by Richard Brook
The FA Cup is internationally respected as, one of, if not the best cup competition in world football. It is renowned for pitting the underdog against the behemoths of English football and always feels as if it provides more giant-killings and shock results than it has any right to. The view that in 1988 Wimbledon epitomised the ‘magic of the cup’ beating a mighty Liverpool side at the old Wembley stadium to lift the trophy is somewhat harsh on Wimbledon. True enough the “Crazy Gang” were unfashionable, and they were playing the newly crowned league champions, but a seventh placed finish in the top flight hardly made the South London side footballing minnows.
Getting drawn against a clubs from higher up football’s famous pyramid structure than your own is often a cause for celebration amongst the player, officials and fans of the lower placed club. It is often a chance for players to test themselves against players of a higher calibre, for fans to visit a bigger and more modern stadium and for the club itself to gain financially in terms of gate and TV revenue.
There cannot be many occasions in the history of the FA Cup when the perceived underdog was so resoundingly unhappy, to have the chance to cut their teeth against higher league opposition as when AFC Wimbledon were drawn from the pot, for the second round tie in this seasons, FA Cup, to be played on Sunday. They were drawn to play MK Dons away. Never has it been more and less apt to say these two clubs share a history.
Factually the clubs do share a history, a history that goes back past, Lawrie Sanchez’s header looping past Bruce Grobbelaar, and Dave Beasant pulling off the first ever FA Cup final penalty save to see the Wimbledon to their 1988 cup final glory. The history stretches from the 1889 formation of Wimbledon Old Central Football Club, through to Wimbledon FC’s 2004 dissolution and resultant misappropriation on behalf of the city of Milton Keynes. Morally of course the history of Wimbledon has nothing to do with Milton Keynes or the club that was formed in 2004 and in fairness, since the belated date of 2007, MK Dons have made no claim to Wimbledon’s heritage.
In another sense the clubs share no history at all. As MK Dons received Wimbledon’s league placing, while the old club’s supporters were left to resurrect their club from the ashes, by way of the original ‘phoenix club’, the clubs have yet to face each other. Amidst the clamour surrounding the draw AFC Wimbledon’s supporters were quick to distance themselves from the term “grudge match”, on this basis. How can a grudge exist between to clubs that have nothing in common and have never played each other? The phoenix club’s support only regard for the fixture is that it is one that should never have been allowed to take place.
It is easy to understand the point AFC Wimbledon’s fans are making but it would be patently untrue to suggest that there is no ill-feeling over the way that their club was dissolved, uprooted and re-established many miles from its home, initially playing under the same name, in the same colours and claiming a stolen history as its own. If there were no bad blood, then there would have been no talk since the draw was made of AFC Wimbledon supporters boycotting the fixture, or attending the match in contamination suits.
In the run up to Sunday’s match MK Dons owner, Pete Winkelman has been very actively defending himself and his actions over the switch to Milton Keynes. Winkelman has stated his surprise that Wimbledon’s fans did not buy the club out of administration with money they had raised, and states that no-one else came in to save the club. In fact this assertion ignores the time line of events. A large proportion of Wimbledon’s supporters turned their back on the club following the application to the FA for permission to move the club in 2002. The club did not find itself in administration until the following year.
Two days after the FA panel’s two to one verdict to allow the club to move AFC Wimbledon was born. The decade since has been spent slowly but steadily proving the FA panel’s verdict was incorrect. The panel was persuaded that it was impossible for Wimbledon to remain in situ and rebuild itself from the bottom of the pyramid. Yet that is exactly what AFC Wimbledon have done. The club has risen from the ninth tier to the fourth, just a division behind MK Dons. There is little wonder that their supporters have adopted the panels words “not in the wider interests of football”, for use on flags and the like. The idea that a fan-base that has watched their beloved club die and then pump the money they have raised into its lifeless corpse, so that the remains can be snatched for them anyway is clearly ridiculous. They had already set about buliding a fitting tribute to their clubs memory and an appropriate continuation of its future. In short by Wimbledon’s 2003 administration it was no longer their club to save.
On suggestions that AFC Wimbledon fans might boycott Sunday’s match Winkelman has been quoted as saying “They do have a history of boycotting their team. So I wouldn’t be surprised”. This feels like a particularly cheap shot as has been pointed out the dwindling attendances that put the club into administration were after the application to move to Milton Keynes. It is hardly a boycott if supporters have made a conscious decision to build a completely different club from scratch as they feel it represents a better chance at continuing the values and atmosphere of their club. In addition to this Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association have not requested a boycott of supporters, although AFC Wimbledon have indicated they will not accept boardroom hospitality.
Neutrals watching televised FA Cup ties almost always find themselves drawn to the underdog. These feelings will be drastically intensified on Sunday. The whole of football was left aghast in 2004 when Wimbledon was ripped from its home and attached to Milton Keynes with a sticking plaster. Supporters around the country could not help themselves but empathise. The feeling of ‘what if that happened to my club?’, was over-whelming. To be honest, all these years later, those feelings have lessened, though only slightly. I have a few acquaintances, who follow the Milton Keynes club that will forever be “The Franchise” to Wimbledon fan’s. There was a time around 2004 when I could not understand how anyone could support MK Dons: If you liked football you would get why it was wrong, if you did not like football why did you need a club to support anyway? The MK Dons fans I know now are of an age when, by the time they started taking a proper interest in football, MK Dons were already there. Supporting a club for a reason, such as it being your local team would normally be something very close to my heart and I cannot criticise people who have grown up with MK Dons for doing this.
On Sunday though the feelings of neutrals up and down the country will be stirred back to 2004. I have no issue with MK Dons as a club, they have a number of players I have previously cheered on at my own club and I have nothing but respect for manager Karl Robinson. The way MK Dons came in to being, however is an affront to everything I hold dear about football. On Sunday for more reasons than usual I will supporting the underdog, out of respect for everything the AFC Wimbledon supporters went through, and for every second of hard work they have put into keeping the spirit of their club alive.
Amongst the catalogue of questionable decisions that led to the formation of AFC Wimbledon, one glaring inaccuracy stands out. AFC Wimbledon you most definitely are in the wider interests of football, you always have been, but never more so than you will be on Sunday.