It’s been a long time coming for football fans in south-west London.
Over 15 years to be exact.
On May 28th 2002, the FA backed a decision to allow the football club formerly known as Wimbledon FC to relocate to Milton Keynes. This move was seen as necessary by then-Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel; he claimed that the move “gives us a lifeline”, and that the club’s future was “dependent on the move”.
Two days later, in response, AFC Wimbledon were formed after a meeting of club supporters at the Fox and Grapes pub on Wimbledon Common. The newly-formed club already had a manager in place, and a new badge and kit came within two weeks.
Six weeks on, and AFC Wimbledon were playing in front of a bumper near-5,000 gate against Sutton United. There was no fairytale beginning: the fan-run club, which paid players expenses only, endured a 4-0 loss. Dulwich Hamlet, Bromley, Borehamwood, Kingstonian, Leatherhead, and Enfield Town followed before AFC’s big debut in the Combined Counties League. It was hardly the level of football that Wimbledon FC fans were used to, but at least they had a club that they could call their own.
In their first season in the ninth tier of English football, AFC Wimbledon finished third.
Meanwhile, the club formerly known as Wimbledon FC, yet to be renamed, finished the 2002-03 season in administration. In September 2003, they played their first game in Milton Keynes. Soon, they were out of administration. By inheriting Wimbledon FC’s league placement, the MK Dons, as they were now known, had effectively been parachuted into League One, the third tier of English football.
The headstart and the long climb up
The two new clubs may have been leagues apart, but the fightback was on for AFC Wimbledon. Soon enough, the club from SW19 were promoted to the Isthmian League. By 2008, they’d reached the Conference South.
The MK Dons were on a different path altogether. Two years after their name change, they were relegated into League Two. They weren’t down for too long, as former England, Manchester United and Inter midfielder Paul Ince led them to promotion in 2008.
Ince left the MK Dons for Blackburn Rovers, but in stepped future Champions League winner Roberto di Matteo. The Italian took the club to the brink of the second tier before leaving for pastures new at West Bromwich Albion. Seemingly in tandem, AFC Wimbledon were also flying high in 2008-09, finishing top and gaining promotion to the Conference. The rivals were now just two leagues apart.
The next few years saw AFC Wimbledon progress even further. An eighth place finish in their first season in the league was bettered the following year, as the Dons finished runners-up to Crawley Town. Promotion was secured just nine years after the club’s founding – the first club formed in the 21st century to make it to the Football League.
In the same period, MK Dons floundered around in League One, as Di Matteo was replaced by a returning Ince, who was, in turn, replaced by 29-year-old Karl Robinson.
The battles begin
It wasn’t until 2012-13 that the Dons faced off against the MK Dons. The first competitive fixture between the clubs took place in the FA Cup, a game that was effectively 10 years in the making. MK Dons ran out victors 2-1, after a last-gasp winner. Neil Sullivan, formerly of Wimbledon FC, was in goal for AFC that day; the keeper famously beaten by David Beckham’s halfway line strike in 1996 was on the losing side, as the team dubbed ‘Franchise FC’ progressed in the cup.
AFC Wimbledon held their own in League Two, and eventually secured promotion via the play-offs in 2015-16. After one season in the second tier, MK Dons were relegated from the Championship at the same time, meaning that AFC had finally found parity with the club that had taken its identity. In 2016/17, the two ‘Dons’ were finally to face off in the same league.
On 10th December 2016, MK Dons again ran out victorious after a 63rd minute penalty. But things were different when MK visited the Kingsmeadow in March 2017. Two second half goals saw AFC run out clear victors in front of 4,000 jubilant fans.
In that first season at the same level, Milton Keynes finished four points and three places above their most bitter of rivals.
The shift of power
2017-18 was to be a different season altogether, however. Karl Robinson was long gone, with Robbie Nielson the man in charge of MK Dons at the start of the season; he then left by mutual consent in January 2018, replaced by Dan Micciche, a man credited with the development of Dele Alli. Results were hard to come by for MK throughout the season.
AFC were slow to come to the party at the start of the league campaign, but they had consistency in the dugout. Under Neal Ardley, a former Wimbledon FC player, in charge since 2012, they managed to get to safety – just! – by the penultimate game of the season. It was a different story for MK Dons, though: the management gambles didn’t pay off, and the club were relegated.
Next season, for the first time ever, AFC Wimbledon will be playing in the league above MK Dons.
AFC’s meteoric rise and the demise of MK Dons hasn’t come without controversy for the London-based club. For two consecutive seasons, AFC Wimbledon failed to recognise their opponent’s full name in their club programme. The EFL charged the club, but this was eventually dropped.
Small fry for AFC Wimbledon, though, considering the problems the fans have faced over the past 20 years or so. Things are looking up for Ardley’s men going forward, though: a move closer to their spiritual home at Plough Lane looks likely after receiving permission to build a new stadium on the site of the defunct Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. It remains to be seen whether the club will ever match the exploits of the legendary ‘Crazy Gang’, but the fans are sure to be happy to have a club of which they can be proud. A club that is theirs.
As for MK Dons, they’ll begin 2018-19 beneath their rivals. You’d expect them to be favourites for the League 2 title but that is not a certainty, especially given what has happened over the past 15 years or so.
You could say that a natural order has finally been restored. After all, AFC Wimbledon are at the level where Wimbledon FC ended all those years ago. The fans who felt cheated are back where they belong. As a neutral, it’s great to see AFC do well in the third tier. But here’s hoping the dream continues with a charge up the league table and a good FA Cup run too.