AFC Wimbledon eye latest chapter in football fairytale

Frank Dalleres
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AFC Wimbledon could earn up to £250,000 from the glamour clash
Liverpool FA Cup tie underlines the rise of fan-owned club

THEY may have only been formed in 2002 when the Football Association controversially approved the birth of MK Dons yet there is already no shortage of milestones in AFC Wimbledon’s short but rich history.

Five promotions in the space of nine years led the supporter-owned club into the Football League, where they remain four seasons later, while just three months ago they enjoyed a hugely symbolic and cathartic triumph over the Milton Keynes franchise, whose existence is a source of both continued hurt and inspiration.

Today brings a new landmark occasion: an FA Cup third-round tie against Liverpool. It is the team’s first competitive match with a Premier League side, a repeat of sorts of the 1988 final in which the original Wimbledon stunned their decorated opponents, and a chance – slim but tangible – to pull off a major upset of their own and create another vibrant chapter in the club’s annals.

That AFC Wimbledon exists at all is a fairytale in itself. Supporters established the club little more than 12 years ago when the old Wimbledon’s latest owners relocated the team to Milton Keynes and rebranded the so-called franchise – to borrow the term from American sports, where the model is commonplace – MK Dons.

Fans remain in control of AFC Wimbledon via the Dons Trust, which votes on club matters and requires a 75 per cent majority from a minimum 50 per cent turnout to approve key decisions, while chief executive Erik Samuelson, a former partner at PwC, receives a nominal salary of one guinea.

“I think it’s only now that I’m finding the time to be excited, it’s been too busy,” Samuelson told City A.M. last night. “I don’t think this is the biggest game yet; to be blunt that has to be the one that got us back into the Football League – until we get into the Premier League. This is one-off game but it’s a significant milestone.”

That first summer 400 hopefuls descended on Wimbledon Common for a mass trial. A few were chosen and the team began at the bottom of the English football pyramid, the Combined Counties league. Less than a decade later Wimbledon gatecrashed the Football League – England’s top four divisions, where every one of 92 teams is a full-time professional outfit – and currently sit 12th in League Two, five points off the play-off places.

A few echoes of the old Wimbledon’s unglamorous aesthetic remain, from cult figure Adebayo Akinfenwa, the rotund 16st striker nicknamed Beast, to the 4,700 capacity Kingsmeadow ground they share with non-league Kingstonian, the stage for tonight’s tussle with the aristocrats of Liverpool.

Manager Neil Ardley, a true Wimbledon product who made 300 appearances for the club, however, professes to eschew the route-one style that gained the old Dons success and notoriety in favour of more refined tactics. The visit of the Reds sees him pit his wits against one of his coaching heroes in Brendan Rodgers, who could be forgiven for feeling that his team cannot win regardless of the result.

AFC Wimbledon are already onto a winner before kick-off, with the tie set to bank them up to £250,000 – equivalent to roughly 20 per cent of their budget. They also have bigger goals than a place in the fourth round, however welcome that may be. Plans to leave Kingsmeadow in 2017 and return to their spiritual home of Plough Lane, where they want to build a new 11,000-capacity stadium on the site of the old greyhound track, are progressing and would be a major boost in Samuelson’s stated quest to reach the Championship, England’s second tier. Samuelson says the windfall is secondary to the occasion: “Let’s just enjoy it. We’ll count the money later.” AFC Wimbledon’s achievements since their inception suggest their long-term targets are attainable, however, and that one of football’s most extraordinary stories has several more acts still to be written.