With the first international break of the season taking place for 2018 World Cup qualifiers, soccer fans have to look at lower leagues to find action this week. Luckily, lower English leagues such as the English Championship and Football League One have almost just as much competition, history and rivalry as the top level games. One of the greatest stories currently taking place is the rise of the phoenix club AFC Wimbledon. After being unbeaten in their last five league games, the club moved above MK Dons in the League One table Sunday for the first time in their history.
To see the significance of this, you first have to look at the history of the two clubs and the route AFC Wimbledon took to get to where it stands. Today both clubs originate from Wimbledon Football Club, founded in 1889, and played as a non-League team until 1977 after they were elected to join the Football League. Wimbledon quickly impressed, and were promoted to the top flight of English football in 1986 after being promoted four seasons in a row. The club achieved its highest success when it defeated league champions LIverpool to win the FA Cup in 1988. Wimbledon transferred to the newly founded Premier League in 1992 where it stayed at the top level of English football until it was relegated to the Championship in 2000.
Trouble started in 1991 when a redevelopment for English soccer arenas moved the team into an interim field agreement at Selhurst Park, the stadium for Crystal Palace. Finding a new permanent stadium proved difficult, however, and by 1997 chairman Sam Hammam sold the club to foreign ownership and its historic grounds, Plough Lane, to a supermarket. Milton Keynes was a new town formed in 1967 in response to a housing crisis in London, and interest groups looked for a well-established soccer team to move to the city as part of a large development project. When Pete Winkelman’s consortium of investors looked to Wimbledon F.C., the owners of the club saw profitability in the move and pushed for it. However the club’s excitable and loyal fans were adamant against relocation, and looked to the Football Association, the governing body of English football, to block the move. The league blocked the relocation, but the newly appointed chairman ultimately appealed the decision. After hearing the case, the FA appointed a three-man independent commission to make a final decision on the move.
Although the League, the FA and fans openly opposed moving the team to Milton Keynes, the commissioners ruled 2-1 in favor of relocation. Fans of Wimbledon were furious, and some supporters met and formed a new soccer club under the name of AFC Wimbledon. The move was further delayed due to a lack of a suitable playing ground in Milton Keynes, and the club almost declared bankruptcy before Winkelman’s interest group allocated funds to the team and paid for the upgrades necessary to fix the stadium. A majority of the club’s fans switched allegiances to AFC Wimbledon, and support for the team was almost non-existent in the time that they were unable to move. Winkelman purchased the team in 2004 through his Inter MK Group and officially moved the team to Milton Keynes while renaming the team MK Dons, complete with a new badge and colors. To the dismay of past fans, the club also claimed the heritage and silverware associated with their history from AFC Wimbledon, but would later give this claim up.
When AFC Wimbledon first started in 2002 they played non-League football, joining the Combined Counties League Premier Divison. Working their way up to the Conference Premier in 2008, AFC Wimbledon were able to win their way into League Two of the Football League, the fourth highest level of English football, after winning their league’s playoff series in a penalty shootout. Their five-promotion rise to the Football League only took nine years, and made the team the first club formed in the 21st century to make it. After five consecutive years in League Two, AFC Wimbledon was able to muster up a seventh place finish, qualifying for the league’s playoffs. The team won the final 2-0, promoting the club to League One on the 14th anniversary of the club’s foundation.
While AFC Wimbledon have skyrocketed up through English football, MK Dons has only managed to walk in circles. The club was relegated to Football League Two following the 2005-06 season, and was unable to bounce back the following year. Paul Ince took over as manager for the 2007-08 season, and won the Football League Trophy while also being promoted to League One, after becoming League Two champions. The team would find its way up to the Football League Championship, second highest level of English football, but quickly fell back down to League One the following season where they currently find themselves.
Placing above MK Dons may not be a large feat for most teams, but the standings are historic for a fan base which was abandoned by its ownership and forced to fight for its legacy. While MK Dons has moved up and down for the past 15 years, they are the same middle of the road club they were when they relocated. AFC Wimbledon, on the other hand, have beaten all odds to blaze their way up the leagues in record fashion to make a name for themselves in English football. This story shows the passion, history and unbelievable stories that fans of the sport watch it for, and showcases a fan-base which has been relentless in their loyalty since the days when the original Wimbledon F.C. played non-league football.
This was talking soccer.
Joe Burns is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.