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AFC Wimbledon – A phoenix from the ashes
Monday 28th November 2016 @ 12:13 by Mark Phillip
Ashton Football Sports

By Martin Frost:

As AFC Wimbledon take the field at the Tameside Stadium this Sunday it’s not stretching the imagination, nor truth, too far to say that Curzon Ashton will be hosting a former winner of the FA Cup. Yes, legally AFC are a different entity to the Club which took only 11 years from entering the old Division 4 to that triumph over Liverpool at Wembley. But morally there is little doubt that, as Neil Ardley’s team line up in the first 2nd round tie to have been played on Ashton soil for 130 years, the Don’s are a continuation of a Club which was subject to one of the most scandalous decisions ever taken by football administrators.

Originally founded in in 1889 Wimbledon were a non-League team for most of their history. They were supremely successful in the non-league game winning a host of Isthmian League titles, the FA Amateur Cup in 1963 and three successive Southern League championships between 1975 and 1977. At that time there was no automatic promotion and relegation between the Football league and lower levels. Elevation to the League was by a vote of the member clubs, and in what was always known as the “old pals act” they always looked after their own. But in 1978 Southport fell victim, as the Dons were elected in their place.

After settling down into the League for a couple of seasons there followed a meteoric rise. Four seasons after being in Division 4, (now League 2), Wimbledon found themselves in Division 1, (now the Premier League). They became known as the Crazy Gang, personified by players like Dennis Wise, Mick Harford, John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and Lawrie Sanchez. In May 1988 they lifted the Cup, beating Liverpool courtesy of a Sanchez goal and aided by Dave Beasant who saved a penalty from John Aldridge – the first spot kick that had ever been saved in an FA Cup Final.

This was a club on the up, but the close confines of Plough Lane, their home for nigh on 80 years, was unquestionably a contributory factor in the debacle that ensued at the turn of the millennium. Plough Lane, purportedly holding 15,000, was a ramshackle arena, ill suited to accommodating top level crowds. Its unsuitability led to the Club leaving its home and moving in with Crystal Palace in 1991. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, pending identification and construction of a stadium on home turf. It never happened and Selhurst Park hosted Premier League football for its unwilling tenants for a decade. Crowds were never good – in 1993 a less than meagre 3,039 turned up to watch the Dons take on Everton. It was the lowest crowd in Premier League history.

Throughout the glory years Sam Hamman had been Chairman. A controversial character, he came up with all sorts of strange ideas, and in perhaps a portent of things to come, he attempted to relocate Wimbledon to Dublin!! After selling out to a couple of Norwegian businessmen in 2000 the die was cast. Waiting in the wings was Pete Winkleman, heavily involved in developing areas of Milton Keynes. Winkelman and the Norwegians hatched a plan to relocate Wimbledon to the growing new town.

It was an entirely new concept in British football. Over in America teams had been regularly traded as franchises and moved at the owners whim all over the USA. But for British football it was a “no-go area”. Teams were steeped in local communities, and simply weren’t bought and sold in this way. The proposal caused a furore not only from Dons fans but football supporters in general. In one of the darkest days for football these protests were ignored, and shamefully an “independent” commission agreed to the move in 2002.

It didn’t take long before all vestiges of the old Club disappeared. Winkelman took full control and after the Club went into administration it was reborn as MK Dons.

To their eternal credit Dons fans didn’t lie down and meekly accept things. They couldn’t do anything about the move, nor the eventual name change. They were being asked to support a team some 60 miles away, masquerading under their Club’s name, who for a year after the disgraceful decision didn’t even have a ground.

Two days after the Commission had ruled that the Club could be moved to Milton Keynes, a supporters meeting was held. Two weeks later a new manager, kit, crest and stadium were unveiled to fans and the media and in order to assemble a competitive team at very short notice, AFC Wimbledon held player trials on Wimbledon Common – truly a return to their spiritual home after a nomadic decade at Selhurst Park. And so AFC Wimbledon came into being as “the spiritual successor or “phoenix” version of the original team”.

AFC started off in the 9th tier of English football, in the Combined Counties League, In their second season they finished with a supreme unbeaten record of 42 wins and 4 draws, elevating them to the Isthmian League. The appointment of Terry Brown as Manager in 2007 was the catalyst for promotion to Conference South in 2008, and 12 months later a second successive promotion left them in the Conference Premier. The 5th level of English football only detained them for 2 years, and their elevation, and some may say return, to the Football league was confirmed in 2011 as they overcame much fancied Luton Town in the Play Off Final held at the City of Manchester Stadium, in the days before sponsorship changed the name of Manchester City’s home.

It had been a meteoric rise. Five promotions in nine years returned them to the Football League and they made that six last May when winning the League 2 play-off, beating Plymouth Argyle before 58,000 at Wembley. That promotion was made all the sweeter as it came exactly 14 years to the day since the Club was reborn.

As AFC arrive at the Tameside Stadium on Sunday a look at the League table must surely be so satisfying for those who believed in a tradition going back a century. They lie just outside of the play off zone – the team that took their name; tried to take their history; and are just an extension of Winkelman’s business empire are in the relegation zone. It will be heartening for AFC fans, but equally saluted by football fans the length and breadth of the land. It certainly is a tale of a Phoenix rising from the ashes.