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.
If the Wimbledon 2002 split was a Hollywood movie, AFC Wimbledon would be the heroes and MK Dons would be the villains, but is that actually an accurate reflection?
I went to AFC Wimbledon two weeks ago and was left in no uncertain terms how they feel about MK Dons but, to be honest, it left me intrigued by the other lot. What is their side of the story? Who actually supports them? Why are there so many roundabouts in Milton Keynes?
To find out I decided to head to stadium:mk for a big relegation six-pointer against Doncaster. With five games left, third-bottom MK, four points behind AFCW, needed a result like their convivial chairman Pete Winkelman needs a haircut. Otherwise they could start next season below their blood rivals for the first time ever.
My first impression of the ground when it came into view was that it was massive. Effing massive. Way too big for League One and looks like a Premier League ground already. It’s in the middle of a retail park as all modern stadiums are now but it does mean if you drop your tea on your shirt you can literally pop to NEXT for a new one.
The stadium is basically a giant hotel and negotiating the corridors once inside does make it feel a bit like you’re at a work conference.
I head into the Red Dot Bar to meet James D’Arcy; a lifelong MK Dons fan which sounds like an oxymoron but when the journalism student, from Leighton Buzzard, got into football at 11 there was a brand new team on his doorstep. “It was perfect timing and I’ve been an MK Dons fan ever since,” he said.
He’s a lot friendlier than some of the fans on the MK Dons message board, The Concrete Roundabout, which I had posted on earlier in the week asking for supporters to chat to me on the day. They were mostly very defensive and wary of any media coverage, although it’s not difficult to see why.
When Wimbledon left South London and relocated 80 miles to Milton Keynes in 2002 they were cast as the bad guys by the footballing community and media, branded ‘Franchise FC’.
AFC Wimbledon, a phoenix club, were formed by fans against the move the same year, starting again in non-league. Now, 16 years later, both are in League One.
However, when I explained the whole back story to my fiancée Miranda, who has zero interest in football, she replied: “Wait…doesn’t that make AFC Wimbledon the ‘Franchise’?”
Which is a fair question but, by now, MK Dons fans have reclaimed that nickname. “Oh we love calling ourselves the Franchise club,” said Colin Butler when I met him, Greg Trumper and John Samuel, a trio of older fans, and bought them drinks only for Colin to spill his all over the table as soon as we sat down.
If we ‘stole the club’ doesn’t that mean we have it now?
Colin runs an online fans forum and John used to be treasurer of the MKD Supporters Association. They were friendly, passionate, funny lads and had plenty of decent arguments against ‘KFC Kingston’ (on account of them never having played in Merton. AFC fans call them MKDonalds in return).
“If we ‘stole the club’ doesn’t that mean we have it now?” says Colin and I didn’t really have an answer for that as I was mopping up orange juice with a napkin. “What do Wombles do? They recycle something people don’t want. That’s us!” adds Greg.
Damn, another one I can’t really argue with. I’m starting to see what Miranda meant and worrying if she actually knows more about football than I do.
The date 2004, when Wimbledon officially became the MK Dons, is difficult to escape, it’s literally on their badge in the Roman numerals MMVI; a constant reminder of the acrimonious split and rebirth. But as it turns out that date didn’t stop some fans supporting the club, indeed, a few hundred still travel up from South London each week to watch them.
There is more; an Accord was signed by both clubs in 2006 trying to smooth things over and Winkelman apologised publicly.
Current AFC Wimbledon manager and club legend Neil Ardley apparently was quoted in 2003 saying the move to Milton Keynes was the only way the club could go. “That’s mysteriously been deleted from all records but we all have copies of it!” adds Greg, gleefully.
“They walked out on Wimbledon FC,” says Colin. “They prefer to cherrypick the bits that suits their argument.” I’m left getting a real feeling that MK Dons fans feel massively misrepresented.
“Enjoy the game,” says John as we depart. “It’s Donny vs the Real Dons,” he says with a smile.
The club’s media team kindly give me a press pass and a ticket in the Cowshed; the stand where the most passionate MK Dons fans sit. I was also given a steward’s bib to be able to basically walk where I wanted and as soon as I put it on I had a sudden urge to start telling people to stop standing.
The vibe in the stadium is almost like a festival; families wandering about in the sunshine. There are tonnes of kids in red and white shirts and everyone seems in a good mood despite the team’s precarious placing in the table. I line up to get a Snickers and a kid behind me does ‘the backpack kid’ dance in the queue.
There is one, continuous concourse going around the entire stadium and on the wall are hundreds of passport style photos of fans, old and young, which I’m told was a perk fans could buy when the stadium was opened in 2007, as well as three model cows.
Cows are basically the spiritual animal of Milton Keynes, which I guess is why it was the perfect place to moove to (sorry).
Only half the stadium is open for this game, MK Dons fans fill most seats down one end and there is a smattering of Donny fans down the other. the club believe when they get to higher divisions they will sell out games. Apparently there are one million people living within 30 minutes of stadium:mk so that sounds doable.
One thing that catches my eye is the many disabled areas and the view is excellent from all of them. In fact, this club seems to make disability one of its key priorities. At half-time their 20 disabled teams are introduced on the pitch and before the game they officially opened a fully-equipped specialist changing facility for the severely disabled.
This club is doing things right. Off the pitch at least.
On it things aren’t quite as impressive. I found a seat at the back of the Cowshed with ridiculous amounts of leg room and a group of fans of all ages, clearly regulars, sit near me. “Don’t worry about moving mate, we’re laid back here,” says a friendly fan who I end up chatting to for the rest of the half. The whole picture inside the stadium is exactly how I imagined creating my own team on Football Manager, only in real life.
“If we lose today, we’re down,” says the friendly fan but things look alright in the opening 45 minutes. On-loan Chelsea forward Ike Ugbo scores a well-taken goal after a neat flick from Chuck Aneke and it looks like it might be their day.
Tommy Rowe misses a free header down the other end. “That’s“shocking defending” bemoans a man with a thick Irish accent to my left. In fact, during my day there I meet a Scot, someone from Wales, a former Arsenal fan, a former Rangers fan and lots more. MK Dons is like a supporters refuge from other clubs but they’re all as passionate as lifelong fans.
I had to move to the press box to charge my phone for the second half and got thinking about how with all the community work MK Dons do they can never be described as villains in any story. Their defending in the second half, however, now that was villainous.
Doncaster’s John Marquis, who looks like a budget Gareth Bale impersonator, is allowed all the time in the world to prod in two goals while Peter Pawlett, who sounds more like a nursery rhyme character than a footballer, missed a few chances for the home side.
There are boos at full time for the official and about four fans at the front of the Cowshed argue with MK Dons’ on-loan defender Elliott Ward that more of his team-mates should have come over to applaud the supporters.
The stadium is so well designed it clears in about five minutes and while I wait to catch up with assistant manager Keith Millen, who I know from his time at Palace, Nigel Reo-Coker – back at MK Dons 14 years after leaving Wimbledon – walks past in gold sparkly Converse. Defender Scott Wootton then appears with a Louis Vuitton boot bag to talk to the press. This may be League One but that doesn’t mean these footballer are any less flash.
Millen finally appears and after I tell him how nice everyone has been to me, he sighs and says: “That’s probably our main problem. We are a bit too nice on the pitch too.”
The defeat leaves MK Dons second bottom of League One, four points from safety with four games left. Relegation was basically confirmed against Donny but in many ways this club is ready for the Premier League and are far from bad guys. But they have a long, long way to go to get there.