Disenfranchised Dons club together
Sunday's FA Cup draw induced a collective gasp from English football fans as it threw up the possibility that AFC Wimbledon could face their nemeses, MK Dons, in the second round. If both clubs win their replays then wounds will be reopened - wounds that are still savagely raw following a decision eight years ago that ripped a club from its community, spawned the derogatory nickname 'Franchise FC' and resulted in the birth of a supporter-owned club that would prove a model for such ventures in future.
Derbies in football are created and sustained for a plethora of reasons. In Rome, rivalry is driven by very local rifts in a divided city; between Real Madrid and Barcelona, historical, cultural and political differences engender fierce emotions, even hatred; in Glasgow, Celtic and Rangers are vehemently divided by religion. One aspect unites them though: supporters relish the chance to take to the terraces and face the team that in opposition helps define their own identity as a fan.
But for many AFC Wimbledon supporters, there was no such sense of heightened anticipation, no excitement when the FA Cup draw was made. The club articulated as much with a statement in response to the news they could face MK Dons: "Most people know the way that Milton Keynes obtained their football club. It was wrong then and it is still wrong now, which makes this fixture very painful for us... we would have preferred that it hadn't happened."
For AFC, MK Dons are not a legitimate club, and therefore it is not a legitimate fixture. A possible meeting between the two clubs cannot be described as a derby; it is a grudge match, perhaps the most intense in English football. And the reasons behind this distinction deserve retelling.
Comparisons have been drawn with FC United of Manchester, the protest club set up in opposition to the Glazer regime at Manchester United, but the hurt felt by the supporters of AFC Wimbledon goes much deeper. Though the Glazer occupation of Old Trafford is also a cautionary tale for the adverse impact that finances can have on football, it is not on the same scale as the events that befell Wimbledon eight years ago. It only could be if the Glazers relocated the club 60 miles away, renamed them Doncaster Devils and forfeited the club's trophy cabinet and history.
Wimbledon's history details how the club were formed in the 19th century and pottered about non-league football until, in 1977, they won promotion to the Football League. After replacing Dario Gradi with Dave Bassett, Wimbledon won the first of three promotions in four years in 1983 to rise rapidly through the league ladder and into the First Division, the so-called 'Crazy Gang' utilising a direct style and a confrontational approach to upset clubs and teams considered superior. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this ability to defy logic came in the 1988 FA Cup final when, under Bobby Gould, they shocked the football royalty of Liverpool. As commentator John Motson put it: "The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club."
In the space of 11 years they had gone from non-league football to winning the most famous domestic cup competition in the world - a vivid demonstration of how hard work, merit and no little on-pitch skulduggery could translate into tangible success. But such accelerated development brought its own problems.
Fearing that the club's traditional home of Plough Lane could no longer support the wage bill and ambitions of a top-flight side, Wimbledon's officials had been seeking alternative options and as early as 1987 fans had seen off proposals from owner Sam Hammam to merge with Crystal Palace. In 1991, Hammam revealed in his programme notes for the final game of the season, against Palace no less, that Wimbledon would be moving in with the Eagles and groundsharing at Selhurst Park.
Plough Lane was abandoned after 92 years, with many supporters suspicious that relocation was unnecessary, but the club ploughed on in the top flight nonetheless, largely avoiding further controversy over its location until 1997. In that year, Hammam sold the club to Norwegian pair Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten for £25 million.
In December, and having seen sold on the idea by Hammam, the new regime announced plans to indeed relocate the club, but across the Irish Sea to Dublin in an attempt to exploit the popularity of the Premier League in the country. A decade ahead of abortive plans for a 39th game, this was an attempt to export the commercial product that the Premier League had become and despite fervent opposition from beleaguered supporters, the clubs voted in favour. Only opposition from the Irish FA in May 1998 prevented the controversial move.
Though the concept of franchising is very much established in American sports, it has never been an acceptable part of English football - a few notable expectations aside, including Arsenal's infamous move from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913 of course - but inside four years the dreaded scenario became a reality for Dons fans, and it was to Buckinghamshire and not Ireland that Wimbledon would be wrenched.
Milton Keynes - itself a fresh incarnation having been established as a new town in 1967, and best known for its concrete cows and roundabouts - was without a professional football club. Music producer Pete Winkelman, a member of a mystery consortium, had unsuccessfully approached clubs such as Luton and QPR with a view to relocating, only to be refused.
In 2000, and with Wimbledon contending with the negative financial impact of relegation, Winkelman first tested the water with new Dons chairman Charles Koppel. In July 2001, a majority of the Wimbledon board voted in favour of the move to Milton Keynes. It was suggested ASDA was involved in the process, leading journalist David Conn to write, in his authoritative The Beautiful Game? Searching for the Soul of Football, that "Wimbledon, the old proud non-league club, became a pawn in another property deal involving a supermarket chain".
Long-suffering supporters were once again up in arms, but appeared to have won a reprieve when the Football League opposed the move in August. League rules stated: "The location of the ground, in its relation to the conurbation from which the club takes its name or with which it is otherwise traditionally association, must meet with the approval of the board." That approval was not forthcoming, but Koppel petitioned the League again, citing Wimbledon's dire financial circumstances, and an FA arbitration panel determined that the matter should be considered once more.
Merton Council leader Andrew Judge said: "When the case is re-heard by the Football League, we are confident it will once again be rejected. Wimbledon's fans, the majority of residents in Merton and football fans throughout the country are against the move." His belief that the football world opposed the franchise was correct, but his confidence in the authorities was misplaced.
In April 2002, the League asked the FA to set up an independent panel, which, despite representations from the Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association (WISA) and various other fans' bodies, announced on May 28 that the move had been approved. The panel cited fears over Wimbledon's possible financial collapse as a justification for uprooting the club and moving it over 60 miles away, and further recommended that "resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, 'Wimbledon Town' is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so that they could go back to the position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football."
Supporters were apoplectic. The football authorities had allowed their treasured club to be torn away from the local community and moved to a town that had no history of professional football, and had in practice purchased its place in the Football League. Distraught, disillusioned and disgusted, Dons supporters turned their backs on what was now described as 'Franchise FC' and established AFC Wimbledon. WISA chairman Kris Stewart told Conn: "We thought of it as our club. Wimbledon had become Franchise FC and they were gone. We were the ones continuing the tradition."
And continue the tradition they did. AFC Wimbledon started from scratch, held trials on Wimbledon Common, quickly assembled a team of strangers and entered the Combined Counties League, embarking on a rapid rise through the non-league strata that echoed Wimbledon's success of the 1980s, setting unbeaten records along the way and attracting huge crowds.
But eight years on from the darkest day in Wimbledon's history, the FA Cup draw has re-opened the issue, bringing hostility to the surface once again. As supporter Richard Douglas told When Saturday Comes: "Out of the despair of May 2002, we could have gone two ways: to hatred and bitterness or to something better and hopeful. And Wimbledon is a club of love and hope following that despair, and I don't want to be reminded of that bitterness. I don't think I'd like what a match with them would do to me."
What happened next? As fans deserted Wimbledon in droves, their attendances plummeted to record low levels for the First Division and the club applied for administration in May 2003 after Rokke and Gjelsen withdrew their funding. Winkelman and his consortium stepped in to cover losses and in September of that year, Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes. The club's name changed to MK Dons in June 2004 and in 2007 they handed back the trophies won by Wimbledon Football Club to the London Borough of Merton.