On Sunday, a large number of AFC Wimbledon fans travelling to Milton Keynes for an FA Cup second round tie will wear anti-radiation suits, an expression of their utter contempt for the team they will face. Wimbledon’s directors will sit not in the VIP box but with the travelling support.
This level of disgust is unique. But this is not a derby or a rivalry; this is one team playing against a side it refuses to acknowledge exists, one side playing against the team it used to be. When the draw paired MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon, there was even talk of boycotting the game altogether.
"We will be professional, maintain our reputation; this is something we have to get done, while knowing many of us probably will not enjoy it very much," said Erik Samuelson, AFC Wimbledon’s chief executive.
The rise of Wimbledon was one of the great fairy tales of the eighties. Its story, Stephen Crabtree wrote in The Dons – The Amazing Journey "would seem far-fetched if it appeared in the pages of [classic English soccer comic book] Roy of the Rovers… it achieved, despite little financial backing, pathetic support, a non-league standard ground and unknown players."
Perhaps at first it was. Wimbledon were elected to the league in 1977 (‘league’ referring to the top four divisions of English football, teams who fall under the auspices of the Football League or the Premier League), and then, under Dario Gradi, won promotion to the Third Division. Wimbledon was promptly relegated, Gradi left for Crystal Palace in February 1981, and then, under its new manager Dave Bassett, it was promoted again. And immediately relegated. It was a grim pattern.
That next season in the Fourth Division, though, proved a watershed. It started promisingly, but as results fell away in November, Bassett changed his approach. "We began the season using a sweeper at the back which worked well," Bassett said that February, "but now we’ve changed to get the ball up to the front very fast. It suits the team."
There were claims that Wimbledon was awful to watch, but Bassett was dismissive. "It depends on what you mean by attractive," he said at the time. "There is more goalmouth incident for our supporters to enjoy in our games than lots of other teams I’ve seen this season. Call it what you like. We’re here to win games and win promotion."
Wimbledon did win games and was promoted in 1983. And again in 1984. And again in 1986. The style may have been ugly, there may even have been an unpleasantly violent undercurrent to its play, but Wimbledon had gone in nine seasons from non-league to the top flight. In 1988, it won the FA Cup, beating Liverpool in the final.
No team had ever risen so fast – but that brought its own problems. Plough Lane, Wimbledon’s ground, was dilapidated and run-down. As the recommendations of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster were implemented, it soon became apparent it was impossible to continue to play top-flight football there. So Wimbledon began sharing Selhurst Park, the home of Crystal Palace, six miles away. There were numerous schemes to redevelop Plough Lane or to build a new ground but land is expensive in south-west London and, with the local council seeming reluctant to help, the issue dragged on.
The club’s chairman, the Lebanese businessman Sam Hammam, tiring of the constant battle to sell Plough Lane and to find a new site, began to explore more outlandish options. Remarkably, he won Premier League approval to relocate the club to Dublin, only for the plan to be blocked by the Football Association of Ireland. Frustrated, he sold his shares in 2000.
At the same time, the new town of Milton Keynes, established in 1967 to the north of London, was aggressively seeking a football club. This was highly unusual. In England, soccer clubs are organic, their connection to their community a vital part of their identity; they are formed and enter the lowest level of the league pyramid, working their way, if good enough, slowly upwards. That is what Wimbledon had done in winning repeated promotions from the Southern League to the First Division.
There had been earlier plans to move Charlton, Luton and, indeed, Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, but all had fallen through. In 2000, though, the music producer Pete Winkelman led a consortium that submitted plans for a shopping complex in Milton Keynes, the centerpiece of which would be a 30,000-seater football stadium. Given the local side, MK City, played in the South Midlands league, seven tiers below the Premier League, it soon became apparent he was seeking to import a club from elsewhere. Wimbledon, struggling financially under the Norwegian owners who had replaced Hammam and with crowds of only 8,000, were the perfect choice.
The League, the Football Association and the vast majority of Wimbledon fans opposed the move – the first by a league club into a new town or borough since Arsenal had relocated across London from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913. An FA commission, though, approved the move and, in September 2003, Wimbledon began to play home games 62 miles from Wimbledon. Angered fans had already founded a new club, AFC Wimbledon, which entered the league pyramid eight levels below the Premier League.
Wimbledon was eventually renamed MK Dons (Dons being the nickname of the original Wimbledon) while Winkleman accepted that the past history of the club belonged rightfully to AFC Wimbledon. As AFC Wimbledon rose, winning promotion back into the league, MK Dons, derided as ‘Franchise FC’ bobbed around League One and Two. Now in League One, it stands just one division above AFC Wimbledon.
The panel that made the decision to allow the club to move noted that, "Resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, ‘Wimbledon Town’ is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so they could go back to the position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football.”
It seemed an oddly callous thing to say at the time; now it has simply been proved wrong. Many of the Wimbledon fans who choose not to wear the protective suits on Saturday will sport T-shirts bearing the slogan "Not in the wider interests of football." For them, a club established by the fans and still under fan ownership is precisely what football is about.
There have been suggestions that the reborn Wimbledon has been heavy-handed in its dealings with non-league clubs. But on Saturday, as franchises meet organic fans’ clubs, the vast majority of fans elsewhere in the country will be hoping Wimbledon upsets Milton Keynes.