The biggest match in Europe this weekend won’t take place in Old Trafford, the Camp Nou or San Siro; it will take place in Stadium MK where the Milton Keynes Dons face AFC Wimbledon for the first time in history.
You read correctly, on a weekend when fixtures include Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund and Ajax vs PSV, the most important encounter is an FA Cup 2nd Round match between the MK Dons of League 1 and AFC Wimbledon of League 2.
But before you close this tab, thinking I’m some kind of nut case, let me explain myself, and more importantly let me explain the significance of Sunday’s game.
Rewind to the year 2000, when Wimbledon FC were struggling financially following relegation from the Premier League. They were ready to start their 10th season ground-sharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, 6.5 miles from their traditional home at Plough Lane, which they left in 1991 due to the club’s inability to fund its renovation.
At this time Milton Keynes didn’t have a professional football club, despite having a population of nearly 200,000 people. Businessman Pete Winkleman wanted to change this and began the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, with the intention of building a state of the art arena to persuade a Football League club to move to the city.
The only person enticed by the suggestion was Wimbledon’s new chairman, Charles Koppel, who saw it as a great way of relieving the club’s financial woes. Unsurprisingly Wimbledon’s fans were outraged by the suggestion and passionately protested against the move.
At first the FA and the Football League both opposed the plan, calling it “franchising” and predicting a disastrous outcome should the move go ahead. However, after a lobbying campaign by Wimbledon’s board, an independent commission gave the plan the green light and in 2003 Wimbledon FC moved 60 miles to Milton Keynes.
The club continued to use the name Wimbledon FC for a year until it was changed to the Milton Keynes Dons in 2004. The MK Dons were English football’s first ever franchise.
Rising from the ashes
Out of the ashes of Wimbledon FC a determined group of fans got together and formed AFC Wimbledon, with the long-term intention of achieving promotion back into the Football League. A lightning-fast climb up the amateur leagues culminated in promotion to League 2 in 2011.
The success of AFC Wimbledon has gained the club huge plaudits and they’re particular a favourite of underdog-loving neutrals.
Anger towards the MK Dons had inevitably eased over the years as AFC Wimbledon attempted to rebuild, but when the two clubs were drawn against each other for the 2nd Round of this year’s FA Cup old memories came flooding back.
Most AFC Wimbledon fans didn’t want this fixture and still don’t feel enough time has passed since their club was stolen from them. Many AFC Wimbledon fans are still extremely bitter, not only about the move, but also about the Milton Keynes club’s conduct since 2003.
Between 2003 and 2007 MK Dons Chairman Pete Winkleman had tried to pass off Wimbledon FC’s history as MK Dons’s history. This has not been forgotten by AFC Wimbledon’s fans despite Winkleman returning Wimbledon FC’s trophies and memorabilia to AFC Wimbledon in 2007.
AFC Wimbledon fans are angry the Milton Keynes club is still calling itself “The Dons.” The old Wimbledon FC were nicknamed the Dons, as are the current AFC Wimbledon and fans claim the MK Dons have no right to use it.
Many AFC Wimbledon fans are refusing to travel to Milton Keynes on Sunday because according to them the issue’s still far too sensitive and painful.
What about the pantomime villain?
The MK Dons are nearly a decade old and they’ve changed a great deal since the original controversy over their creation.
The club has worked very hard to forge an identity and a history of its own. They have already won a League 2 title and a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in their short history and their support base is growing year by year.
The club is trying its best to shake off the nickname “Franchise FC” and by now the vast majority of football fans have accepted the MK Dons are here to stay.
But despite the MK Dons’s superb attempts to establish its own identity, Sunday’s game against AFC Wimbledon is expected to trigger the same negative coverage the club received when it was first formed.
Franchising: still the ultimate evil
The coverage will be damning because despite the football world’s acceptance of the MK Dons, fans are still wholeheartedly opposed to franchising.
For most fans franchising remains the ultimate evil: a putrid concoction of commercialism and arrogance borne out of pure greed.
Franchising is the American invention that goes against everything we as football fans believe in. It devalues supporters and shows complete disregard for their needs and emotions. It underestimates and takes for granted loyalty, the most important trait of any football supporter.
When Wimbledon fans were robbed of their club it provoked universal revulsion among football fans across the World because we all empathised with them. We all imagined how we’d feel if the clubs we support were taken away from us.
For most football fans life without our club is almost unthinkable but this was the reality for Wimbledon fans in 2003.
Good vs Evil?
It’s awfully tempting to look at Sunday’s game as a clash between footballing good and footballing evil; honest, loyal, traditional fans taking on a plastic, commercially-driven franchise. We once again find ourselves sympathising with Wimbledon fans and hating the MK Dons.
But one of the main reasons Sunday’s game is so important is because it’s a chance to normalise the situation and give both sides a greater degree of closure.
Both sets of fans knew this day had to come sometime and although Sunday’s sure to be an emotional, awkward and heated day, it will hopefully relieve a lot of tension.
The first meeting of the MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon will draw a heap of attention but once the full-time whistle is blown all football fans can begin to move on. After Sunday’s game all future encounters between these sides will seem far more normal.
Many fans on both sides won’t look forward to Sunday but everyone knows the game’s an essential step in the development of both clubs. From Sunday onwards we can stop viewing the MK Dons as the franchise which stole Wimbledon FC, and begin to see them as a club in their own right. Likewise we’ll be able to see AFC Wimbledon as more than just an antidote to the MK Dons.
On the field I can only see one result.
The MK Dons are hitting form at a good time in the season and they’re playing a sophisticated style of football which I expect will lead them to promotion. AFC Wimbledon on the other hand are entrenched in a relegation battle and struggling for confidence.
But in many ways what happens on the field on Sunday is irrelevant. The important thing is that AFC Wimbledon fans get a degree of closure from the match and the MK Dons use the landmark event to move on and leave the past behind.