Nine years ago, in the dark of the night, a big bunch of burly businessmen barged their way in to SW19 and ripped the footballing heart and soul out of the local community. Without a care in the world, Wimbledon FC was whisked 56 miles up the M1 and in to a town that was 78 years younger than the club it was to inherit. That town was Milton Keynes.
Many would have you believe this was a callous act of sheer greed and desperation. For one of few towns in England without any form of footballing identity, it was certainly an appealing proposition. One that was too good to miss out on. Wimbledon FC was on its knees.
In June 2002, Gjelsten and Roekke, co-owners of Wimbledon FC, estimated personal losses of £40milion against the club. Speculation of bankruptcy was rife, and fans continued to boycott matches in protest. A month earlier, an FA Independent Commission had rubber stamped a potential move to Milton Keynes. WISA members responded by opting to stay away from their team for the forthcoming season as wel, wherever they may be playing. The water had broken, and AFC was about to be born.
Being strapped for cash was nothing new though. They had already been homeless for 11 years, making the move across from the Borough of Merton to the Borough of Croydon in 1991. Here they were to borrow Selhurst Park, following the condemnation of Plough Lane a year prior by the Taylor Report. Without the money to implement new mandatory safety measures for their fans, players, and staff, the ground was sold to Safeway in 1998 – leaving Wimbledon with nowhere to call home.
So with no home and a fan base who had largely turned their back during the club’s desperate time of need, Wimbledon as it was known was teetering. Administration loomed and a year later, the inevitable happened. At this stage, most are probably picturing Pete Winkelman and a masked gang of men storming Dons:HQ, stuffing the remnants of what was left in to a briefcase, and making haste – ensuring they grab the ’88 FA Cup on the way out.
Well, if the MK Dons chairman is to be believed, it wasn’t as merciless as many pundits, fans, and social media outlets would have you think. In an interview given recently to the BBC, Mr Winkelman lifted the lid. “To most people in football the way they imagine it happened is so different to the way that it actually did. It wasn’t the big Norwegian billionaire owners who moved the club to Milton Keynes. It was an administrator who said ‘I’m going liquidate the club tomorrow unless you come up with the money to keep it going. The only way I could come up with the money to keep it going was to move it to Milton Keynes.”
Here’s where it really gets interesting. “For the first seven weeks of that administration we did nothing. I will never understand why AFC Wimbledon did not buy their club. That’s the bit that always confuses me.”
He’s right. Why did AFC and its legion of fans ignore the opportunity to buy up their club, for what surely would’ve been nothing but a token gesture? Could it be that the hassle, the cost, the worth of what was once theirs was no longer of their concern? A place in the Football League was assured, and finally the chance was there to gain control of their destiny.
A response of sorts will no doubt emanate from Kingston over the coming days, where AFC have resided since their inception – having lodged on, and subsequently taken sole lease of, Kingsmeadow. Kingsmeadow had been the home of Kingstonian FC since they built it themselves in 1989. Fans of the K’s saw their ground handed over to AFC in 2003, and despite Kingstonian still plying their trade there, a rebranding of the stadium name has followed and this is now very much AFC’sstadium for the foreseeable future. Just how long will it be before Wimbledon ever really has a club back in its community?
Football fans everywhere can sympathise with the suffering fans of Wimbledon, watching on as the club they loved so dearly suffered an agonising demise. It is every fans worst nightmare. However, as the dwindling numbers through the turnstiles (from an average of 18,500 per home game in 1999, to 3,000 in 2003) accompanied the many failings on – and off – the pitch, the end was very much nigh.
Nine years on and MK Dons are an established League One outfit – averaging 9,000 a week since 2008 – having inherited all that of which AFC kindly refused, and turned it around. They have planted a local footballing seed and embraced a community desperate to move away from the armchair on a Saturday afternoon.
AFC Wimbledon’s success, especially on the pitch, has been meteoric. Multiple promotions and record-breaking streaks (78 games unbeaten, spanning 22 months in 03-04) have brought honour to an area so heavily deprived of the joys of football for a long time. Some may even suggest it couldn’t have worked out much better. Others, may disagree.
Neither season will be defined by the result of this weekend. For both sides, the focus is set firmly on league status – at both ends of their respective tables. MK Dons have been on a terrific run of form throughout November, and with 43 league places between the teams, will be clear favourites on the day. Promotion and survival are very much the order of the day.
For both Dons, growth and stability are key, core elements – as is a passionate desire and determination to claim a footballing identity they can call their own. Perhaps, come Monday morning, the contamination suits can be put away, and a sense of perspective can prevail.
Unless it goes to a replay, of course.
Written by Paul Speller, We Are Going Up’s MK Dons Blogger
Paul tweets at @paul_speller