“It only took nine years” was the cry from South-West London last summer, when AFC Wimbledon won promotion back to the Football League after a dramatic penalty-shoot-out win – as if there is any other sort – against Luton Town at The City of Manchester Stadium in the Blue Square Premier play-off final. After a strong start to the League Two season, the team tailed off a little and even looked for a while as if they may get sucked into a battle to avoid relegation back from the Football League after just one season. Three straight wins, however, seems to have steadied the nerves of their jumpier supporters and, although they remain in fifteenth place in the table, they are considerably closer to the play-off places than they are to the relegation places at the time of writing, with nineteen games of the season left to play.
Last week, however, a new campaign was started by the Wimbledon Guardian with reference to the club that has always represented everything that AFC Wimbledon isn’t. Milton Keynes Dons continue to exist in League One, despite their ongoing status as perhaps the pariah club of English football. The Guardian’s campaign, Drop The Dons, is seeking to persuade this club to drop the suffix to its name which harks back to the Football League place formerly held by Wimbledon FC, but the question of whether this should or will happen is not, perhaps, as straightforward as it might appear upon a casual glance.
There can be little doubt that the “Dons” aspect of the Milton Keynes name – most supporters, including many of other clubs that recognise the fundamental injustice of what happened in 2002 – is a continuing affront to AFC Wimbledon. Indeed, its continuing existence remains an affront to AFC Wimbledon and, as the widespread congratulations that were offered towards them upon their promotion at the end of last season by the supporters of other clubs. “Wimbledon’s supporters”, says the Wimbledon Guardian, “were rightly outraged by a decision that betrayed fans and amounted to the creation of soulless football franchise.” They have attracted support from the likes of former manager Dave Anderson and former Wimbledon FC defender Chris Perry, and a petition has attracted over 1,000 signatures.
It is in this figure, however, that the problem with this initiative manifests itself. AFC Wimbledon attract over 4,000 supporters to each of their matches, which indicates that this particular petition isn’t getting the support of the Wimbledon fan-base that we might automatically have expected it to. There are several reasons behind this, and none of them have anything to do with having any sympathy towards Peter Winkleman’s Buckinghamshire-based project. It is a reasonable concern that, while the campaign has the support of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association, there has been no official comment from the club itself’s Trust Board on the subject at the time of writing.
More troubling than this, perhaps, is the idea that such a campaign is playing into the hands of Winkelman and his acolytes. By running such a high-profile campaign, it could appear to some – whether rightly or wrongly – that the are being petulant about something that doesn’t really matter that much at this point. It could also be argued that a change of name would legitimise the pariah, whereas continuing to associate themselves with the events which resulted in their existence will forever remind anyone that looks at a league table or the results on a Saturday afternoon of exactly where they came from. The opportunity to reinvent may allow the franchise club to claim greater links to its local community.
Others might well argue that if Wimbledon are to protest about anything at this particular stage in their existence, it should come in the form of greater lobbying of Merton Borough Council to return them to the place that the club and its support still regard as home. There can be little question that Kingsmeadow remains an unsatisfactory home venue for a club that still has aspirations of moving up through the Football League. There has been positive news of sorts in this direction with the news that the council is looking at “intensification of sporting activity” being one of the keys to the redevelopment of the Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium site, although other sites are also understood to be under review and such a move could be several years away, yet.
Perhaps the most important element to this issue as it relates to AFC Wimbledon is that their club has got as far as it has got on its own merits, and that there are doubtless many more adventures to come. Any decision that Peter Winkelman may make will be made off his own back, and it appears doubtful that he will take the feelings or opinions of AFC Wimbledon supporters in taking such a decision. If he gave a tu’penny damn for their feelings, he wouldn’t be involved where he is now. As we stand, the two clubs co-exist and no more. If or when they should meet as equals in the league, whether to boycott the match or not will be a decision for their supporters to take at that particular time. What is encouraging to see is that AFC Wimbledon, as a democracy, can continue to debate this sort of question in the open. This is a sign of strength, rather than weakness and it seems unlikely that the Football League’s pariah club will be forgiven or the means by which they came into being will be forgotten at any point in the foreseeable future, regardless of what they are called.
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