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Football: MK Dons v AFC Wimbledon

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Football: MK Dons v AFC Wimbledon
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It’s an FA Cup second-round match between two football clubs set 56 miles apart: one, a promotion-chasing League One side; the other hovering above the relegation zone in League Two.

Nothing too incendiary in those raw details, but plenty in the fact that Milton Keynes Dons and AFC Wimbledon share what we might understatedly call a controversial back story. This Sunday represents the first time that the two clubs – both derived, via very different paths, from the old Wimbledon FC – will play one another.

This is not your traditional rivalry. While most fans would lap up the chance to lord it on their adversaries’ patch, many AFC Wimbledon fans are boycotting the match entirely.

“I find it difficult to go up there and offer them any kind of legitimacy as a football club,” says Niall Couper, author of the book This Is Our Time: The AFC Wimbledon Story. “Imagine if the league place of the club you support was stolen away to another town. What happened was a travesty.”

It’s an understandable view, given how bitterly received an FA panel’s decision – to allow Wimbledon FC to be pulled away from its community, relocated and rebranded – was in 2002. However, it’s not one shared by everyone associated with the club.

Bobby Gould, Wimbledon FC manager when the old Crazy Gang won the FA Cup in 1988, takes a different perspective. “I’m delighted that AFC Wimbledon are back in the reckoning for the FA Cup,” he told us. “It’s great that Neal Ardley, an ex-Wimbledon player, is in the hotseat achieving all this. But I don’t see there’s a need to boycott the game – don’t do that. Go along. Watch the game and cheer for your team, be it MK Dons or AFC Wimbledon.”

Gould admits, however, that his feelings were quite different back in 2002, when the decision on Wimbledon FC’s future was made.

“There was a lot of sadness on my part,” he says. “It was the first franchise buy-out that we ever experienced in this country, so it was a huge shock to us all. Should it have been allowed to happen? Possibly not, but I think we have to move on.”

Some contrition was also on show from MK Dons chairman Pete Winkelman, who helped foster the move a decade ago. “I’m not proud of the way this club came into being,” he admitted to the BBC ahead of the game, adding: “I’ve tried to make a bad decision a good decision by the things we have gone on to do.“

For Wimbledon fans such as Couper, however, this offers cold comfort. There is one crucial issue that is immediately brought up when Winkelman’s conciliatory statements are mentioned.

“There’s a certain suffix with that club that shouldn’t exist, because there’s absolutely no relation of the name to the community that it exists in,“ he explains. “Calling them Milton Keynes ’Dons’ is like calling Crystal Palace the Seagulls because they’re 60 miles from Brighton. It doesn’t make sense. If Pete Winkelman has even one moral bone in his body, that suffix should disappear overnight.”

It’s a view that Winkelman rejects. His stated belief is: “AFC Wimbledon can’t claim Wimbledon FC’s history.“ In private, a few of Wimbledon’s players of the 1980s and 1990s have also been heard to say that, while they find AFC Wimbledon’s rise admirable, the old ’Crazy Gang’ they once played for no longer exists.

“I can see that view,” says Gould, when it’s put to him. “But what you have to remember is that Wimbledon has a history that goes back longer than our era. There were many fans who were very upset with the move from Plough Lane to Selhurst Park [in 1991]. For them, this is a return to the origins of their club. And there’s no doubt who we’ll all be supporting at the weekend – it’s AFC Wimbledon, without a shadow of a doubt for me.”

What nobody – not even Winkelman – disputes is that the rise of AFC Wimbledon is remarkable. However, it isn’t the five promotions in nine years in which Couper takes most pride.

“It’s been great on the pitch, but it’s the infrastructure behind it that’s the real progress,“ he says. “The fans run this football club; we’re elected board members. It’d be wonderful if more and more clubs took the supporters’ trust route and honoured how they were created. Unfortunately, at some of the bigger clubs, that’s not happening to the level that it should be.”

It’s an interesting paradox facing AFC fans. They despise what happened to Wimbledon FC, but if that decision hadn’t been made, the AFC Wimbledon story – fan-owned and imbued with passion and purpose – wouldn’t exist in its current state.

Another positive for them is that, despite what the newer club may strenuously claim, the Milton Keynes project has been widely seen as a failure. Nicknamed ’Franchise FC’, mocked by opponents, attendances of around 8,000 and a team that’s bobbed between the bottom two divisions of the Football League is – despite what the directors may claim – surely not what they dreamed of when the move was made 10 years ago.

The decision at the time, plus the Football Association-appointed committee’s statement that resurrecting a Wimbledon club was “not in the wider interests of football“, have widely been derided. So if there’s a further silver lining to this cloud, it is that – given the criticism it has attracted and the lack of significant success – it’s unlikely anyone would try to do a similar thing to another league club. Wimbledon FC’s legacy is that this need never happen again.

Niall Couper admits he takes only a little comfort from this, but admits that life as a Wimbledon fan – both FC and AFC – has rarely been dull.

“In my lifetime as a Wimbledon fan, I’ve seen something ridiculous like 14 or 15 promotions – and obviously a couple of relegations and one very, very significant fall,” he says. “But this has been all about battling the odds and proving people wrong. I’d love to see the Football Association come out and say that what AFC Wimbledon have achieved is a model that every football club could follow. There is a fantastic opportunity for supporter ownership in this country – and the AFC Wimbledon story has shown that.”

By that measure, at least – whatever the score on Sunday – it appears AFC Wimbledon fans have already got the result they deserve.

Alex Reid @otheralexreid