordinary. Every non-Wimbledon football fan I meet thinks ours is a great story. To end where I started this interview, that’s one of the reasons I felt I just had to write the book. I hope I’ve done everyone justice.
‘All Together Now, The Extraordinary Story of AFC Wimbledon’? Published by Pitch Publishing, will be on sale in May, the hardback price is £19.99.