October 7, 2012 by mapperleystag1
A decade has passed since the formation of AFC Wimbledon by disgruntled Wimbledon supporters, furious at the decision to relocate to Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, some 56 miles north of their traditional home. We look at the successes of this fan-run project, both in terms of achievements on the pitch and in placing the club back at the centre of its community.
Ten years ago, the FA backed the verdict of an independent commission allowing Wimbledon F.C. to relocate to Milton Keynes. This decision was met with outrage by the vast majority of Dons fans, who saw this move as the ‘death of the club’, as it no longer represented the proud traditions and history of the south London side. Consequently, supporters of the club quickly chose to disassociate themselves from this move and on 30 May 2002, formed a phoenix club, AFC Wimbledon. The aims of this project above all else were to ensure that the views of the core supporters would always be represented and, therefore, the best interests of the club would be given precedence. This is reflected in the decision to name the new club AFC Wimbledon, with the letters AFC standing for ‘A Fans Club’ and the company being placed in the hands of the Dons Trust, a democratically elected supporters’ group which pledged to retain a minimum of 75% control of that ownership.
Whilst the new club had been formed and organised with impressive speed, the most urgent problem was in assembling a squad for the 2002/2003 season in the Combined Counties League Premier Division, level nine in the English Football League pyramid. A total of 230 unattached players were involved in a try out on Wimbledon Common in late June, with the majority of the squad picked from this event. After a slow start in the league, the Dons won their last eleven games, finishing third and ultimately failing to win promotion to Isthmian League First Division. However, a huge positive from the season was the support that they received: the average crowd at Kingsmeadow (home to AFC Wimbledon) was over 3000, with many games including the first ever game and first league game at home comfortably exceeding 4000; in this season the crowds at Wimbledon F.C. (still playing at Selhurst Park) were lower, a clear indication that the majority of fans had abandoned the club. In the following season, AFC Wimbledon stormed to the championship with an incredible record of 42 wins and 4 draws in the season. By contrast, the fortunes for Wimbledon, who by now were playing at the National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes, were disastrous, with relegation into the third tier of English football followed by administration. For the start of the new season, the name Wimbledon also had disappeared, replaced with the controversial and provocative title of MK Dons.
Over the next few seasons, AFC Wimbledon continued to rise through the divisions, with three promotions in 2005, 2008 and 2009, the latter as champions of the Conference South, meaning the club reached the highest level in non-league football, all in the space of just seven seasons. After a season of consolidation in the league, finishing 8th, the following campaign saw Wimbledon mount a sustained title challenge, narrowly missing out on the championship to Crawley Town. In the playoffs, the Dons easily disposed of Fleetwood Town in the semi-finals, winning 8-1 on aggregate, which included an incredible 6-1 win in the 2nd leg at home. The aggregate score was a record for the Conference playoffs. After a tense playoff final against Luton Town at the City of Manchester Stadium, Wimbledon triumphed on penalties 4-3, with the heroes being goalkeeper Seb Brown and club captain, Danny Kedwell, playing in his final game for the club, scoring the decisive penalty to round off an excellent season for him personally and for the club as a whole. In only nine seasons the club had reached (or returned to, depending on your viewpoint) the Football League, winning five promotions along the way.
Whilst the significance of the Dons’ phenomenal rise through the divisions, from local football to the Football League should not be downplayed or underestimated, perhaps the real success of AFC Wimbledon has been behind the scenes, especially in its efforts to be at the heart of the local community. In 2004, the club established the Community Football Scheme. Six years later, this programme was awarded the FA Charter Standard Community Club award, the highest possible award for such a scheme. At present, the club offers a variety of footballing courses for children of any ability between the ages of 4 and 14, where they receive coaching from FA qualified coaches. Moreover, the club offers a Schools Coaching Programme in neighbouring Merton and Kingston, where a healthy lifestyle is encouraged through the promotion of football and other sports. Furthermore, this year the club has been one of the leading figures in the country in promoting the FA’s Respect campaign in local primary and secondary schools. These efforts outlined above have ensured that AFC Wimbledon has been at the centre of its community since its formation.
On and off the pitch, it is seemingly impossible to view the first decade in the existence of AFC Wimbledon as anything other than a resounding success. The club holds the record of being unbeaten for a remarkable 78 games between February 2003 and December 2004, an all-time record in English senior football. Additionally, AFC Wimbledon are the only side ever to have been promoted from the ninth tier of English football into the Football League. Equally, they are the first side formed in the 21st century to make it into the Football League. Whilst these statistics are undoubtedly impressive, AFC Wimbledon’s finest achievement has been in creating a fans’ club which is properly organised, listens to its supporters and takes a keen interest in the community where it is based, something it is unlikely ever to be said of MK Dons. That is the real legacy of the original Wimbledon F.C., not the imitation that is based in Milton Keynes. Arguably though, AFC Wimbledon have already eclipsed their predecessor’s famous history in terms of the achievements of the club. Although unlikely, it is not inconceivable in the future that Wimbledon could replicate the meteoric rise through the divisions from non-league to the top flight that the old Crazy Gang experienced. Along the way, a match against bitter enemies MK Dons would capture the imagination of the footballing nation, with very few people outside of Milton Keynes wanting anything other a victory for the fans’ club and a comprehensive humiliation of the ‘Franchise F.C.’