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It only took nine years…

August 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Tomorrow, the English Football League season kicks off. At 12:45, the team I support, AFC Wimbledon, resumes what its supporters see as its rightful place only 9 years after the spineless decision to allow Milton Keynes to steal Wimbledon’s football team.

Back then a group of the fans, suddenly without a team to support, decided to do something about it and started a team from scratch playing at the lowest level of senior football. The aim was to get back into the Football League in ten seasons, and in fact it took only nine. Anyone needing a successful project team knows where to look!

Putting aside the logistics of finding a ground, assembling a team and putting together a realistic long-term business plan, as I plan to start a new project myself I have been reflecting on the timescales and the contingency.

Projects often have a must-hit delivery date. Plans never run perfectly, so part of the planning process is to include some extra time as a contingency for the risks that may have an impact on the plan. Unfortunately this is often the first casualty of a management-led review of the plan – or a delay at the beginning uses it all up straight away.

I expect the initial goal of “back in the league in 10 years” was plucked out of thin air over a pint in the first day or so. It has a ring about it but was essentially arbitrary. But then so are so many of the implementation dates in more mundane projects – what is so special about January 1, or April 1?

Having picked a date, some analysis follows – how achievable is it? Surely with AFC Wimbledon’s large support and money it ought to be able to buy better players than the other teams and win every year? That would be Roman Abramovich’s approach, up in 4 years, no problem.

The other guide is precedent from similar projects. In modern times, no team had started from nothing and got into the league. The nearest case was Aldershot who had gone bankrupt 10 years before and had been reformed, like AFCW, but had the advantage of retaining a ground and their existing youth team which formed the nucleus of their first squad. Even with those advantages, 10 years later, they were still in the Football Conference, one level below the league (they eventually did it in 15). On the plus side, AFCW could count on a larger core support which meant more income, but no more than other recent ex-League teams of similar standing in the Conference.

But there were lots of other unknown factors – you can’t just get a bunch of players in and expect them to settle straight away, however good, even at the bottom of the pyramid. This proved to be true in the first season as the team lost a few games early in the season before the squad settled, costing promotion that year. And later in successive seasons they failed to be promoted by losing playoffs.

You also have to allow for the unexpected – the FA inserted an extra level in the pyramid at the end of season 2. A 10 year plan allowed enough time to absorb this – 4 promotions to go in the next 8 years didn’t look too daunting but 4 in 6 would have been unlikely.

Too often in my working career management have insisted on a timescale that assumes the equivalent of four promotions in four years. When the unexpected has come along – the equivalent of inserting another level in the pyramid – the same management are then surprised that the project misses its target.

In retrospect – and at the time – the original 10 year plan felt realistic, as it assumed promotion in alternative seasons but also that the team would get stuck at one level (as happened to Aldershot), probably the Conference. This turned out to be a good estimate, which with a bit of luck along the way, was beaten.

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