League Two Play-Offs: AFC Wimbledon Rise Again
That it should have happened on this of all days was probably the most delicious irony of the day. Fourteen years to the day since the club was formed after both the Football League and Football Association failed in their duty to football supporters in the most spectacular way possible, AFC Wimbledon secured promotion to League One, the third tier of the league system. There will be plenty on hand to tell us that this is a fairy tale, but to do so, if anything, does a disservice to so many people who put in so much work over the course of those fourteen years to make the events at Wembley on Bank Holiday Monday afternoon possible. Running a successful football club requires hard work, dedication, financial literacy and yes, not a little luck. A sprinkling of glitter and a tap on the shoulder from a fairy godmother is not enough to fuel the sort of ascent that this club has witnessed since taking its first, tentative steps into the big unknown of the Combined Counties League, all those years ago.
Not only was the date of significance to supporters of AFC Wimbledon. The venue was as well. Sure enough, this club has shared memories that can never be erased from the mind, scrambling to promotion from the Ryman League Premier Division after tight and dramatic play-off final in 2008 and beating Luton Town on a penalty shoot-out to secure a place in the Football League in 2011, for example. But the first of these occurred at Wheatsheaf Park, the modest home of Staines Town, and the latter of these had occurred at The City of Manchester Stadium. For all that the club had achieved over that fourteen years, its sole prior Wembley appearance had in a match against Corinthian-Casuals to mark their opponents 125th anniversary in 2008. This win came at the home of the Football Association, an organisation whose three-man independent commission had concluded, in addition to allowing Wimbledon FC’s owners to move the club to Milton Keynes, that “resurrecting ‘Wimbledon Town’ was not in the wider interests of football”, words that continue to cling like a stain to the reputation of the body in whose name the words were spoken.
Wimbledon FC held a reputation for upsetting the apple-cart, from their FA Cup exploits as a non-league club in the mid-1970s to defeating Liverpool to win the competition in 1988. It was a tradition that continued on Monday, in its own, understated way. Their opponents, Plymouth Argyle, had ended the season six points above them in the table and took 35,000 supporters to Wembley, a remarkable number which, when combined with more than 20,000 who were present to support Wimbledon, amounted to an attendance of almost 58,000 for a match in the fourth tier of the English league system. Plymouth Argyle have had their fair share of difficulties in recent years, which ended in administration due to insolvency and a subsequent ten point deduction that relegated the club in 2011. They also made the play-offs at the end of last season, losing over two legs in the semi-finals to Wycombe Wanderers. The support that the club could muster for their appearance in the final was remarkable, but it’s worth noting that both of the clubs to take huge support to Wembley for their play-off finals – both Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield Wednesday – lost their finals.
Could it be that, at a time of the season when everybody is a little hyper-sensitive, the extra layer of pressure – and possible expectation – added by travelling supporters of 35,000-40,000 is a burden that clubs could do without? It’s possible. Clubs would never admit such a thing, of course. “Great support” remains cited as being valuable to a football team that is winning matches, and the idea that crowds of that size might have a less than positive effect on players who are not used to performing in front of the sort of crowds normally only reserved for Manchester United, Arsenal or Manchester City is an uncomfortable one for all of us. It’s impossible to say whether this could have had an effect in the minds of the players. All we know for certain is that Plymouth’s team, for all its support and its superior position in the end of season League One table, seemed to freeze on the day. Wimbledon didn’t turn in their finest performance of the season either, but teams don’t necessarily need to in order to win a play-off final. They just have to manage this most idiosyncratic form of pressure. On the day, Wimbledon managed the occasion better, perhaps freed from the albatross around the neck of expectation. In a game that so frequently seems to be determined by the thinnest of margins, it would be foolish to dismiss the notion that this could make a difference.
Football idealism and football practicality seldom meet, and even when they do the odds are usually stacked against the former overcoming the latter. And this season has been a test for those who continue to view AFC Wimbledon through the eyes of an idealist. The club’s agreement to sell its Kingsmeadow home to Chelsea, with its knock-on consequences for Kingstonian, the ground’s former owners and now its tenants, was, is, and will continue to be a cause for contention for detractors, whether said detractors are right or not. Coupled with Boris Johnson’s decision to call in the plans for the club’s stadium in Plough Lane, which is more likely to mean a delay in the club getting back to its spiritual home – presuming it gets back there in the first place, of course – this might not otherwise have been considered a particularly happy season for the club. With promotion, however, the case for the club needing a new home, and this, coupled with Boris Johnson’s exit as the Mayor of London, gives cause for optimism over the club’s likelihood of returning home.
Then, of course, there’s that club. You know. That club. Since the events of May 2002, they’ve only met in the Football League Trophy, the League Cup and the FA Cup, with their opponents having won two of their previous three meetings. Perhaps these cup matches will temper the atmosphere of these two clubs, perhaps it won’t. What we can say with a degree of certainty is that meeting them in league matches, as equals, will feel very different to those three prior engagements with them. It says something for the failure of the Milton Keynes project and a lot for the success of the AFC Wimbledon project that the two clubs should be meeting in the league next seasons, and it’s difficult to believe that this is anything that those who uprooted Wimbledon FC from South London to sixty miles away in Buckinghamshire ever expected to see. But before anybody starts getting ahead of themselves, this is not a “local derby”. This is something bigger than that, and in many ways darker than that. This is something… other.
That otherness, however, must not become too much of a distraction to the club next season. There would, obviously, be a huge symbolic significance to AFC Wimbledon finishing – or even momentarily being – higher in the league than MK Dons, but the club’s fortunes next season will be determined by forty-six league matches, not just the two. It may well benefit the press to try and hype these matches up as though they’re some sort of English equivalent to Celtic vs Rangers – another hostility that resumes (and whether it “resumes” is itself a whole other kettle of fish) next season – but AFC Wimbledon need to retain their focus and concentrate on holding onto their League One status before anything else. It seems obvious to say it, but perhaps it isn’t when we consider the number of clubs that took their eyes crucially off the ball over the course of the season that has just ended. Such particulars, however, are probably for another day. For now, the supporters of AFC Wimbledon can bask in a job well done, a point well proved, and a new division to navigate next season. There are no fairy tales in the harsh, unforgiving world of modern football, but that doesn’t mean that this hasn’t been an exceptional, extraordinary achievement.