Wimbledon: Another Corner Turned

by | Oct 10, 2016

Hindsight has twenty/twenty vision, and it’s a story that has been retold more times than most within the world of football over the course of the last decade and a half or so, but yesterday afternoon a further small milestone in one of the few good news stories to occasionally find its way into our consciousness in recent years. Yesterday afternoon at The Kassam Stadium, a three-one win for AFC Wimbledon against Oxford United, coupled with a home loss for MK Dons at home against Port Vale, took Wimbledon above the team from Buckinghamshire for the first time in the fourteen and a half years since the supporters of Wimbledon made their decisive break and walked away to form a new club.

The symbolism of such a sequence of events should be screamingly obvious to anybody with a knowledge of football in England over the last two decades or so. When AFC Wimbledon was founded, it was forced start again completely from scratch, clambering its way up through the Combined Counties League, the Isthmian League, the Conference South and the Conference National to claim a place in the Football League, before then winning promotion to League One at the end of last season. And whilst some might see the difference between being in tenth place in League One in the middle of October and being on twelfth place in League One in the middle of October as being the footballing equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb, the symbolism of the way that the league table looks today is everything, in this case.

The quotation by which all that happened a little over fourteen years ago will be best be remember by came from the independent commission set up by the FA to investigate – and approve – the decision transplant Wimbledon – or, rather, Wimbledon’s Football League place – to Buckinghamshire,that the formation of a new club in Wimbledon would not be “in the wider interests of football”. We may never know what on earth could possibly have led that statement forming a part of their final report, what could have possibly been the inspiration behind a comment so insulting, not only to the supporters of Wimbledon FC but of all clubs, and also so absolutely and utterly needless. The decision had been made. Wimbledon FC was being franchised to Milton Keynes. It must have entirely evident to those writing it that this report would be pored over like none since The Taylor Report, more than a decade earlier, that every word of it would be scrutinised from every conceivable angle.

The answer to this question may have been concern at the changing times. The results of the Football Task Force had come in a couple of years earlier and had led to the formation of Supporters Direct. Just over a year earlier, the supporters of Enfield FC had, through the mechanism of their supporters trust, voted to walk away from their homeless, plummeting, maladministrated club to form a club of their own, and this may be hinted at in the report, which, somewhat peculiarly, named the club that may be a replacement for Wimbledon as “Wimbledon Town”, just as the de facto replacement for Enfield FC  was given the name of Enfield Town. It’s not difficult to see how this might have irked Those Who Make Their Money From Football. The eagerness to put protesting supporters in their place, to describe them as not being “in the wider interests of football”, might well have been something more than the crass, throwaway comment that it has long been assumed to have been.

That was then, though, and this is now. Professional football in Milton Keynes hasn’t taken off in the way that its most enthusiastic proponents in 2002 would have hoped. It seems likely that the possibility of not having played a single Premier League match would not even have been countenanced at the time, still less that MK Dons would remain the nearest that England has to a pariah club after all these years. Having said that, however, they are still with us. The hopes of those who have wished for the demise of MK Dons hasn’t occurred, and neither has it looked especially likely to. Furthermore, a generation of younger supporters have now come through for whom professional football in Milton Keynes is just the way things have always been, regardless of how grubby the origins of that state of affairs might be. If we accept the permanence of the club’s place within English football – and that doesn’t feel like a matter of choice, but that’s really by the by – should the opprobrium against people who are just going to watch their local Football League team continue?

There are, of course, two answers to that question. On the negative side of the equation, it might be argued that nobody who decides to make the decision to support MK Dons is doing so in a bubble. Anybody who makes that decision and continues it knowing what they know about the club’s origins is setting themselves up for whatever comes their way. The counterpoint to that, however, is to consider that, whilst it seems doubtful that MK Dons will ever be considered “just another football club” by the supporters of most other clubs, there comes a point – or will come a point – at which we will have to “accept” them. Anybody wishing to carry out a makeover on the club may suggest removing the word “Dons” from the club’s name. From a public relations standpoint, it’s a toxic name, and that’s before we get on to the matter of whether the supporters of other clubs can or will ever treat this club as “just another club”.

In the meantime, Wimbledon continue to progress. On the pitch, a run of five games unbeaten has allayed concerns that Neal Ardley’s team would be hopelessly outclassed in a division that it was only promoted into via the play-offs at the end of last season. The club could fall back towards the wrong end of the league table again, but for the time being it seems as though Ardley is finding the right balance of players to give Wimbledon more than a fighting chance of survival this season. Arguably more importantly for the club’s continued to growth, developments over the last couple of months have taken significant steps forward.

Plans for redevelopment of the site of the Wimbledon greyhound stadium had been unanimously approved by Merton Borough Council, but were called in by the then-Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in March. Johnson, however, made this decision as his spell in this role came to an end, and at the end of August the capital’s new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, overturned the decision, stating that the redevelopment was “of great benefit to Londoners and the wider community for generations to come”. Neighbouring Wandsworth Council, however, were unhappy over this and urged the Secretary of State Sajid Javid to intervene and halt the development. At the end of last month, however, Javid confirmed that he was not going to be calling in the planning application, stating that he was “content that it [the planning application] should be determined by the local planning authority”, an announcement which lifted the last of the significant barriers to the redvelopment – which will see the club move into a stadium with an initial capacity of 11,000 people, with 602 new residential units being built nearby – going ahead. The club hopes to move into its new home by the start of the 2018/19 season.

For now, though, Wimbledon supporters may merely be content at a job well done at the weekend. The Kassam Stadium is seldom an easy place for away teams to get three points from at the moment, and coming on top of other recent wins against Charlton Athletic and Gillingham it strengthens the viewpoint that his team is plenty capable of avoiding the trapdoor back into League Two, come the end of this season. The “rivalry” – and, let’s be clear here, this is no local rivalry, no matter how hacks who don’t understand the nature of all of this may seek to portray it – with MK Dons, meanwhile, is a trifle in comparison with getting the new stadium completed and consolidating the club’s position in League One. Already, the former of these ambitions has taken a great leap forward and, whilst the other may be far from guaranteed for now, is moving in the right direction at the moment. In comparison with these goals, going above MK Dons in the league in October will offer Wimbledon supporters a glow of satisfaction, but after more than fourteen years Sunday’s events, for all the symbolism they offered, for the supporters themselves the preoccupation with the events of some years ago may already be starting to feel like something of a sideshow.

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