Even a cursory study of British history will show that this damp island is no stranger to a good succession crisis. A monarch dies and his (or her, but historically speaking it’s usually been his) heirs argue over the right to sit on the throne next, and the ensuing slapfight ends up creating a political crisis, if not all-out war. Those kinds of conflicts don’t really happen anymore as far as the Crown is concerned, but you do find analogues in curious places.
Nearly 15 years ago a football club died. Two new clubs now claim they are the heirs to a legacy that stretches back over a century. One club has some legal documents and a 14-year-old certificate from the Football League. The other has a fanbase and a community in the predecessor club’s old neighborhood. One club claims legitimacy via the letter of the law, the other via the spirit of the game. Which club is the legitimate successor? How you answer that question says a lot about what you believe the point of this sport is.
Regardless of your answer, neither of these clubs are going anywhere. And now they’re both on the same level of the English football pyramid that they’ll have to reckon with one another on a semi-regular basis. Games between these two teams aren’t just clashes of bitter rivals; they’re proxy battles over the very soul of football.
This week we look back at the first meeting between Milton Keynes and AFC Wimbledon, and a drama as close to Shakespeare as anything you’d find in English football.
If you’ve been following the English game for any length of time there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard the story in passing. But just for posterity, let’s review quickly.
Wimbledon Football Club was founded in 1889 and spent most of its history in nonleague football. After some key successes, Wimbledon were elected to the Football League for the 1977-78 season. They then climbed their way up the ladder over the next decade or so and ultimately reached the old First Division. Along they way they pulled off one of the greatest FA Cup shocks in the competition’s history by beating Liverpool in the 1988 Final. In 1992 Wimbledon were among the 24 founding members of the Premier League, but the dawning era of big money in football plus the regulatory mandates from the Taylor Report left Wimbledon struggling to get by. Financial pressures forced them to abandon their home ground on Plough Lane, and when that wasn’t enough the owners sold the club to someone with more ambition. The new ownership group made it clear they had big plans for the club— and that those plans didn’t involve the fans or the community that nurtured it for more than a century.
After years of floating proposals and garnering broad recrimination from supporters, Wimbledon’s owners gained approval to move the club 60 miles north to the town of Milton Keynes. The club played their first match in Milton Keynes as Wimbledon FC in September 2003, and a year later had rebranded as Milton Keynes Dons. Meanwhile, the fans of the original club in South London made it clear they had no intention of following the ownership group to Buckinghamshire and announced their plans to form a new club, a move that the FA cited at the time as “not in the wider interests of football.” The fans-cum-directors held open tryouts on Wimbledon Common in the summer of 2002 and AFC Wimbledon fielded a team for the 2002-03 season in the Combined Counties League, the ninth division of English football. They earned five promotions over the next nine years, culminating in an emotional penalty shootout win over Luton Town in 2011 to win a place in the Football League.
While Milton Keynes had managed to finally develop some stability in League One, the 2012-13 season was rough for AFC Wimbledon. With just two wins and a draw from their first ten games of the season, the Wombles seemed to be in real danger of dropping out of the Football League after just two seasons. Relegations would be a huge blow to the club, not just financially but psychically. It would arrest the momentum they had built up over the past decade. Terry Brown, who led Wimbledon to promotion to the Football League, was let go in September. The following month he was replaced with Neal Ardley, who had played for the old Wimbledon in the 90s, in an bid to stop the rot and hopefully avoid relegation. Things had started to slowly pick up, although Ardley’s squad had to scrap for every point they could get their hands on. The team needed a jolt, something to shake out the cobwebs and build a sense of common purpose heading into the festive season and then the hard sprint toward the end of the campaign.
That jolt came in the form of the draw for the Second Round of the FA Cup. AFC Wimbledon’s replay win over York City in the First Round handed them a fateful tie, and a date the club and the fans had been dreading ever since their rebirth in 2002— a competitive match with Milton Keynes.
There was lots of talk of a fan boycott. Indeed, plenty of supporters— and the board of directors— chose to stay home. Those that did make the trek felt they had to make a point; that their club was the true heir to Wimbledon FC’s legacy. Meanwhile, chairman Erik Samuelson revived a long-running argument between the two camps over Milton Keynes’ insistence on retaining “Dons” in their name, a dispute which remains unresolved.
A little more than 16,000 fans filled Stadium MK, including about 3,000 away supporters. Plenty more around the country and around the world were following the game, either through internet radio or Twitter or carrier pigeon or whatever way they could. There was a sense that, whatever the result, history was about to be made.
If you ignored the history and the somehow shielded yourself from the tension in the air, the match played out like a fairly typical early-round FA Cup tie. Yet it also had the feel of a professional wrestling match; the hyperbolics, the bright colors, the clear face and heel.
Stephen Gleeson hit an absolute stunner from 30 yards to put Milton Keynes up 1-0 before halftime. This was the part when the heel dominates the face in the early going.
Right on the hour mark, Jack Midson equalized with a diving header right in front of the away supporters. The face regains strength and starts fighting back.
Some close calls on either side, including a very close miss for Wimbledon. This match could go either way.
Then, in stoppage time, the swerve ending. An attempt to shoot through traffic glances off of Jon Otsemobor’s ankle, hitting at just the right angle and just the right speed to chip it over the outstretched fingers of Neil Sullivan. Milton Keynes had won it, in stoppage time, on their home ground, against the team that foregrounded all their insecurities. For now, at least, they felt comfortable claiming Wimbledon’s legacy for their own.
Milton Keynes went on to have a decent season, and in later years earned promotion to the Championship and won a famous victory in the League Cup against Manchester United. They also made a name for themselves as the incubator club for Tottenham and England darling Dele Alli. But last season was tougher for them, and they found themselves back in League One for 2016-17.
AFC Wimbledon managed to avoid relegation that season. Barely. They struggled in the intervening years, although they did well for themselves in a thrilling Third Round FA Cup clash with Liverpool nearly two years ago. They also faced Milton Keynes twice more, once in the League Cup (a 3-1 loss) and once in the Johnstone Paint Trophy (a 3-2 win). Last season a post-Christmas winning streak was enough to earn Wimbledon a place in the promotion playoffs, which ultimately led to their first trip to Wembley for the League Two Playoff Final against Plymouth Argyle. Wimbledon won that match 2-0 and secured their first promotion since reaching the Football League, and earned a place in League One just as Milton Keynes were relegated. Which meant it would only be a matter of time before AFC Wimbledon and Milton Keynes faced each other in league play.
That day comes on Saturday, when Wimbledon make the trip up to Milton Keynes. Kickoff is set for 7am Eastern. At press time there are no indications that the match will be televised, so if you want to follow the action you’re likely stuck with internet radio or Twitter. (Welcome to life as an overseas fan of lower league English football.) But if you love football— and the English game in particular— and you can find a way to follow the match, it’s worth your time. This is one of those games that acts as a stand-in for a different fight— one that you have a vested interest in, whether you know it or not.