Contrasting Fortunes – Braintree Town & Wrexham

A few weeks ago, one rather disgruntled gentleman decided to write to the Non-League paper and inform their readership that the current National League promotion and title contenders Lincoln City should be known as a Football League Club, despite playing their football outside of the Football League. What prompted the gentleman to write to the paper in the first place was down to the praise Lincoln City were receiving for their magnificent run to the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup as a Non-League club. The letter caused quite a stir, and the following week many people wrote to the Non-League paper themselves and informed the disgruntled gentleman that despite having played in the Football League for the majority of their history, Lincoln City were very much a Non-League club and had been since relegation from the Football League in May 2011. The point the gentleman was trying to make was that many clubs who are currently plying their trade in the top tier of the Non-League pyramid, the National League, have spent much of their history playing in Football League clubs and therefore he felt that they shouldn’t be labelled as such.

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A quick look at the current National League table and you will find that it isn’t just Lincoln City who have the resources, support levels and desire to recapture their former Football League status. The supporters and owners of Tranmere Rovers, York City and Torquay United would all dearly love to see their clubs escape the clutches of the National League, but unfortunately relegation from the Football League is often a deep wound that isn’t quickly healed.

Meanwhile up in North Wales, the loyal and long suffering supporters of Wrexham Football Club can certainly identify with that feeling of being another former Football League club that’s currently playing in the National League and not exactly wanting or enjoying being there. Despite finishing in the National League play-off places for three consecutive seasons in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the Welsh club suffered agonising play-off defeats in the semi-finals in 2011 & 2012 and the final in 2013. The 2013 defeat in the final came at the hands of Welsh neighbours Newport County. The Dragons are now into their tenth season outside the Football League after dropping out of the Football League in 2008. Unfortunately, instant promotion back to the Football League is a very rare event for clubs that drop out of League Two as the likes of Luton Town, Grimsby Town, York City, Stockport County, Hereford, Torquay United and Tranmere Rovers have all found out in recent times. Only Bristol Rovers, Lincoln City and Carlisle United have managed to go down and then gain promotion the following season. The road back to the Football League is more often than not a long and painful one.

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The traveling Wrexham fans look on as their side battles in Essex

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The National League is a strong division with a mixture of former Football League clubs (Lincoln City, Wrexham, York City, Tranmere etc.), clubs with huge ambition and wealth (Forest Green Rovers & Eastleigh), phoenix ex-Football League clubs on the rise again (Aldershot, Maidstone United & Chester FC), and clubs that many would see as punching well above their weight (Braintree Town, Dover Athletic, North Ferriby United & Solihull Moors). The 2015/2016 season saw two part-time clubs in Braintree Town and Dover Athletic, despite having less resources and financial wealth that many clubs at this level, manage to finish in the play-off places, which is a testimony to the strength and competitiveness of the National League as well as proving wealth and support levels are no guarantee of success at this level anyway.

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A lot of Braintree Town’s success last season can be credited to their talented former management duo of Danny Cowley and Nicky Cowley, two brothers who have worked their way up from managing in the Essex Senior League to managing in the National League. The pair became joint managers at Cressing Road in the summer of 2015 and within a year they had gotten the club to within touching distance of the Football League. However, it’s Alan Devonshire, the manager, who had taken the club from the Third Division of the Ryman Isthmian League to top level of non-league football and then managed to establish them amongst the cream of semi-professional football as a part-time club who deserve immense credit for the rise of Braintree Town.

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This season sees Braintree Town playing their sixth straight season in the National League, the highest level they have played in their history. However, whilst Braintree might be enjoying life at their elevated level, a club that most certainly are not are Wrexham. After Brian Flynn stepped down as manager in September 2001 having become the club’s third longest serving manager, Wrexham have been on a rollercoaster of a ride of extreme highs and lows. A Football League Trophy success in 2005, as well as a few Welsh Cup wins in the period was rather overshadowed by the club having ten points deducted after they entered administration in the 2004/05 season. The loss of those ten points most certainly cost the club their place in League One that season and the Dragons’ downward spiral was about to rapidly accelerate thereafter. The club were put into administration by the directors, who believed it was the only way to prevent the club from liquidation after the owner at the time, Alex Hamilton, refused to sell the club to either a consortium or the Wrexham supporters trust. At the same time Alex Hamilton also had plans to use the land that the land the Racecourse Ground was built on for housing or commercial development after he had acquired the freehold of it in June 2002. These were worrying times for everyone who had Wrexham close to their hearts.

Further reading –     The Wrexham Supporters trust finally takes control

After many legal shenanigans and court battles, the Racecourse was returned to the administrators and a new consortium was eventually allowed to take control of the club just before the start of the 2006/2007 League 2 campaign. The club had been saved from extinction at the 11th hour, but would it prove to be a turning point in their fortunes? Unfortunately, it didn’t on the field. Manager Denis Smith was sacked along with assistant Kevin Russell in January 2007, when the club were tumbling towards the Conference at a rapid rate. Their fight for survival went right down to the wire that season until safety was finally secured on the last day of the season in front of a packed Racecourse. A 3-1 win over fellow relegation rivals Boston United sent Boston down instead, to the pure and utter delight of the majority of the 12,374 crowd. After years of painful legal battles off the pitch and poor performances on it, surely this would prove to be a major turning point in the Dragons history? Sadly, again it wasn’t to be. The following season (2007/2008) Brian Carey and then Brian Little tried to turn the club’s fortunes around but neither could, and after a 2-0 loss away at Hereford United in April 2008, the Dragons 87 year stay in the Football League was ended. It was a dark and very sad day in this part of North Wales, but at the time I doubt many Wrexham supporters believed their stay in the Conference National, as it was called back then, would be a very long one. Sadly, they were to be mistaken and the long road back to the Football League is still far from reaching any of sort of happy ending.

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Dean Saunders, Andy Morrell, Kevin Wilkin and Gary Mills have all tried their hand at getting Wrexham back into the Football League since relegation in 2008, but not one of those managers could quite find that formula. Andy Morrell came the closest to ending the club’s stay in non-league football. The 2011/2012 season saw the club gain 98 points and finish second but with only one automatic place in the Conference they were denied by Champions Fleetwood Town who gained 105 points. They went on to lose in the playoffs semi-finals that season and then in the final to Newport County the following year. Morrell did however manage to add to the club’s trophy collection with a FA Trophy win in 2013. The reigns of Kevin Wilkin and Gary Mills after Morrell can best be described as underachieving and underwhelming and now Keates has the task of restoring pride in playing for a club the size of Wrexham whilst also trying to achieve that promotion the supporters of this once grand Welsh club have been yearning for since 2008.

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Dean Keates(Far right) the man charged with restoring Wrexham’s  lost Football League status

Further reading – The trails and tribulations of Wrexham managers

Saturday 4th March 2017 – National League – Braintree Town 1 v 2 Wrexham – Cressing Road – Attendance 698

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When these two clubs took to the field at the Racecourse back in September they were both already on their second managers of the season, with Dean Keates having taken over from Gary Mills at Wrexham and Hakan Hayrettin having replaced Jamie Day in the dugout at Braintree. Despite Gary Mills having a track record of getting clubs he managed promoted from the National League to the Football League, he couldn’t work his magic in North Wales, and after a run of just one win in six games in mid-September and early October, Mills was shown the door with an assault on promotion looking already unlikely only a few months into the season. However, worse was to follow for the Wrexham supporters a few weeks later. An extremely embarrassing exit in the FA Cup to Stamford, three leagues below Wrexham, left the Dragons’ faithful wondering who exactly could sort out the mess the club now found themselves in.

The Wrexham board decided to appoint Dean Keates, a former playing legend at the club, and in his first four league games he managed to steady ship with three draws and a win before struggling Braintree Town turned up at the Racecourse and returned back to Essex with all three points. It was a massive reality check for Keates who now knew the size of the task at hand. His programme notes from that same game said as much; “We’re four games unbeaten at the moment, which is a good starting point. I am under no illusions, though, that there is plenty of room for improvement.” As for improvement of the Dragons since his appointment, Keates has certainly given the club a platform to build on for next season having won seven, drawn 3 and lost 5 of his 15 games since that reverse to Braintree.

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Match action from Cressing Road

Meanwhile since the departure of Jamie Day from Braintree in late September, the new manager Hakan Hayrettin has been fighting to keep the club from getting sucked into a relegation battle after such a poor start to the season under Day. Unfortunately, results failed to improve immediately after Hayrettin’s arrival with the team winning just one of his first seven games in charge. However, a strong set of results in November and December meant the team started to pull away from the relegation scrap. Another two wins in January and a useful point away at promotion chasing Forest Green Rovers kept the momentum going after a poor start to January included defeats to Chester City and Essex rivals Dagenham and Redbridge. Then came a hectic period in February with seven games played in the month. A shock FA Trophy defeat to Dulwich, a club two leagues below Braintree, meant league survival was now the main focus. The players responded well and a vital ten points were earned after wins against North Ferriby, Eastleigh and Bromley, and a vital point gained from relegation threatened Maidstone United.

Further reading – A new manager in charge of Braintree Town

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Wrexham came into the game in good form too but within a minute they found themselves a goal down. A corner wasn’t dealt with by the Wrexham defence and Micheal Cheek fired in from close range. It was mad opening to the game and within three minutes, Wrexham were back on level terms. A strong run down the left by Izale McLeod took him area where he could pull back the ball into the path of Tum Massanka who fired the ball into the net to the delight of the 150 or so away fans who made the trip from North Wales.

The next big chance of the game came the way of the home side when a thrown in into the penalty area caused the Wrexham back line problems. The ball eventually found its way to Jack Midson who chip to the back post was somehow headed over from six yards out by the goalscorer Cheek. The closet Wrexham came to adding to their one goal in the first half was on 40 minutes when skipper Mark Carrington forced home keeper Sam Beasant to tip the ball over the crossbar. The Dragons also had a shout for a penalty turned down just before half time but the game remained level at the break.

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The second half began with a strong start from Wrexham and they could have been in front inside the first five minutes when Jennings ran into the box, lost the ball, but it ran into the path of team mate Ntumba Massanka who’s goal bound shot was excellently blocked by the leg of Frankie Musonda. A flurry of corners then followed and Martin Riley really should have done better with a header from just six yards out. Defender Martin Riley was certainly in the thick of the action and he must have breathed a sigh of relief when his challenge on Reece Hall-Johnson in the box went unpunished with the home side screaming for a penalty award.

An hour into the game and at this point it could have gone either way. Then on 64 minutes a great passing move by the visitors put them back in front. A good bit of link-up play between Dunn, Carrington, Riley, Massanka and Barry led to Paul Rutherford attacking the Braintree back line. Once he got towards the penalty area he cut in twice and squared the ball for Jordan White. White had his shot blocked but Ollie Shenton was on hand to fire the ball into the net right in front of the now jubilant visiting support.

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The full build up to the goal that won the match and three points for Wrexham

This time it was Braintree who responded immediately after conceding a goal. The home team thought they were level just two minutes after Wrexham went in front. A powerful shot from the edge of the box by Hall-Johnson landed sweetly into the far corner of the net but the linesman raised his flag after Jack Midson who was offside had interfered with the goalkeeper’s view of the shot.

In the 70th minute a third penalty appeal in the game was turned down when Midson failed to convince the referee he had been fouled in the box. Nine minutes later Wrexham should have killed the game off but Braintree had their keeper to thank for keeping them in the game when his legs prevented Massanka from scoring from 12 yards out.

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The final throw of the dice by Braintree is dealt with by the Wrexham rear guard

Time was now running out for the home side but they kept on plugging away. A free kick from 25 yards out was their best chance of final ten minutes but Cheek could only smack the ball against the Wrexham wall. After five minutes of injury time the referee signalled the end of the game and a win for Wrexham. For Wrexham it was the third time this season they have come from behind to win a game, and it was also their sixth win from their first ten games in 2017, a best start to a calendar year since 2013. Braintree could count themselves rather unfortunate to lose the game but it seems Hakan Hayrettin has them going in the right direction as the campaign reaches its climax.

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A full set of pictures from this match – Match snaps

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Fear and Loathing in Milton Keynes

If you take look around the World of football you can find plenty of matches that have red hot atmospheres, are full of red blooded passion, have long standing rivalries and even, in some cases, absolute hatred for one another. The clash of Milton Keynes Dons and AFC Wimbledon is one that many believe shouldn’t really exist, however it does, and there is certainly no love lost between these two very different football clubs. One thing it most certainly isn’t and that’s a derby.

AFC Wimbledon are the club that were born out of the franchising of the old Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, and they have been on a path to prove the FA suits wrong ever since their formation back in the summer of 2002. These are the same FA suits that said a new club wasn’t in the wider interests of football; a statement that has since been widely ridiculed and proven to be about as accurate as a British weather forecast.

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Milton Keynes Dons, however, are a franchise created out of the destruction of the Old Wimbledon. The three-man FA panel allowed their owner Peter Winkleman to move the club over 60 miles up the road from their home in South London, a move that sparked utter outrage amongst the whole footballing community and showed a complete disregard for what a football club means to its fans and the local communities from where they first originated.

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The National Hockey stadium – The first home of MK Dons 

Fourteen years after their formation, AFC Wimbledon are now level in the English pyramid with Milton Keynes Dons, and prior to the first ever league meeting between the two clubs, sat above them in third tier of English football. It’s been a truly phenomenal rise for the fan-owned club.

Whilst Peter Winkleman used his wealth to fund and build an out of town all seater football stadium costing £50 million and with a capacity of over 30,000, the controversial move to Milton Keynes hasn’t exactly had locals flocking through the gates. Meanwhile back down in South London, AFC Wimbledon regularly sell out their matches and have outgrown their modest home at Kingsmeadow in Kingston upon Thames. They have in all reality been looking to move back the borough of Merton ever since their formation, however, despite identifying the old Greyhound site in Wimbledon as the preferred location back in 2012, there have been many hurdles to overcome in the years since.

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Stadium MK: Picture taken prior the stadium’s full competition before the 2015 Rugby World Cup

The decision makers at Merton Borough Council finally gave planning permission to the club in 2015, but when the then London Mayor Boris Johnson asked a for a review of the decision, the Wombles fans were left to fret yet again on the decision to bring the real Dons back home to South London. A recent decision by the new London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, not to intervene and pass the decision back to Merton Borough Council finally gave the green light for the club to build a new ground on the site of the old greyhound stadium in Merton, and it’s one of huge significance for the re-born club. The move will be another huge milestone for the owners and fans of this remarkable football club. A move to a bigger capacity stadium will allow the club to grow further off the pitch, bring in more match-day and commercial revenue, which in turn will help on the pitch and allow the team to compete at the top of League One, and then challenge for promotion to the Championship, the league they graced before the FA panel allowed their club to be franchised.

Whilst everything looks very rosy in the AFC Wimbledon garden right now, life in Buckinghamshire looks distinctly uncertain. After a brief one season stint in the Championship in 2015/16 and a Divisional League title and Football League trophy double back in 2008, the franchised club are presently struggling in League One with attendances less than half the capacity of Stadium MK:, a venue that played host to large crowds during the Rugby World Cup in 2015.

Whilst the anger and hatred of MK Dons has lessened somewhat during the passing years after the controversial move in 2002, there are still many supporters who would be glad to see the back of Milton Keynes out of the Football League with the town having been gifted a place amongst the 92 by the FA without having climbed the English League Pyramid system. However, whatever fence you sit on it does look like MK Dons are here to stay and the recently appointed manager Robbie Neilson has a big task on his hands in keeping the club afloat in the third tier this season.

Saturday 10th December 2016 – Milton Keynes Dons 1 v 0 AFC Wimbledon – Stadium MK: – Att – 11,185(1976 away)

Whilst this was the first ever league fixture between the two clubs, this wasn’t the first time these two clubs have met each other in a competitive fixture. That happened back on Sunday 2nd December 2012, when the two clubs were drawn against each other in the FA Cup.

Whilst the footballing public saw it as an ultimate battle of good versus evil, it was the tie that those involved in AFC Wimbledon didn’t want, as it divided much of their support on the rights and wrongs of the Milton Keynes move. Many supporters simply couldn’t go and give money to their franchised nemesis, therefore justifying their very existence, whilst for others they just wanted to attend and get behind the players whilst also letting their feelings known to all those who had stolen their club from underneath them. It’s a subject that still divides supporters with strong opinions to this very day.

At the time of the FA Cup clash, AFC Wimbledon were a league below MK Dons, but they more than matched their higher placed hosts that afternoon almost taking MK back to Kingsmeadow for a replay after coming back from 1-0 down to level through striker Jack Midson. However, it wasn’t to be the fairytale that the majority of the watching TV public wanted that afternoon, as MK won the tie deep into second half injury time. The clubs have also met each other in both the League Cup and the Football League Trophy with a win a piece for each side. So far all three games have been played at Stadium MK. They have yet to clash back down in South London.

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On an overcast and dull day in Milton Keynes, you could puncture the air with tension as both set of fans milled around the ground before kickoff, but without the customary banter and polite discussion that takes place between rival supporters before most other matches up and down the country. The surreal site of seeing AFC Wimbledon fans dressing up in suits worn by those looking for clues after a murder investigation – think CSI here and you get the picture – tells you all you need to know about the distain and dislike for MK from those in yellow and blue.

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Once inside the ground the large traveling contingent of Wombles fans were seated in the upper tier, meaning any flash points would be contained on the pitch alone and not off the field. A mini pitch invasion from the Wimbledon hordes in the FA Cup clash in 2012 probably prompted the decision, much like the choice of kickoff time at 1pm, which was probably done on police advice.

As the two teams emerged on to the pitch, the AFC Wimbledon fans made sure the majority inside Stadium MK knew exactly what they thought of them with a rousing chant of, “You know what you are, you know what you are, you franchised ****** you know what you are.” It wasn’t going to be a typical Saturday afternoon in this corner of Buckinghamshire that’s for sure.

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On the pitch it was the home side who came out of the traps quicker and stronger as Neil Ardley’s men struggled to get to any sort of flow going to their game. Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the fear of making a mistake in such a poisonous fixture, but whatever it was, the Wombles were struggling to produce the form that had seen them catapult up the League One table having lose just twice in 14 games before the game.

MK Dons enjoyed the majority of the possession in the first twenty minutes and went close when Wombles defender Barry Fuller had to put his body in the path of a goal bound effort. The more the AFC Wimbledon players stood off their men and dropped deep, the more it encouraged the midfielders of Milton Keynes to dictate the flow of the game. The Wimbledon striker pairing of Dominic Poleon and Tom Elliot were pretty much feeding off scraps, as the ball spent too much time in the air.

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The first chance of the half for the visitors came on the half hour mark when Ben Reeves fired high over the bar with a shot from outside the penalty area. As the rest of the half wore on, the game had developed into a pattern of play where MK Dons attacked but were a little bit blunt when it came to finishing, and AFC Wimbledon were defending well but were seemingly not able to string two passes together when they got beyond the half-way line. The centre-back pairing of Paul Robinson and Chris Robertson were forming a solid base for the Wombles, which did much to keep the score level at 0-0.

Whilst the game wasn’t quite living up to the hype surrounding it, the 2000 odd away fans were making all the noise from their lofty position in the upper tier, which included served all renditions of “Where were you when you was us”, which was quite apt given how badly the old Wimbledon struggled to bring in the crowds when sharing grounds with Crystal Palace.

The only other noteworthy chance of the half for Neil Ardley’s men was when Jake Reeves found space outside the area, but his long range effort was easily dealt with by the home goalkeeper

During the half time break the majority of the away supporters remained in their seats, again refusing to hand over more cash to their nemesis, but a few hundred did and they were probably still finishing off their liquid refreshments when Milton Keynes almost opened the scoring early in the second period. A dangerous cross into the box was met by the head of Dean Bowditch but he couldn’t direct his header on target. It was an early warning to the away side the home side were still carrying a threat.

The game and AFC Wimbledon in particular needed some fresh impetus, so Neil Ardley decided to make a double swap with Lyle Taylor and Chris Whelpdale, replacing Dominic Poleon and Dean Parrett. Taylor had been left out of the starting lineup due to being doubtful before kickoff, but his pace on the wing was required as far too much of the play for Wimbledon was coming through the congested middle of the park.

The referee had been making some bizarre decisions throughout, and as the game ticked past the hour mark, he made two questionable calls that had the Wimbledon hordes up in arms. A decision not to award a 50/50 free kick in Wimbledon’s favour in an attacking area was then further compounded when MK Dons went up the other end and won a penalty. The penalty was scored by Bowditch to give the home side the crucial advantage.

The visitors now needed a spark to reignite their fight and it was the incompetent referee who seemed to be proving the flame. The goal had come about just as Wimbledon were getting to grips on the game, but after the penalty award Neil Ardley was pressed into showing his final hand when he replaced Tom Elliot with Tyronne Barnett.

A great chance for the visitors went begging when a terrific cross from George Francomb was narrowly flicked wide by the lively Lyle Taylor, but an even clearer cut opportunity was wasted when a long Chris Whepdale throw caused panic in the area but a combination of Meades and Daniel Powell could get that crucial shot at goal and MK’s goalkeeper Martin was able to gather the ball.

It was turning into one of those frustrating afternoons for the Wombles in a game that required the emotions to be kept in check, but they had cause to feel extremely hard done by in second half as the referee almost seemed hell bent on awarding every decision in the home side’s favour, the worse coming right near the end of the match when Lyle Taylor was somehow penalised for sliding in to block a clearance from Lewington, but was adjudged by the referee to have committed an offence. The game felt too big for a referee that looked clearly out of his depth.

The fourth official signaled six minutes of second half injury time to be played, but that one clear cut opportunity just wasn’t going to come for the visitors as the clocked ticked down to the finish. MK Dons had the victory and three points they craved in this highly charged match, whilst the travelling army of Wombles supporters were left to ponder on
their first defeat on the road since August as the rain lashed down in buckets from the Buckinghamshire skies.

The AFC Wimbledon manager Neil Ardley had most certainly been right when he was interviewed before kick off when he said, “My players won’t be defined by this result”, but Peter Winkleman was most certainly wrong when he said back in 2003 “that is not possible to come from level 10 of the football pyramid. I don’t believe AFC Wimbledon will do it.”

Much like the FA suits, the real Dons have been proving Pete Winkleman wrong ever since.

People Power – AFC Telford & FC United

These are interesting times in the evolution of football clubs owned by their fans. AFC Wimbledon – a club very much seen as the posters boys for the fan power movement — recently rose to their highest position in the football league and in their history, above their nemesis Milton Keynes Dons in the process too. This story was widely reported in the national media and was celebrated by many neutral football supporters as a triumph for good versus evil. However, ignoring the AFC Wimbledon/MK Dons debate for now, the rise of AFC Wimbledon in particular has very much given hope to the fan ownership model about what can actually be achieved without Russian Oligarchs, Middle eastern Sheiks and rich businessmen just pumping money in .However, there can also be pitfalls for the fan ownership model too. Whilst things currently look very rosy for AFC Wimbledon, elsewhere in English football the future for some fan owned clubs isn’t as clear cut.

AFC Telford United and FC United of Manchester are two such fan owned clubs who are experiencing a crossroads in their history. Both clubs are currently residing in the National League North, two promotions from the Football League, both having rapidly risen through the Non-Leagues but very much under two very different circumstances. Back in 2004 Telford United FC were very much a club on the up and up and a club that had Football League aspirations and a support base to match those aspirations. The Shropshire club were enjoying life in their new home at New Bucks Head when suddenly towards the end of the 2003/2004 season their whole world came crashing down with one almighty bump. The Telford United chairman at the time, Andy Shaw, was also the owner of Miras, the company who bankrolled Telford United. Unfortunately when Miras went bust the football club was like a ship suddenly without its captain and its wheel. The news rocked everyone who was involved in the running of Telford United, not only because many never saw it coming, but because suddenly the football club had big debts and a high wage bill they just couldn’t sustain without the financial input of Miras. All of sudden there was also a very real threat that the football club wouldn’t be able to fulfil the rest of its fixtures as every player was put on the transfer list and told they were free to leave and find other club. As for the supporters, they were left in the dark whether they would have a club to support ever again. Fortunately for the supporters of Telford United the club did struggle on to the end of that season, but in the summer of 2004 Telford United went under and suddenly football in Telford looked gone forever, 114 years after Wellington Town, the former name of Telford United, had played their first ever match in 1890.

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If all looked lost for the supporters and communities of Telford and Wellington, the council and the people who held the club so dear their hearts weren’t about to let football end in this corner of Shropshire just yet. After meetings with the council and members of the Telford United Supporters trust that summer, a new football club AFC Telford United was born and a new way forward for football to thrive and survive in Telford was mapped out between all interested parties. The council also managed to secure the ownership of the stadium which was crucial to getting the new club up and running. Lee Carter and Mark Donovan were two such supporters whose involved in the supporters trust played key roles in setting up a new club with the assistance of the council. The Football Association placed AFC Telford United in the Northern Premier League Division One(NPLD1), four leagues away from the Football Conference where Telford United had been playing before their demise. A third placed finish and Playoff success in their first season in the NPLD1 meant promotion in their very first season, and two more promotions in the next six seasons had the people of Telford and surrounding areas flocking back to the New Bucks Head as success just kept coming the way of the new club. By 2011, just seven years after the new club were formed, AFC Telford were back playing in the top tier of Non-League football the Conference National. It was a memorable and proud day for the Trust and council who refused to just let football in Telford cease.

In their first season back in the Conference National in 2011/12, the new club finished in 20th position which should have meant relegation back to the Conference North, but the demise of Hereford United and Salisbury City that season meant AFC Telford had a stay of execution and began life the following season still playing in the Conference National. Unfortunately, the following season the football club finished dead last and were this time relegated. The club managed to bounce back at the first attempt by winning the Conference North title at the end of the 2013/14 season, but again life back in Conference National was a struggle and they finished in 23rd position which meant a second relegation in three seasons at the end of the 2014/15 campaign.

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Despite the ups and downs on the field in their short history, off the pitch the Telford United Supporters trust have the run the club with great success since its re-birth in the summer of 2004. However, without any outside investment coming into the club there can be a limit on what can be achieved on the field when you’re ambitious to move forward as a club but revenue steams dry up or attendances start to drop off. In October 2016 with the club needing to raise £25,000 and another £25,000 the following month, members of he Supporters Trust voted in favour of selling their shares to the football club which would open up the club to outside investment for the first time since the original club went bust after relying on the cash of Andy Shaw and Miras . What this means for the future of AFC Telford United is hard to judge at this point, but the survival of football in Telford again hangs in the balance not for the first time this century.

As for FC United of Manchester(FCUM) the picture is very different one to that of AFC Telford. Despite moving into their new home Broadhurst Park at the start of last season, a crucial move which would allow the club to move forward off the pitch and start to create their own revenue steams, the later half of their first season in their new home was overshadowed by board room battles and power struggles making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. After promotion to the Conference North was finally achieved by winning the Northern Premier League at the end of the 2014/2015 season, Karl Marginson and the players have found life at the higher level a tough test but eventually managed to secure their survival their first season in the higher level. This start of this season has also been a mixed bag on the pitch, however off the pitch the all to recent clashes in the board room have been a dark cloud over the Moston skies. Andy Walsh, the now former General Manager of FCUM, stepped down at end of 2015/16 season and he has recently been followed by other members of the board who disagree with the way the club is moving forward and the direction it’s taking. Many supporters have also openly questioned the board on message boards and other social media platforms, which has also seem some supporters also openly questioning if manager Karl Marginson, who has been in the dugout since the birth of FCUM, is still the man to keep the club on an upward trajectory. The other worry for FCUM has been a recent drop in attendances at Broadhurst Park, still comfortable higher than many clubs at their level mind you, but not as high as the Halcyon days when 3000 plus would regularly stream through the gates at Gigg Lane, their formed shared home. Going forward the future of FCUM will still very much rely on the supporter ownership model, and unlike AFC Telford, the 3640 current members who each hold a share and not about to relinquish that control anytime soon despite the off field trails and tribulations.

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In an interesting twist of fate FC United recently made the journey to the New Bucks Head to clash with AFC Telford United in the National League North fixture as the supporters and owners of AFC Telford got the buckets back out agin in the hope of raising some much needed funds.

Saturday 15th October 2016 – National League North – AFC Telford United 1 v 0 FC United of Manchester – New Bucks Head – Att : 1706

The message on the front cover of the programme told its own story. “Thank you, On behalf of the board of directors I would like to thank you all for all of your support. We need football in Telford, you can help us keep it” It was a simple message but one that painted a picture of a club once again needing help from its supporters and local community much like it had done in those dark days of April 2004. The New Bucks Head is a fantastic facility and a ground more than capable to hosting football as a much higher level than step 6. AFC Telford, with regular attendances of between 1200 and 1500, are a well supported club at step 6, but recent cash flow problems and an actual drop in attendances has forced the hand of the Trust board to find a possible alternative to their fan ownership and community model.

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The National League North is a strong league this season with the likes of AFC Fylde, Salford City, Darlington 1883, Halifax Town, Kidderminster Harriers and Stockport County all in the mix along side both FCUM and AFC Telford. AFC Fylde currently lead the way at the top, whilst these two clubs came into the fixture struggling in the wrong half of the National League North, FCUM lying in 14th place having gained 14 points from their 13 games, and AFC Telford down in 19th position having gained two points less.

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The buckets had already been shaken and walked around the ground as the game got underway in the late autumn sunshine. A first half that produced very little in the way of quality would have been quickly forgotten by the healthy crowd of 1706. The home side went the closest to breaking the deadlock with a header that rattled off the crossbar. A few tasty challenges had the home crowd calling for the referee to take action as players squared up to each other. During the half time break the PA announcer informed the biggest New Bucks Head crowd of the season that they had collected a four figure amount of money from their collections, A loud cheers went around the ground and I’m sure it would have helped lift the home side as they began the second half with a spring in their steps.

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FC United looked dangerous going forward when winger Jerome Wright had the ball at his feet, but his first chance that came early in the second half after a great ball over the top played him in on goal, was superbly blocked by a Telford defender. Tom Greaves was the next to go close for United when his shot smacked against the crossbar. The home side defended well throughout though, and when their chance came they took it. A superb cross was volleyed home by Connor McCarthy who did well to arrow his shot beyond the drive of FCUM’s shot stopper David Carnell. Carnell was having an excellent game between the posts and he had to be at his best do deny Sean Williams when he sprang the offside trap and was one on one with Carnell. Wright was still causing Telford defenders problems as the game drifted to its conclusion but again he was to denied when his goal bound shot was saved on the line to the frustration of 300 plus traveling fans. The last action of the game saw FCUM sub Dale Johnson received a straight red card for a nasty elbow.

It was frustrating and sour ending to the game for FCUM who had, had the chances to leave Shropshire with at least a point but ultimately it wasn’t to be their day. The home side collected the three points, which along with the bucket collections, was a welcome boast to morale and their finances.

Where AFC Telford go from here off the pitch will depend much of the ability to raise the much needed funds in the uncertain weeks and months ahead. The fans, the real guardians of the club, will hope the fan owned community model can continue to grow but that looks increasing unlikely at this point in time. The real worry for the Trust is if they cant’t raise the funds, where and whom do they turn to next?

In bed with the Wombles of AFC Wimbledon

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

img_2667From 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.