Wimbledon FC and the story of a forgotten club that we should cherish

Wimbledon FC and the story of a forgotten club that we should cherish

The random and unprovoked memory of some games has the power to make you clench your jaw. Time isn’t always a healer. It might require a sharp intake of breath, a furrowed brow or a deep sigh before you clear it from your mind and move on with whatever it was you were doing.

A lot is made of Vinnie Jones challenge on Steve McMahon in the Wembley centre-circle on a hot sunny Saturday in May 1988. Classed as a ‘reducer’ it was, in reality, a challenge which McMahon got up and jogged away from, as if it were an everyday experience. If anything, it hurt Jones more than it hurt McMahon. Had Wimbledon Football Club not won that day, then no-one would remember it.

A perfectly good goal from Peter Beardsley was disallowed because of the hasty whistle of the referee. A winning Wimbledon goal procured from a free-kick awarded for an innocuous challenge, plus the added distraction of a missed penalty meant that conspiracy hung in the air all day long, although some of it was self-inflicted. Apart from that disallowed goal and the penalty save – a penalty that should never have been given – Liverpool conspired against themselves at the 1988 FA Cup final.

Liverpool clinched the title too soon that season. Three weeks passed between the 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur, which made them champions, and walking out at Wembley against Wimbledon. The sharpness which dissected Nottingham Forest 5-0 at Anfield in mid-April had gone by the time the FA Cup final rolled around a month later.

In turn, Wimbledon were horrible to play against. They were always horrible to play against. They made it their business to be horrible to play against. Physically bludgeoning, they were a footballing menace. They were a Chinese burn. They were a hot teaspoon placed on the back of a hand. They were also incredibly effective and cared not for the reputation of their opponents.

No-one knew how to deal with them. Wimbledon had already beaten Liverpool before. They’d also beaten Arsenal, Everton, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur during their first two seasons of top-flight football – two seasons when they’d finished sixth and seventh. Seasons when Aston Villa, Chelsea and Manchester City were all relegated. How times change.

Wimbledon played with a wonderful abrasiveness. It was hideous but simultaneously admirable. When it came to the Division One playground it was great when they were stealing someone else’s dinner money, but an uncomfortable experience when it was your turn to make eye-contact with them. As a 14-year-old Liverpool fan, it was an unsettling development when Wimbledon edged past Luton Town to reach the final.

One way or another, we simply couldn’t win. Beat them and it would be brushed off as the minimum expectation, against ‘little’ Wimbledon. Lose and it would be one of the biggest upsets of all time. No matter that they were a top-six side; no matter that they were regularly seeing off the big clubs; no matter that they were in with a decent shout of winning the FA Cup the previous season.

Wimbledon were no fluke. They deserved to win the 1988 FA Cup final and I hated them for it. This was the Liverpool of John Barnes, Beardsley and John Aldridge. Anyone else, with the possible exception of Everton and Manchester United, would have rolled over in homage to them.

Eleven years prior to that FA Cup final, Wimbledon entered the Football League, winning their bid for election at the expense of Workington FC. It took them just nine years to reach the top-flight, rarely standing still, with five promotions and two relegations during those nine years. It was fairytale stuff, during an era when a number of the established old guard had plummeted in the opposite direction. Wolverhampton Wanderers, for instance, had gone from Division One to Division Four in just two calendar years.

Twelve years beyond that FA Cup final, Wimbledon slipped out of the Premier League. Their departure went unlamented by supporters of other clubs. They were an unwelcome guest at an increasingly polished global product placement party. Had it been known then just what the future had in store for Wimbledon, the wider football community might have been that little bit more sympathetic towards their plight.

Wimbledon had long been subject to the concept of being relocated. Sam Hammam had threatened to move the club to Dublin at one stage, while Ron Noades had been at the helm at Plough Lane during the late-1970s when the very first spectre of a move to Milton Keynes entered the room. It was ‘reasoned’ that London had too many clubs in the Football League and that Wimbledon was unsustainable.

In reality, Wimbledon were being targeted due to their upwardly mobile nature. Yes, they were a football club with a limited fanbase in a geographical area which was densely populated in footballing terms, but no more so than a club like Tranmere Rovers were in the north-west of the same country. Wimbledon began to be classed as a viability case-study.

Noades went as far as to purchase the struggling non-league outfit Milton Keynes City, with the idea of merging his two clubs and situating them in the Buckinghamshire New Town. Eventually, it was felt that attendances wouldn’t rise dramatically in Milton Keynes and the plan was dropped. Noades soon moved on to pastures new, taking over Crystal Palace.

The 1980s had been a silly-season for proposed mergers of football clubs. Fulham and Queens Park Rangers were drawn dangerously together at one stage, while the larger-than-life Robert Maxwell made advanced moves to link sworn rivals Oxford United and Reading, under the banner of the Thames Valley Royals.

It was within this climate that the increasingly pie in the sky plans continued to surface for Wimbledon. Beyond Dublin, Hammam proffered Cardiff as a potential destination. The dream of marrying his small, homeless, top-flight football club with a highly populated, untapped area of the UK or beyond was all-consuming.

Merton Borough Council were used as a convenient patsy within this backdrop. Post-Hillsborough Disaster, Wimbledon were left with little option but to depart Plough Lane. They saw a temporary switch in 1991 to Selhurst Park, to ground-share with Crystal Palace, with the club crossing paths once again with Noades.

The temporary move would not be as temporary as initially billed. Wimbledon would spend 12 years at Selhurst Park, and when they eventually departed, it was for Milton Keynes, rather than a return to Merton.

During that time, the ownership of the club changed hands and any pretence of intentions of a return to Merton was all but dropped. Wimbledon started to limp. The owners would state that all attempts to return were impeded by Merton council. The claims that none of the land spaces offered were suitable rang hollow. Yes, Merton council were uncomfortable bedfellows with Wimbledon at times, but it was never a case of the drawbridge being pulled up.

Hammam sold Wimbledon FC in 1997 to the Norwegian businessmen Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten, the same year that the club once again reached the FA Cup semi-finals and also the League Cup semi-finals. Wimbledon were still very relevant on the pitch and it was this which kept the club ticking over. The longer Wimbledon could hold on to their place in the Premier League, the longer the likelihood of a move away from South London had a chance of being held off.

Gravity caught up with them in 2000, however. The appointment of Egil Olson as manager had been catastrophic. Relegation was confirmed away to Southampton at The Dell. The appointment as chairman of Charles Koppel a year later brought the end-game. At the outset of the 2001-02 season, Koppel publicly divulged the worst kept secret in football: the owners wanted to relocate to Milton Keynes.

For three decades, Milton Keynes had fluttered its eyelashes at a variety of football clubs, from Charlton Athletic to Wimbledon and onward through Queens Park Rangers, Barnet, Luton Town and Crystal Palace. Finally, at the second time of flirting, Wimbledon said yes. The Football League said no, however.

Bitter recriminations and an ugly year followed. Koppel launched an appeal under the argument that the Football League decision had been taken on sensory reasons, rather than all the facts of the case. Wimbledon fans began to make contingency plans. An FA arbitration panel ruled that the Football League decision wasn’t arrived at in a sufficient manner. An independent commission was called to make a final and binding decision on the matter.

In May 2002 the independent commission sided with the Wimbledon board and Pete Winkelman, the man behind the drive to bring a Football League club to Milton Keynes. Outlandish projections were given, stating that a sizeable percentage of the club’s fan-base would follow them to Milton Keynes, that the club would not seek to rebrand and that the name and essence of Wimbledon would remain.

Wimbledon FC fans who spoke before the commission spoke of a move to Milton Keynes being as comparable to the potential death of the club should it remain in South London. As it was, in the eyes of the fans, either outcome would mean that the club no longer existed in their eyes.

Without a powerful backer of their own, and given the cul-de-sac the battle for the soul of the club had been reversed into, the Wimbledon fans could not win and they lost their club across the shiny boardroom desk of Freshfields, Bruckhaus and Deringer’s offices in Fleet Street, London.

All-out civil war erupted. Wimbledon fans had stated intentions of setting up a phoenix club should the move to Milton Keynes go ahead, a concept which had been coldly mentioned in the independent commission’s report, with the declaration that a new Wimbledon club would “not be in the wider interests of the game”. Within weeks, AFC Wimbledon came into existence.

For two years there would be two Wimbledons. From the outset of the 2002-03 season, picket lines started to appear outside Selhurst Park. Fans who continued to file through the turnstiles were branded as scabs. AFC Wimbledon organised trials on Wimbledon Common in a bid to formulate a squad for their debut campaign in the Combined Counties League. They launched themselves in the ninth tier of the English football pyramid, a full seven levels below the ailing Wimbledon FC.

Within a year, the very existence of Wimbledon FC was in doubt, with Gjelsten no longer willing to subsidise the club and the protracted move to Milton Keynes hitting a succession of stumbling blocks. June 2003 saw the club sink into administration – marooned at Selhurst Park and having alienated the remaining support they did have. The administrators announced that as things stood, the move to Milton Keynes was off.

In far further than he ever anticipated, Winkelman agreed to take the club on, under the condition that the move to Milton Keynes went ahead. With the backing of his consortium, Winkelman successfully negotiated with the administrators of the club and the owners of the National Hockey Stadium to finally see the club housed in Milton Keynes.

Having begun the 2003-04 season at Selhurst Park, Wimbledon kicked their first ball in anger in Milton Keynes at the end of September during a 2-2 draw with Burnley. By the end of the season, the club was relegated back to the third tier for the first time since 1984. Simultaneously, AFC Wimbledon were winning promotion for the first time.

When the long since relegated Wimbledon took to the National Hockey Stadium pitch to face Derby County on 9 May 2004, it would turn out to be for the very last time. A 1-0 victory marked the end of the road. It was the same scoreline on their most famous day of all, back in May 1988 at Wembley against Liverpool.

Winkelman successfully brought the club out of administration in June 2004, but that club would no longer be Wimbledon FC as MK Dons were born. New name, new colours, new owners, new fans and a new ground in construction was the order of the day. This was a new town. They would take three further years to relinquish their claim on the history of Wimbledon and faced the slur of being labelled Franchise FC. It is a stigma that remains to this day.

Life for the MK Dons over the last 12 years hasn’t run as smoothly as they had hoped. They are a core element of their community and do great things within their locality. They have a modern stadium and the basis of a club which should be able to prosper, but within two years of their formation, they had slumped to the fourth tier of the English game.

They have risen since that low point of 2006. In 2008 they completed a League Two and Football League Trophy double, then after a number of flirtations, they finally made it into the Championship in 2015. An immediate return to League One followed, but in an air of maintaining stability, the club stuck by Karl Robinson, the man who delivered Championship football in the first place.

This season was always going to be symbolic, as for the very first time the MK Dons share a division with the club which was deemed “not in the wider interests of the game”. All the more so now, given AFC Wimbledon have recently risen above the MK Dons on the league ladder for the first time. As far as points being proven in football go, the events of 9 October 2016 will forever be up there with the most impressive.

AFC Wimbledon’s rise has been meteoric. They made it to the Football League in 2011, just nine years after their formation. After four seasons of toil, inclusive of a near return to the National Conference just two years ago, AFC Wimbledon confounded expectation by winning promotion to League One for the 2016-17 season.

Under Neil Ardley, a man who was in the Wimbledon team the day they were relegated from the Premier League back in 2000, AFC Wimbledon have reached a level footing with the MK Dons. While a lesson in building from the bottom upward has to be conceded by the MK Dons, they can use this instance as a second period of renewal. Dropping down to the basement of the Football League in 2006 had a mild cleansing effect and perhaps this meeting in the middle will have a similar effect.

Just as in their infamous FA Cup coming together in 2012, MK Dons are again cast as the villains of the piece. In reality, AFC Wimbledon have trodden on toes on their way up too. Kingstonian, the club AFC Wimbledon initially went into a groundshare with, have lived to regret the presence of a dominant local rival, one which eventually took over the ownership of the ground they invited them to use. Several rival non-league clubs struggled with the unexpected numbers of travelling fans AFC Wimbledon brought with them.

Fans of greyhound racing also have a bone to pick with the club over their newly rubber-stamped future use of the Wimbledon greyhound stadium, for a long-awaited return to the Borough of Merton. AFC Wimbledon’s achievements are remarkable, but bruises and Chinese burns have been administered along the way. The spirit of the Womble is once again proving to be indomitable.

In the final reckoning, history cannot be undone; the wrongs of Wimbledon FC being obtained by Milton Keynes are clear. With terms and conditions, even Pete Winkelman will concede the point. AFC Wimbledon have shown what can be achieved from a standing start, something that could have been achieved in Buckinghamshire without relocating someone else’s Football League club.

These two clubs will be under the spotlight once again in December when they face each other at the Stadium MK in a league fixture for the very first time, but somewhere within this new-age war of the rectangular green patch of grass, the Wimbledon FC that was remains the increasingly forgotten victim.

They were hard to love and quite easy to dislike, but the death of Wimbledon should never have been like this. They were a non-league club which aimed for the clouds, only to overshoot and reach the moon. Their future may have been shrouded in uncertainty, but they should have been allowed to embrace their natural fate.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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