Tuesday 20 February 2018

Rejuvenated Wimbledon won't be paying their respects to the Dons

Supporters-owned club secure date with Milton Keynes rivals who 'stole' their name, writes Daniel Taylor

In one respect, it would be nice to think the away end will be empty and the protest a visible one, in the form of row after row of unfilled seats, with the message it sends that, ultimately, it is the people who watch football who choose its good guys and its pariahs.

Equally, it would be easy to understand if there are supporters of AFC Wimbledon who want to seize the moment and not join the boycott when the alternative is to make their feelings known in person, however affronted they are by the idea of putting money into the club, Milton Keynes Dons, they prefer to call 'the franchise'.

They could release black balloons, as they did when it became clear that a group of businessmen with glossy brochures and all the answers were planning the relocation and slow torture of a 113-year-old club. But a lot of things were tried back in those days – protest marches and placards and leaflets and general clasping of hands and pleading with the relevant authorities to do the right thing. But it didn't make any difference. The people in charge ignored them, the Crazy Gang was wound up and the announcement from FA headquarters came on May 28, 2002.

The supporters of a club that had risen through the leagues, beaten Liverpool in an FA Cup final and pricked just about every ego going, had their JFK moment.

What has happened since is so inspirational it should really be made into a film. Most films like a happy ending, too, and an away win at the Stadium MK on December 2 would certainly make a powerful final scene now the FA Cup has brought the two sides together for the first time. If nothing else, it would be interesting to see who gets to play Pete Winkelman, gritting his teeth in the directors' box and maybe – just maybe – wondering whether it was worth all the hassle.

Winkelman's vision of football taking off at a newish town just off junction 14 of the M1 never quite worked out as he hoped, did it? At the same time, AFC Wimbledon, formed from the ashes of the old club, have become one of the great football stories of the past decade, on a steep trajectory that has taken them into the Football League, incorporating five promotions in nine years, a 78-match unbeaten run lasting the best part of two years and, more than anything, a reminder that football is supposed to be a place for enjoyment – not politics, profile-building or the rich getting richer.

AFC Wimbledon are proof that a supporter-run club can work and be a role model, certainly, for the Portsmouth Supporters' Trust as it takes its first steps into what is essentially a hard, unforgiving workplace, sifting through the mess that others have left behind, with no guarantees that it will work out.

At least Portsmouth, under their new regime, have the head start of beginning in League One and having a place to play. Wimbledon's first game was against Sutton United, a pre-season friendly preparing for a place in the Combined Counties League, for clubs from London, Berkshire, Hampshire, Middlesex and Surrey. They lost 4-0.

The next eight games were all defeats before finally breaking the duck against Enfield Town in the Supporters' Direct Cup. All things considered, it is a minor miracle that, at 5.44pm on May 21 last year, their captain, Danny Kedwell, turned to his team-mates on the halfway line at the City of Manchester Stadium, at 3-3 in a penalty shoot-out with Luton Town, uttered four words – "this is our time" – and then set off to take the kick that won the Conference play-off final and a place in the league.

Would a win on December 2 even trump that? Probably not, actually. Naturally, it would be pretty damn sweet – revenge, schadenfreude, bitterness; call it what you will – but it would be wrong to think Wimbledon are looking forward to this tie. The second-round draw has simply picked at a lot of old wounds about the long chain of events that ended with the FA apparently forgetting that a football club is meant to represent its community and ticking off the move that meant Wimbledon – broke, homeless Wimbledon – were shunted 60 miles north.

Those grievances will never go away and it is hardly surprising when the politics and scheming before that point made it such a dirty fight. A classic example: at the time the then club's chairman, Charles Koppel, another director and a legal adviser tried to get on board a local residents' association to oppose the fans' suggestion that the old Plough Lane site was big

enough for a new stadium. What Koppel did not know was that one of the homeowners was sympathetic to the supporters and secretly taping the meeting. Among other gems, Koppel was overheard saying: "Football supporters are not necessarily the kind of people you want on your doorstep."

What they had on their doorstep instead was a planning battle with Safeway to prevent a supermarket going up. The wreck of the old ground lay untouched for years and if you walk down there now you will see a number of unremarkable flats named Bassett House, Cork House, Lawrie House and so on.

As for the club that made those names famous, there is a reason why some of the AFC Wimbledon supporters who do go to Milton Keynes next month might be wearing T-shirts carrying the immortal quote "not in the wider of interests of football".

To clarify, they were the words the FA's commission chose about the possibility of a breakaway club once the three members on the panel had finished considering Koppel's appeal against the Football League vote, 8-0, to block the move to Milton Keynes. Alan Turvey, chairman of the Ryman League, agreed with the original decision. Steve Stride, then Aston Villa's secretary, went the other way and so did the panel chairman, Raj Parker, a solicitor.

The vote was 2-1 and, somewhere across London, a Wimbledon fan by the name of Erik Samuelson was in a cab, on his way to a business meeting. The driver broke the news. "Oh they've allowed Wimbledon to go to Milton Keynes." Samuelson remembers nothing of what happened in that meeting. "My stomach went through the floor. I felt physically sick."

Samuelson is chief executive of the new club and, along with the other board members, he will not be accepting Winkelman's hospitality. The truth is they would rather chew on glass than touch Milton Keynes's sausage rolls.

They would also like 'Dons' to be removed from the Milton Keynes name, though Winkelman seems to think that's all a bit rich. "I'm surprised Erik thinks I would listen to someone who wasn't one of our fans." Which sort of ignores the fact that he and Koppel and various others never listened to Wimbledon supporters.

It happens too often but at least, through all the mud, sweat and tears, AFC Wimbledon have shown what can be done. They now have an FA Cup tie to get ready for against the club that wanted a south London team in Northamptonshire, in a competition run by the organisation that sanctioned it, and at a ground that is usually two-thirds empty (average league gate: 8,518) when once it was argued a 20,000-capacity stadium at Plough Lane could never be big enough. We're meant to be an unbiased lot, us journalists. Forgive me if, for this match, I make an exception.


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