The tale of how Wimbledon FC was uprooted to Milton Keynes is already part of football folklore and must surely go down as one of the most cowardly moments in the FA’s history. Yet to retell it goes to highlight the determination and passion now found at AFC Wimbledon. Wimbledon FC had been ‘living rough’ since 1991, when then-chairman Sam Hammam shifted them away from Plough Lane and into Selhurst Park as tenants of Crystal Palace. Then, in 1997, Hammam sold eighty per cent of his share in Wimbledon to two wealthy Norwegians whose initial plan had been to exploit the Irish passion for the Premier League by relocating the club to Dublin. But they promptly came unstuck: the fans protested and the Irish FA thwarted the move.
Then along came Pete Winkelman. He had observed that Milton Keynes was one of the largest towns in the UK without a professional football club, and had offered several teams the opportunity to move there, but to no avail. However, for Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel this was the perfect solution. He had already attempted to sell Wimbledon as a franchise, so to him Winkelman’s scheme made complete sense. Supporters again rallied against the move, and in fact the Football League initially refused approval.
To consider the proposal the FA arranged an independent panel which, despite hearing from Merton Borough Council that there was scope to build 20,000-seater stadium, voted to allow it. And with the deal done, the club was swiftly christened ‘Franchise FC’. Only a year later, the team was playing at the National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes and renamed MK Dons. Wimbledon FC was dead. In the meantime, 4,000 hardcore fans had dealt with the prospect of not having a team to cheer on by simply creating their own club: AFC Wimbledon. The newly-formed side joined the football pyramid at the Combined Counties level in 2002. Average attendances that season exceeded 3,000 – higher than those of Wimbledon FC, still playing in what is now the Championship.
The club has since been promoted four times in seven seasons; during this period, it completed 78 consecutive league matches unbeaten, a record in British senior football. This season Wimbledon is pushing ever harder for a return to the Football League, and reside currently in the upper echelons of the Conference. So what has given rise to such a rapid ascent? Crucial to their success is the fact that Wimbledon is a club built and upheld by loyalty. Even the chairman, Erik Samuelson, once a PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant, works long hours at Kingsmeadow on a contract worth a guinea per year. The club is a community of fans which, although it has financial constraints, certainly does not submit easily to the increasingly money-dominated world of football. It is ultimately based on supporting a team. And prospects look bright. When Samuelson speaks of the future, he says ‘when’, not ‘if’, Wimbledon makes it to the Football League. And boosted last year by average attendances of over 3,500, the club made the decision to go full-time this season; further success surely beckons. However tumultuous the future turns out to be, Wimbledon must hope that it does not match the ups and downs seen in the last extraordinary decade.