Words – Daniel Storey Pictures – Stephen Vidal
It’s often said that without fans, football is nothing. This is of course true in every sense of the word, but all too often the further you go up the English football pyramid that statement becomes more and more blurred by a chairman in pursuit of profit and extracting every last penny from those who pass through the turnstiles. However, down at clubs such as FC United of Manchester, Lewes, Hereford, Wrexham and of course AFC Wimbledon, they really know the true value of their supporters, and where the real power lies. The above mentioned clubs are all fan owned in various formats and disguises.
Back in the summer of 2002, a three-man panel at the FA voted in favour of allowing Wimbledon FC to relocate nearly sixty miles up the road to Milton Keynes; a town with no football league club but a vast amount of plastic cows and roundabouts instead. The move angered the supporters of Wimbledon and also the wider footballing World, who saw it as American-style franchising where clubs can seemingly just be ripped out of the communities from where they originate against the wishes of their supporters. What made it even more difficult to stomach for those who lived and breathed Wimbledon was that the same three-man FA panel also said that starting a new club rather than relocating it just “wasn’t in the wider interests of football.” Oh how wrong that FA panel were to be proved as the years and seasons came and went after the controversial move.
We all now know that it took just nine years for AFC Wimbledon, the fan-owned club that rose from the ashes of the old Wimbledon, to get promoted back to the Football League after starting as far down in the Combined Counties League, the ninth tier of English Football. That glorious and memorable afternoon at the City of Manchester Stadium when striker Danny Kedwell rifled the winning penalty past the Luton Town goalkeeper Mark Tyler to secure promotion to League Two, was witnessed by nearly 7000 AFC Wimbledon supporters, many of whom had been there from the very beginning at Sandhurst Town. At the time it was biggest achievement for the nine-year-old club.
Their first four seasons back in the Football League had been a mixed bag. The most difficult season involved a relegation battle in 2012/13 that they managed to escape from, to the utter relief of everyone involved in the club. Relegation back to Non-League football would have been a massive blow to the re-born club. The current manager is former Wimbledon player Neil Ardley, who was appointed manager after Terry Brown stepped down by mutual consent early in the second season back in the Football League. Now, at the end of their fifth season in League 2, having previously only finished as high as 15th, the club stood just 90 minutes from promotion to League one and a chance to finally be playing their football at the same level as Milton Keynes Dons, the franchised club that rose out of the corpse of the old Wimbledon in 2003.
A fine end of the season run saw AFC win 7 of their last 10 games, propelling them into a playoff berth and a playoff semi-final meeting with Accrington Stanley. A tight and tense 1st leg at Kings-meadow saw Wimbledon take a 1-0 lead back to Lancashire. Stanley, who themselves had been denied automatic promotion after results went against them on a cruel last day, raced into a 2-0 lead in the second leg, suddenly swinging the tie in their favour. However, AFC had overcome plenty of adversity in their history and they weren’t about to throw in the towel just yet. Adebayo Akinfenwa, the beast as he is commonly known, made his entrance as a second-half sub, and he wasted little time in hauling the real Dons back into the contest by levelling the scores up on aggregate. The tie was now on a knife edge, but there was to be a hero in the AFC ranks when Lyle Taylor levelled the scores on the night sending the travelling fans into absolute ecstasy and putting AFC back in front 3-2 on aggregate. A brief floodlight failure threatened to ruin the celebrations for AFC, but they came back on and a place at Wembley was achieved on an historic night for those supporters who had proved to the FA panel that they were wrong. It left you wondering if any of those men on that FA panel were watching on and wincing just a little?
A Wembley date with Plymouth Argyle, the victor in the other semi-final, was AFC’s reward for beating Accrington. However, it almost didn’t matter who the opponents were in the final, they were just another obstacle to overcome in this fairytale story that was about to have another chapter written.
On Monday 30th May 2016, I headed off to Wembley Stadium with a group of mates, two of which were AFC Wimbledon supporters, another one a Wrexham fan; three people who had experienced what life was like supporting fan owned clubs. Also along for the day were a Chelsea fan and a Brighton fan, who days earlier had been through the full range of emotions of what the playoffs can put a supporter through. As a Gillingham supporter I knew exactly how he felt having experienced similar emotions in 1999, 2000 and 2009.
I’ve always had a fascination for fan owned clubs, and in the months before the League 2 final I had been to watch games at FC United of Manchester (FCUM) and Lewes. It was early January 2016 when I had made my journey to visit FC United of Manchester in the hope of experiencing what life was like on a match day at a fan owned club. That Saturday afternoon had provided me with real insight in to what owning a club meant to everyone involved in FCUM. Broadhurst Park in Motson is FCUM’s home, a stadium they funded and built themselves, and which is a true endorsement of the power of the supporter and what can be achieved when a group of people say enough is enough to greedy owners. I encourage anyone reading this to visit too.
Now here I was five months on from my visit to FCUM, now following the AFC Wimbledon story on their big day out in the capital. Could AFC prove that fan owned clubs that don’t rely on wealthy owners, don’t have a selling point once in the Football League as some had suggested? The Pilgrims had come in numbers to the National stadium, over 30,000 of them, and started the final as slight favourites given where they had finished in the final league table. AFC Wimbledon had, however, beaten them only weeks earlier in the league and had the neutrals willing them on as they attempted to etch themselves into the history books. Former striker Danny Kedwell had said after the playoff victory in 2011 that this was “Our time”. You can almost sense five years on that promotion, that this current crop of players now had their time to eclipse the heroes of Manchester.
On our London Overground journey from Euston to Wembley Central, the atmosphere was slightly more reserved than my own Wembley travel experiences with the Gills, but as kick-off drew closer and we drunk £5 a pint beers, the atmosphere and noise levels in the fan zone rose considerably. An open top bus pulled up next to the ground carrying people dressed as the Wombles.
Once inside the ground both sets of supporters created a fantastic atmosphere and our seats on the bottom tier afforded us an excellent view of the action on the pitch. Our two Wimbledon supporting mates were very much enjoying their day out, as were all of us, but it’s about winning when you get to this stage and it was now time for Ardley’s players to re-write their names in AFC Wimbledon folklore. The first half saw AFC Wimbledon attacking the end where the Plymouth fans were housed, and those in Green would have felt nervous and worried as Lyle Taylor twice went close for AFC, the best of which he just couldn’t quite wrap his foot around after a free kick found him unmarked in the box. The Plymouth hordes also would have breathed a sigh of relief when Kelvin Mellor diverted the ball beyond his own goalkeeper and just past the post. The first half had certainly belonged to those in Blue and Yellow. Plymouth’s best chance of the half came about from a misplaced pass from AFC’s Conor Smith, but as he Dons fans all around me looked on in angst, Darius Charles rescued the situation heading away a dangerous Plymouth cross into the box.
The second half saw Argyle come into the match more as AFC Wimbledon’s goalkeeper Roos was finally called into action. The Dutchman was alert when he was needed, as a dangerous free kick saw him having to get down well to push the ball away from danger. The game was still tight with twenty minutes’ left, but Ardley had the Akinfenwa card up his sleeve to play. Tom Elliot had been immense up front, but Ardley knew replacing him with the beast could make all the different as the tired legs and minds of the Argyle defenders were about to experience. The big man was certainly making his presence felt in the box as Dannie’s Bulman’s fantastic in swinging ball was met by Lyle Taylor, who diverted the ball beyond the dive of Luke McCormick. Que pandemonium in the AFC Wimbledon end as suddenly the dream of promotion was within touching distance. Even as a neutral I had a massive grin on my face as I surveyed the happy smiling faces surrounding me which included my two Wimbledon supporting mates now in an emotional embrace.
The game entered injury time with AFC pushing for that clinching second goal and somehow McCormick pulled off a fantastic save to deny Akinfenwa. However, the big man wasn’t to be denied for long on his final appearance in a AFC shirt. In the tenth minute of time added on the referee pointed to the spot when Azeez was fouled in the box. After wrestling the ball from Kennedy, beast mode was well and truly switched on as the big man stuck the penalty away to seal promotion for a club and a set of supporters who had their football club ripped away from them but refused to accept Franchise FC and instead started their own.
From Sandhurst Town to the City of Manchester stadium to this most glorious of promotions to League 1, AFC Wimbledon have been on an unforgettable journey like no other in English football. I feel privileged to have witnessed a very small part of that journey, a part that hit its highest of heights on a memorable afternoon at the FA’s HQ, the same FA that said this football club wasn’t in the wider interests of football. For the likes of Ivor Heller, Trevor Williams, Marc Jones and Kris Stewart, four men who set this club up, they didn’t believe a word of it back then and just look how far this club have come since. A final decision will soon be made on the club’s stadium plans to be built in the Borough of Merton. A green light will mean everything to those at AFC Wimbledon. Until then they can look forward to two matches against their franchised nemesis in 2016/17.