AFC Wimbledon quest for league football grows ever closer

As AFC Wimbledon fans took in a post-match pint on Saturday, it’s unlikely the hands raising the pint glass had many fingernails left. But Dons fans can now relax somewhat. Bar their promotion rivals Hampton and Richmond Borough going goal crazy on the final day of the season, the fan-owned club is set for a second successive promotion, taking them just one step away from league football.

For fans on non-league, Hampton’s Beveree Stadium was the place to be at the weekend as first traveled to second in the penultimate game of the Blue Square South season. Nothing less than a win would have done for Hampton and for half an hour, after Francis Quarm put the Beavers ahead on 52 minutes, it seemed that the title would go down to the wire.

But with just eight minutes remaining, 33-goal striker Jon Main did what he’s been doing all this season for Wimbledon, and popped up to grab a vital late equaliser to send the traveling support into raptures and, as likely, adding another piece of silverware to the already impressive history of AFC Wimbledon, a club formed out of protest.

Unloved, unwanted and homeless

By now, the story of how Wimbledon were uprooted wholesale to Milton Keynes is written into football folklore and still ranks as one of the most spineless moments in the FA’s history, yet to tell it explains a great deal behind the drive and passion at AFC Wimbledon.

Wimbledon had been homeless since 1991 when then-chairman Sam Hammam moved them out of their old Plough Lane ground and into Selhurst Park as tenants of Crystal Palace. Hammam claimed that this was because the Taylor Report would have reduced Plough Lane’s capacity to 6,000. In reality, the Football League had given them five years to get the ground up to scratch.

Nonetheless, the Dons were now homeless. Hammam again claimed he’d done everything possible to keep the club in Merton but there was nowhere for them to go and the council weren’t willing to help. Needless to say, the Merton Borough Council dispute this version of events.

In 1997, Hammam sold 80% of his stake in Wimbledon to two rich Norwegians, Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten. A year later, Hammam sold Plough Lane to supermarket chain Safeway. The exact figure is uncertain, but estimates stand at around £8m, meaning the ex-chairman made a significant profit on the club.

Meanwhile, the Norwegians were coming unstuck. Their original plan had been to tap into the Irish enthusiasm for the Premier League by uprooting the club to Dublin. Fans were up in arms, as were the Irish FA, who blocked the move. The English FA supported their Irish counterparts and the club was left in limbo. A return to Plough Lane was out of the question and there wasn’t enough cash to build a new stadium.

The MK move

Enter, stage left, Pete Winkleman. The music producer had noted that Milton Keynes – a new town born in 1967 – was one of the largest towns in Europe without a professional football club, and had unsuccessfully approached several teams trying to convince them to move to the concrete conurbation (never minding that residents of Milton Keynes had hitherto been uninterested in making a fist of establishing a team in the town).

But for Wimbledon and their new chairman Charles Koppel (appointed by the Norwegians) this presented them with a perfect solution. They had already tried to hawk Wimbledon around as a franchise, so Winkleman’s move made sense.

It took some time for the move to be approved. Fans protested and the Football league initially said no. Koppel appealed and the issue went to an arbitration panel, who handed the problem back to the League, who asked the FA to set up an independent panel to assess the proposed move.

Despite hearing from Merton Borough Council that there was enough space to build a 20,000 seater stadium, the panel voted 2-1 to allow the move, noting that, in their view, it was the only solution to saving Wimbledon. With the deal to move to Milton Keynes done, the club was swiftly dubbed Franchise FC.

Sidenote: As a quick note, Wimbledon weren’t the first club to uproot and move from their community because a chairman scented money. Back in 1913, struggling Woolwich Arsenal were moved from South East London up to Highbury and renamed Arsenal as chairman Henry Norris looked to exploit an the fanbase north of the river.

While preparations were made to move, crowds at Slehurst Park fell drastically for the Wimbledon games, with fans of both Wimbledon and away sides boycotting the games. In 2002 just 849 turned up to watch the Dons play Rotherham.

A year later, the club were playing at the National Hockey Stadium at Milton Keynes and renamed the MK Dons. Wimbledon FC, as a club, was dead.

Rising from the ashes

In South London, meanwhile, the hardcore 4,000 fans had faced up to the prospect of not having a team to support by simply creating their own side: AFC Wimbledon.

Led by Wimbledon Independent Supporters’ Association chair Kris Stewart, the newly formed Wimbledon joined the pyramid at the Combined Counties League level in 2002. Two years after joining, they were promoted to the Isthmian League 1st Division after going the season unbeaten. A year later they were in the Isthmian Premier after a second successive promotion.

The next two seasons saw them push hard for promotion to the Conference South, losing out twice in succession in the playoff semis. Finally, last season, they finished third and finally made it to step two, beating Staines Town in the final.

The difference in quality between the Step Three league and the Conference South isn’t much and AFC Wimbledon, along with big-spending Chelmsford City, who ran away with the Ryman Premier, were expected to push for the playoffs at the very least.

But the two sides went better than the playoffs. Halfway through the season, it seemed it was a two-horse race between the two, but after the Dons defeated Chelmsford in a first vs second clash at Kingsmeadow at the end of January, the Essex side dropped off badly, beset by internal fights. The title, it seemed, was Wimbledon’s to throw away.

Womble wobbles

And throw it away they nearly did (although their wobble has been nowhere near as bad as Burton Albion in the league above). A goalless draw against struggling Havant and Waterlooville set a slight stutter in motion that saw the Dons take just three wins in ten games.

Meanwhile, last season’s defeated playoff finalists Hampton and Richmond Borough hit form at just the right time. Try as they could, Wimbledon just couldn’t make the finish line.

As the season counted down, Hampton moved within three points of AFC, setting the title up for a grandstand finish – the teams were set to play each other in last weekend’s penultimate game of the season.

Wimbledon’s match before that Hampton game – away at Bromley on Easter Monday – came complete with one of those controversial moments that have the potential to win or lose titles.

Leading 2-1 in a tightly fought game, AFC put the ball out of play to treat an injury. From the throw-in, Bromley’s Ryan Hall volleyed the ball back. It was almost certainly unintended but rather than going out for a goal kick, the ball flew into the back of the net. Hall celebrated like he’d socred the goal of his career and the Bromley bench refused to let Wimbledon walk the ball into the back of the net, resulting in angry scenes at the final whistle a few minutes later.

The title decider

The pressure was still on as AFC travelled to Hampton, who were three points behind. The Beavers needed a win to take the title down to the final day, while Wimbledon, who a superior goal difference, needed just a point to be 99% sure of wrapping matters up.

What followed was one of those games full of drama that proves you don’t need the Premier League to get excited about football. Francis Quarm put the home side ahead on 52 minutes and as the minutes ticked by it seemed as if the title could be lost.

And then, with seven minutes left on the clock, another moment of controversy. Two Hampton players collided, one of them, John Scarborough, suffering a serious leg injury in the process.

But the referee waved play on, and Wimbledon threw the ball in close to the stricken Scarborough, the ball’s fizzed across the box and the prolific Jon Main nets the equaliser. Ten minutes later, at full time, AFC fans invaded the pitch in the knowledge that their club had all but sealed promotion to the Conference.

Assuming all goes to plan this weekend, AFC Wimbledon will be one step away from league football, a remarkable achievement in such a short space of time, and ever closer to meeting the MK Dons in a competitive match, although ‘Franchise FC’ could well gain promotion to the Championship this season.

But it’s AFC who have greater claim to the history and connections to the departed original Wimbledon. However, AFC Wimbledon are very much a new club and are already creating their own memories and history. Come 5pm on Saturday, they’ll probably have added another.

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