In a season of feel good footballing stories, headlined by Leicester City’s scarcely believable EPL title, there may be one more great story to be told in the world of football before the season ends.
The story is of English League Two side AFC Wimbledon who are in their first Football League playoff final since they made their way into the Football League in 2011. Not that making the fourth tier playoff final is football’s greatest achievement, but considering where this Wimbledon team has come from it is noteworthy for them and a story of general for anyone interested in the Football League.
The reason the League One promotion has taken on so much more importance than just a regular promotion up a level can be seen in a glance at The Championship’s bottom three from 2015-16. Sitting 23rd, and relegated from the second tier is the Milton Keynes Dons, also known simply as the MK Dons. Milton Keynes used to be the original incarnation of Wimbledon but when financial troubles arose and a chance to bring football to a place that hadn’t previously tasted Football League came about they moved Wimbledon FC club north, and AFC Wimbledon are the club that formed when the change happened.
The back story of the now defunct former London based club Wimbledon FC is an interesting one, and not only for being famously called The Crazy Gang for their ferocious style of play, or the club that Vinnie Jones played for before action. Their trip through the divisions was almost as speedy as the demise and is unlikely to be repeated.
The original Wimbledon FC spent their entire existence from 1889 until 1977 in the Non League tiers of English Football, and by 1986 they had not only made the top flight of English Football – the old First Division – but had survived and even led the division in their first season. Such progress from Non League to leading the first division would be unheard of in this era. Bournemouth being the most recent club to get close. Two years later they had an FA Cup trophy in their possession after beating one of the great Liverpool sides at Wembley, and managed to survive in the top flight for 14 seasons.
The disappearance was even swifter than their meteoric rise, as by 2003 they were playing in Milton Keynes 100 kilometres away, and the season after the club known as Wimbledon FC became Milton Keynes Dons. This was after the club was forced to play home games at nearby Crystal Palace’s home ground, and talk of playing games out of Dublin in the 1990’s.
It was the first time in English Football that a Football club was treated like a franchise seen in so many US based sports, and given the outrage of a great deal of football fans at the time and still festering to this day, will be likely to never happen again. Nor should it. In this era of financial difficulties it is not unusual to hear of a team going bust, but none of those clubs moved towns like a franchise, they all went back to bottom of the footballing pyramid.
Milton Keynes eventually gave back the trophies won by the Wimbledon based club, and stopped claiming the storied history as its own, but the damage was done, and the people and players behind AFC Wimbledon still raged, even to the point of some boycotting an eventual rematch just so their hard earned wouldn’t go the Milton Keynes based club.
Whilst Milton Keynes had a ready-made new team which started in the third division, some of the fans of the original Wimbledon club created the new club AFC Wimbledon in 2003, and started their new existence in the lowest rung of English Football – the ninth tier Combined Counties League. Just eight years later they were back in the Football League in the fourth tier League Two on the back of five promotions in nine seasons, and have remained in League Two since. This is despite a scare of relegation a few seasons ago where they started off the final day of the season in the relegation zone only to survive. It was a rise from beginning to the Football League that will be hard to match in the future, and another rise to League One will put an exclamation mark on their promotion history.
The main argument of the rivalry is that if Milton Keynes had wanted a team to fill their empty stadium, they should have done this in the same way as AFC Wimbledon. It didn’t, but the new club stand on the edge of catching their biggest rival just a short 14 seasons after the split. And they have a point to prove.
Promotion to League One is not the be all and end all for AFC Wimbledon, there’s still a few more boxes to tick like moving back into their spiritual home around Wimbledon instead of Kingston a few miles away, and given some of the fans reaction to previous encounters with Milton Keynes where they refused to attend or acknowledge their existence, the match ups next years might not be as anticipated as it would be for others.
To finally catch up to the same division as the Milton Keynes side and have the chance of bettering their finishing position and beat them twice will be a feel good moment for some, and plenty for footballing neutrals and headline writers next year. To reach the third no matter the fellow compeditiors is still a great reward for the brave souls who started up AFC Wimbledon back last decade.
With the new Fox Sports deal with BeIn Sports watching this potentially history making moment on Tuesday 31st May has been made easier than ever before, as well as all of the playoff finals.
Finally it is worth keeping an eye out for the game changer of AFC Wimbledon’s playoff semi final progress named Adebayo Akinfenwa. The Man known as The Beast, who looks more suited to rugby league than football, was ultimately the difference between AFC Wimbledon and Accrington Stanley in the two previous games, and would become a legend of the new Wimbledon club if he continued his form and won promotion. Why not catch up with some of his best work below.
They may not make it through the playoff final, but the achievement of getting this far shouldn’t be underrated. If they win it would be no less than the new Wimbledon deserved, and provide one tremendous rivalry to follow next season.
Click here for the Official Adebayo Akinfenwa Youtube Channel – all The Beast gear you’ll ever need.