The two Dons; time to move on?
Updated: Feb 23
At the end of 1990–91 season, Wimbledon FC’s board decided that their ground at Plough Lane in Merton could not be sufficiently redeveloped to comply with the new English FA rule requiring all-seater stadiums. Consequently, the Dons moved seven miles southeast to Selhurst Park in Croydon before the start of the 1991–92 season. It was proclaimed as a temporary ground-sharing arrangement with Crystal Palace but it lasted ten years. Several alternative moves were considered during this period, not least an impractical plan in 1996 to relocate to Dublin.
During all this upheaval, Wimbledon somehow managed to maintain their First Division/Premier League status but a diminishing fan base caused by their continued Croydon exile eventually caught up with them and the club was relegated in 2000.
In 2001, to the dismay of Dons supporters and much of the wider football community, the club announced its intention to move 56 miles north to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, a decision which was upheld in May 2002 by an independent commission appointed by the FA. This unprecedented verdict prompted a group of Wimbledon supporters to form a new club, AFC Wimbledon, and at that point most Dons supporters switched allegiance to the new, non-league outfit.
Watching on from the side-lines in 2002, I just marvelled at the speed in which AFC Wimbledon were formed, then I cheered the new club all the way as it quickly climbed English football’s fiercely competitive pyramid. I loved visiting friendly, civilised Kingsmeadow, AFC's non-league looking ground in Kingston-upon-Thames.
AFC Wimbledon’s rise was intoxicating stuff. In typical fashion, I bought every book about Wimbledon FC and AFC Wimbledon, even though I must admit I really didn’t like the original club, particularly during its hugely intimidating "Crazy Gang" period. I put such thoughts aside; “AFC” was a new club. I joined the Dons’ Trust, bought a scarf, badge, the whole business, and for while the relaunched Dons threatened to edge out Charlton Athletic as my favourite London club.
I still think the achievements of AFC Wimbledon supporters were not only fantastic for their own phoenix club, but their stunning success continues to provide inspiration for other fans in similarly desperate circumstances, such as those of AFC Bury currently.
The alarm caused by the football authorities' decision to allow homeless Wimbledon to be moved nearly sixty miles away from its roots, and the implication that this verdict could lead to franchising being normalised in English football, has never been forgotten. Twenty-two years on since AFC were launched, MK Dons remain the pariahs of English football, the club that bypassed the pyramid system.
Throughout those two decades, AFC Wimbledon supporters have maintained a burning sense of injustice that has not only helped propel them up the leagues but also led them back to their “spiritual home” in Plough Lane in November 2020 - to a much better stadium and arguably to a level of support they wouldn’t have had if the MK move hadn't taken place. It is far too glib to conclude that permitting Wimbledon FC to move to Milton Keynes did the fans of the original Dons a favour in the longer term. It has taken an enormous amount of time and effort to get the Wimbledon club back into the EFL and similar determination was required to produce a spanking new stadium adjacent to the site of their old decrepit ground. In many ways, the whole AFC Wimbledon story is a miracle.
The two “Dons” have met a few times now but the AFC attitude of not meeting MK Dons directors pre-match and at half-time is, to my mind, just petty. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of being a fan-owned club can be that the directors, as often as not, feel they must act as delegates instead of leading by example. MK Dons, under considerable pressure to do so, returned all the original Dons trophies and memorabilia to AFC Wimbledon and these days make no claim to the original Wimbledon FC’s honours – including their 1988 FA Cup Final win over Liverpool. In my opinion the Milton Keynes club really should drop the Dons suffix but I’m not sure how much difference even that would make to the two clubs’ relationship. It’s remains one of the biggest grudges in English football.
I don't suppose a single AFC Wimbledon fan would agree with me, but there must be a point where the feuding ends and common courtesies are shown. I fear that won't happen any time soon, and that's why I slightly went off "AFC". What’s done is done; it should be time to move on.