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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINE

The true story behind English football’s most complicated rivalry

AFC Wimbledon could be playing in a higher division than arch-rivals MK Dons next season but that doesn't mean all is good at the club

Proper Football correspondent Jim Daly is taking to terraces to take the temperature at clubs who are facing dramatic changes as the season reaches its climax.

Hands up if, like me, you’ve got a bit of a soft spot for AFC Wimbledon.

And keep it raised if you’re, how do I put this, undecided about the status of MK Dons.

If it’s still up then the climax to the League One season could be about to fulfil your ultimate purist football fantasy.

You see AFC Wimbledon are on the cusp of leapfrogging MK Dons in the football league pyramid for the first time ever, as the pair are locked in a ferocious battle to avoid the last relegation spot.


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Squeaky bum time

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Squeaky bum time

Combine that with the fact that they recently broke ground on their new stadium back at spiritual home Plough Lane and you’ll see why I had to hot-foot it down there for their game against Fleetwood, to test the water in this history-defining moment for all those connected with AFC.

I walk the 12 minutes from Norbiton – which is more of a 1950s sitcom character than station name – to the Cherry Red Records Stadium (named for the label behind Everything But The Girl – look them up, they’re good).

It’s raining and a man covers his head with his newspaper as we walk down the road like 1920s businessmen going to work in drizzly New York City.

Wimbledon started the day on the same number of points as those who shall not be named and three points behind Karl Robinson’s Oxford.

Robinson is public enemy no.1 in these parts for an antagonistic period managing their bitter enemies.

Some background to the animosity.

ICYMI: Wimbledon refused to put ‘The Franchise’s’ name on the front of their programme when they came to visit this season. That’s what you call a rivalry, the sort of pettiness I can really get behind.

I get to the ground and head to the bar, where Oxford are playing Scunthorpe in the early kick-off.

Robinson is fruitily booed every time he appears on screen, especially by the bloke next to me who says he watched last week’s 1-0 defeat to Shrewsbury on a stream.

I walk away wondering who on earth is streaming AFC Wimbledon games online!? Oxford get a late equaliser and the mood in the room drops a bit.

I bump into my cousin who I didn’t even know would be at the game and he underlines how large MK Dons loom in the imagination of AFC fans.

It’s a theme taken up by commercial director Ivor Heller when I speak to him before kick-off.

Ivor does not sleep on Thursdays

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Ivor does not sleep on Thursdays

They should bite the bullet. An apology would go a very long way to taking the heat out of it.

“We won’t go in the boardrooms and they are very right not to come into ours,” he says.

“It’s the way it is. I’m hopeful that in years to come they will do certain things that will enable relations to become…well, I don’t think they’ll ever be normal.

“It’s still very raw. I don’t see them as our rivals, I just see them as something that shouldn’t be.

“They should bite the bullet. An apology would go a very long way to taking the heat out of it.

“People said we were mad to start a football club, people then said you’ll never make the conference, then they said you’ll never make the Football League, and then that we’ll never go any further than League Two.

“This is the club that keeps proving people wrong.”

Go on, touch the sign

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Go on, touch the sign

Back in the bar I get a bottle of Becks, which costs £4 (is that a lot? It feels like a lot for League One).

Word goes round that the game might be off due to torrential rain – a bit surprising as apparently Chelsea maintain the Kingstonian’s pitch on account of them now running the ground.

This is a fact pointed out to me by club Chief Executive Erik Samuelson who inevitably moves to conversation on to talk of the club’s new 11,000-seater stadium, to be built on the old dog track at Plough Lane.

Samuelson says: “I think the biggest challenge and risk we now face is doubling our fan base in the new stadium, who might not know our story or be interested and have the attention span of a Premier League fan who wants the manager changed after three defeats.

“And avoiding that culture change, that mindset, is the biggest challenge we face. We can go up, we can go down, that’s manageable, losing our culture you’ll never get it back again.”

The man behind the changes

Getty - Contributor
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The man behind the changes

There are some here though who do want to see a change in management, even if that means booting out club legend Neil Ardley.

I’d assumed the fans would’ve just been happy to have him, easy to forget this a real club with real hopes and real dreams.

In truth fans on the Womble Underground Press messageboard call him ‘Nil’ Ardley thanks to his stingy tactics and are starting to grumble about his reign.

He’s stayed true to form for the game today, picking a defensive side with Lyle Taylor as the only recognised striker. For some reason the 20th Century Fox music is playing on the tannoy.

I have no idea why.

‘Nil’

Ed Sykes
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‘Nil’

Wimbledon go a goal behind but work hard to get back into it. Dean Parrett is bright; he is very busy in the middle of the park; like a budget James McArthur.

Taylor does his best up front but is feeding off scraps like your dog at Christmas dinner. The rest of the Wimbledon team is about 30% top knots.

I was really excited about standing on a terrace for the first time in years but after about 15 minutes my back is killing me and I remember why I don’t do it anymore.

Wimbledon huff and puff for the rest of the game but it just doesn’t happen. One guy is checking the messageboards mid-match, presumably to pile in on the abuse.

Another shouts: “This is the worst Wimbledon side I’ve ever watched!” which I’m fairly sure isn’t true, unless he has only watched two games ever; this one and one circa 1994.

A budget James McCarthy

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A budget James McCarthy

The final whistle goes and the boos start. I speak to Ardley in his office shortly afterwards with the other local journalists.

“Unfortunately in modern society everything is instant, they want it now and when it’s a bad result it’s doom and gloom and when it’s a good result you’re on top of the world. We don’t need people sucking our energy, we need positivity,” he tells us.

Does being a club legend create more pressure?

“Most of the pressure I feel is what I put on myself anyway. I don’t want to let anyone down.”

‘What’s your favourite animal?’

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‘What’s your favourite animal?’

Later in the bar, Parrett is presented with his man-of-the-match award on stage, to a chorus of boos and heckles from fans at the back of the room.

I’m left wondering why the club put him through it, but it’s this kind of access that makes Wimbledon the community club it is and that’s the one thing nobody wants to lose.

On the train I mull over my day with Wimbledon. I went there expecting to find excitement at the prospect of a new stadium and finally emerging from the shadows of their bitter, illegitimate rivals.

But what I actually found was frustration and a fair amount of anger, born out raw ambition. The club want to be more than just everyone’s favourite dreamers. They want to a real club that’s going places.

“I don’t think you should ever give up on these hopes,” Samuelson says. “If you don’t have these hopes and ambitions you shouldn’t be a football club.”

A place of hopes, dreams and Chelsea signs

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A place of hopes, dreams and Chelsea signs

Next: Jim goes to MK Dons to see the other side of the story.