“It only took nine years” was the song booming from the AFC Wimbledon end of The City of Manchester Stadium at the end of the Blue Square Bet Premier play-off final against Luton Town in May of last year. There was a certain irony to the fact that two clubs from the south-east of England had to travel over two hundred miles to play a match that would ordinarily have been played at Wembley. Big money was winning again, and the scheduling of the Champions League final meant that twenty thousand supporters would have to decamp to the other end of the country for the day. It was no great hardship – after all, how many clubs from the north of England have had to make the same journey in the opposite direction down the years? – but it certainly impacted on the size of the crowd for such a showpiece fixture. It would have been unsurprising to see three times as many people turn out had the match been played in London.
If there were some supporters of AFC Wimbledon whose thoughts turned to the possibility of returning to the Football League in August 2002, such a journey must have felt like the footballing equivalent of having to scale Mount Everest. The Combined Counties League, a feeder league to the Ryman League, was the sort of environment in which the post-match pint was as important as anything that happened on the pitch, but the teams could play a bit, too. For their first home match, a crowd of 4,242 turned out to see Chipstead win by two goals to one. The team had a slow start, and by the time they started to find their feet they were chasing two clubs above them, Withdean and AFC Wallingford. The following season, however, the team found its feet in the most spectacular style possible, winning forty-two and drawing four of their forty-six league matches, scoring one hundred and eighty goals and amassing one hundred and thirty points. Indeed, in their two seasons in the Combined Counties League, AFC Wimbledon scored three hundred and five goals in the league alone.
That year also saw a significant event for the club with the purchase of Kingsmeadow. Some criticised the purchase of the home of Kingstonian FC, but the alternatives for the club that went, in the space of a few short years, from being landlords to tenants were bleak and Wimbledon’s purchase of the ground brought improvements to it and at least secured the Ks a home. On the pitch, meanwhile, promotion to the Ryman League brought new challenges but the 2005 season brought further success with promotion into its Premier Division at the first attempt. Here, however, the club stalled, losing in the play-offs to Fisher Athletic in 2006 and Bromley the following year. The 2007 season, however, was overshadowed the Jermaine Darlington affair, in which the aforementioned player played three matches for the club whilst incorrectly registered – a faintly absurd eighteen point deduction was levied against the club and, whilst this was later reduced to three points and a small fine, the distraction that it caused was not insignificant and the second successive play-off defeat was enough to cost manager Dave Anderson, who had been in the job since 2004, his job.
The next appointment proved to be the one that would change the fortunes of the club. Terry Brown was an astute replacement for Anderson, a veteran manager who had previously worked at Hayes and Aldershot Town. His first season in charge saw the team narrowly lose out to big spending Chelmsford City in the race for the league championship, but thus times the hurdle of the play-offs was overcome. A home win against Hornchurch in the semi-final was comfortable enough, although it took a late goal to sooth the nerves and sew up a three-one win, and the final, away to Staines Town, proved to be even tighter. One goal down with less than a quarter of the game left to play a goalkeeping error and a free-kick saw Wimbledon pull victory from the jaws of defeat. With the psychological barrier of getting through the Ryman League play-offs now broken, the club followed this up by winning the Blue Square Bet South at the first attempt in 2009, although the title was not mathematically sewn up until the final day of the season.
Merely getting to the Blue Square Bet Premier was an achievement in itself. With one of the smaller wage budgets in the league, how the team would perform in this division was anybody’s guess, but in their first season there they finished in a highly creditable eighth place. The 2011 season, however, would prove to be another in which modest expectations would be significantly outstripped. Terry Browns team couldn’t live with the pace set by the odious Steve Evans and his financially doped Crawley Town team, but they did this time reach the play-offs by finishing in the runners-up spot. The semi-final saw them sweep aside another financially-plumpened club, Fleetwood Town, over two legs by eight goals to one – a margin so wide as to become almost a little embarrassing by the closing stages of the second leg – but the final was a different matter altogether, a taut, tense game against a Luton Town side with a sense of injustice of its own following the swingeing points deductions which had effectively cost the club its long-held Football League place. The match ended goalless, but Wimbledon won the penalty shoot-out by four goals to three. Just nine years after Wimbledon FC betrayed everybody but the financial interests of a small few, the club that had been told before it even formed that it was “not in the wider interests of football” was one of the ninety-two again. This season saw the club finish in sixteenth place in League Two, having flirted with both the top and bottom of the table after an encouraging start to the season turned to dust as autumn turned to winter. Still, safety was achieved with room to spare and Terry Brown, who took the club from the Ryman League to the Football League in four seasons, is overhauling the squad with a view to continued progress next year.
Progress on the pitch, however, has always only been one part of the story of this club. Over the last decade, AFC Wimbledon has established itself as the only true manifestation of the spirit of this club. Times, however, are changing and what this club will be in another ten years time is far from certain. A symbolic change is taking place as this article is being written. At the end of last season, the Kingston Road end terracing was demolished to make way for a new, 900-seater stand which is required to fulfil Football League regulations. AFC Wimbledon still hopes to return to the London Borough Of Merton and it is possible that in a decades time they will have done so. It is to be hoped that the interests of Kingstonian FC will be treated with the utmost consideration if or when this happens. Ultimately, though, that this club exists at all is something of a twenty-first century morality tale. Denuded by speculators, Wimbledon FC was little more than a shell by the summer 2002, its carcass a reminder of the ways in which those that should theoretically be responsible for the custodianship of our football clubs can be corrupted by the stench of of money, property and ambition. That AFC Wimbledon should have flowered in the way that it did tells us that when the owners and the authorities have let everyone down, perhaps the only people that can be entrusted to look after that near-indefinable list of shared memories, culture and goals that makes up a football club are the supporters themselves. That it should have managed to get promoted back into the Football League is an extraordinary achievement in itself, but even this feels insignificant when placed alongside its greatest achievement of all – that it even exists in the first place. This simple fact alone is proof that somewhere beneath the layers of money and avarice, there is still a beating sound coming from the heart of football in this country.
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