This writer is of the belief that all football clubs are special. The branded cliché you so often see managers, fans and players alike whip out to the Press of ‘you know, this is a really special club’ so often falls upon death ears (apart from those who follow the mentioned club), and rightfully so; there are few cases in English football of clubs who clearly distinguish themselves from others with their unique characteristics. My club, Oxford United, aren’t one of these- the club is special to us because largely for the same reasons as fans of other English clubs; it’s the club of the city we hold so dear to our hearts and it’s been a perennial part of our lives since we can remember (well, at least it’s the case with me and a lot of people I talk to). Nothing much more than that really. The same most likely goes for, well, take your pick. Thus, the homogenous nature of English clubs means it’s extremely difficult to decipher what makes a club ‘special’, but Wimbledon are perhaps more special than most.
AFC Wimbledon are the phoenix club of Wimbledon FC, a club who were the centre of one of the biggest scandals in the history of English football. English football is becoming less and less immune to tasteless American sporting phenomenon by the year, but one thing that English football has successfully resisted is the relocation of sports teams from their rightful home, a vulgar practice rife in American (and to a degree, Canadian) sports; the Baltimore Colts moving to Indianapolis, the Montreal Expos moving to Washington, and countless others. Oxford United are one example to have resisted this, with the proposed merger of Oxford United and Reading FC to become the ‘Thames Valley Royals’ in the 1980s. It’s no exaggeration to say I would’ve had a very different childhood had this move materialised. But the only pertinent example of this in the English game involves Wimbledon.
Wimbledon are arguably the biggest club in London south of the river, having been one of only two South London clubs to have won a major trophy, Charlton Athletic being one with their 1947 FA Cup triumph, and Wimbledon’s day in the sun coming in a game that has gone down in footballing folklore- their 1988 FA Cup win, beating Liverpool in the final. Liverpool had recently been crowned League champions for the 5th time in 7 seasons, with many regarding their side in the late 1980s better even than that of their European Cup winning heroes of the early 1980s under Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, with their side in the late 1980s unable to prove their prestige on a continental scale due to the ban on European clubs entering European competitions after the Heysel disaster in 1985. They were literally 10 seconds away from making it 6 in 8 (and then subsequently 7 in 9) titles in the 1988/89 season, losing to Arsenal on the final day and losing the League to them on goal difference, the most dramatic end to an English football season in history (even more than Manchester City in 2012). Just YouTube “Thomas, it’s up for grabs now!” if you’re unaware of what I’m on about.
So, one of English football’s great sides, but the only blackspot on their legacy is their defeat in the ’88 Cup final to Wimbledon. It was one of the biggest shocks in the history of the competition, probably the biggest ever shock in the final (perhaps only bettered by the 1973 FA Cup final where Second Division Sunderland beat Don Revie’s great Leeds team) as they had just completed their second season in the First Division and had only been in the Football League for 11 years before 1988, and it ended Liverpool’s bid to become the first English side to win the League and Cup double for the second time, a feat first achieved by arch rivals Manchester United in 1996 (Liverpool’s failure to win the League in 1989 also denied them this feat). The final was encapsulated in John Motson’s iconic post-match commentary, stating “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club.” It was a crazy match won by a crazy team, full of icons of the game; legendary hardman Vinnie Jones, captain Dave Beasant and John Fashanu. Their status in the game grew into the 1990s, becoming one of the teams to compete in the first ever Premier League season, after the reformation of the First Division in 1992, and stayed in the top flight until the 1999/00 season where they were relegated in 18th place.
However, Wimbledon’s meteoric rise through the football pyramid in just 10 years left them somewhat unprepared for the rigours of the Premier League, with their Plough Lane stadium having a maximum capacity of just over 15,000, which was only usually half-filled. This was exacerbated in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster and the resulting Taylor Report in 1989, which imposed stricter measures and more drastic reforms on terraced stadiums, moving towards an all-seater stadium design. Unable to bring Plough Lane up to the new requirements, they shared grounds with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park through the 1990s. After years of failure to find a site in southwest London for the development of a new stadium, a consortium led by Pete Winkelman offered the construction of a Football League-standard stadium in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, one of the new towns of the 1946 New Towns Act, and offered this site to Wimbledon. Wimbledon duly accepted this, moving to Milton Keynes in 2003 and a year later changed the name, badge and kit colours of the club to become Milton Keynes Dons. The vast majority of Wimbledon fans deserted in protest, forming phoenix club AFC Wimbledon in 2002 upon news of the move, and grew in support over the next two years.
But it’s not just the sheer relocation which makes Wimbledon one of the most special clubs in the EFL, as this characteristic had to be accompanied by something equally as unique. And, in a beautiful romantic fashion, as happens so often in football, just like their meteoric rise to the Football League in the 1980s, Wimbledon repeated this feat over the Noughties and 2010s. They rose from the 9th tier to the 5th tier in just 6 seasons and were promoted to the Football League in 2011 after beating Luton Town in the playoff final on penalties, just 9 years after the phoenix club was formed. The zenith of the club though came in 2016, where they were promoted from League Two after 4 indifferent season in the division, beating Plymouth Argyle 2-0 in the playoff final- made all the more special as it meant that in the 2016-17 they would compete in the same division as none other than MK Dons, who were simultaneously relegated from the Championship.
However, since this moment although there have been some sweet moments for the club, notably the relegation of MK Dons in 2017-18, which meant that for the first time ever Wimbledon would sit above MK Dons in the football pyramid (a particularly warm feeling of Schadenfreude), they have been stuck in League One purgatory for 4 seasons now (well, if you consider this season one of them with the coronavirus suspending EFL football indefinitely). But this season, assuming it resumes at some stage, sees them in a relegation battle with them continually looking over their shoulders, with relegation rivals Tranmere Rovers and Rochdale experiencing surprising upturns in form. It is arguable that this stagnation as a club can be put down to one thing- the stadium situation.
Wimbledon’s current stadium, Kingsmeadow, is situated in Kingston upon Thames, just over 7km away from their original home of Plough Lane (this is a large distance in footballing ‘home’ terms- since Oxford United’s relocation to the suburb of Blackbird Leys from the more central Headington there is undoubtedly a decreased sense of the stadium being ‘home’) and they weren’t even originally the sole tenants of the stadium- they shared the ground with non-league outfit Kingstonian until 2017, and currently share the grund with Chelsea Women. The fact that it’s far from their original home is just half of the problem- they couldn’t even permanently relocate to Kingston if they wanted to as attempts to increase the capacity at Kingsmeadow have failed. It’s not even that enjoyable of an experience despite having an ‘old-school’ feel to the ground; the away end is by and large not terraced, making it nigh on impossible to have a view of the game if you’re 3 or 4 ‘rows’ back. These sentiments, coupled with the current stadium literally thwarting the club from progressing, have made the move to ‘New Plough Lane’ all the more urgent, but, once again, in this light Wimbledon have proved once again why maybe they, of any team, deserve the label of ‘special club’.
It is still unknown when the move from Kingsmeadow to their new home will be completed, but Wimbledon’s supporters have salvaged the move from the brink of collapse, as they did with their club in 2002. Supporters raised more than £4m towards building a new stadium at Plough Lane last February to meet the £11m funds target for completion. This maintains the club’s supporter-owned structure in the process, putting the stadium move in the hands of the shared ‘Dons Trust’ rather than offering the cub to be bought out for a new owner to be brought in to provide external funds for the move. Wimbledon fans have bonded together in the toughest of times, like 2002, to bring their club forward, and will maintain their fan-owned structure in the process.
This type of club is rare in England, with examples on the continent much easier to come by such as SV Austria Salzburg and Unionistas de Salamanca CF. This is an age of football where the tawdry wealth disparity between top division sides and the rest grows larger by the day, and fans of the new generation seem content with supporting and seeing these rich and greedy sides hammer ‘smaller’ opposition and then demand to be even richer. However, Wimbledon (and I will call them just that and not AFC Wimbledon, they don’t deserve the associations that come with that prefix) are a lovely breath of fresh air to this, especially in the English game, and capture the true essence (at least to me) of what football is and more.
Football was never meant to be corporatised- Jules Rimet would have a heart attack if he were here to see the contemporary state of the game- but Wimbledon are part of the last bastion of what football clubs, at least for this writer, should be: for the fans, by the fans. And they will fight tooth and nail to keep the club this way.
Good luck to them, both in cautionary sense, but more so, sincerely.
Credits to David Conn and Jonathan Wilson at The Guardian. Images credited to The Standard, the BBC and AFC Wimbledon’s official club website.