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Friday, 16 November 2012

FA Cup: MK Dons v AFC Wimbledon is on


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Dust off those cliches about the lure of the FA Cup and the ability of the competition to write unlikely scenarios. Two replays on successive nights has made the potential the tie of this year's Second Round a reality - AFC Wimbledon travelling to MK Dons.

An overseas visitor unfamiliar to the English football scene will already have picked up that this is no ordinary game. While this is described as an explosive encounter in the media, many AFC fans have already said they won't be going to the match, even describing it as a game that 'shouldn't be taking place'.

This story begins 10 years ago when the decision was made to relocate the Wimbledon club - FA Cup winners in 1988 and a club with a proud FA Amateur Cup tradition before that - to Milton Keynes.

The decision went to the heart of what a football club exists for. In general, football clubs in Britain grew from community roots in churches, working men's associations, pubs, etc. There was no plan but gradually, as the game professionalised, there was rationalisation and the growth of stronger clubs for an area.

However, the essential community attachment never went away - but in the late Twentieth Century this feature increasingly conflicted with the expansion of the game into a major leisure business. The clash reached a height at Wimbledon.

The businessmen in charge of the club by the time of Millennium felt that its position in Merton offered few prospects of expanding the support and revenues coming to the club. The fans though, naturally pointed out that the club was created to be Wimbledon-based and its true supporters would follow the club at any level.

And that was no idle boast because Wimbledon only became a League Club in the 1970s after years as a non-league side. For the club's true fans, dropping out of the League would not change their allegiance.

For commercial minds though, it made no sense to stay in Merton because the business couldn't expand- ie add more fans, move up the leagues and make more money. So they conceived the plan to go to Milton Keynes - an area without a league club and a growing population.

For the Wimbledon fans this amounted to an alienation from the club's roots. Supporting Wimbledon was about supporting a local tam based in the community - otherwise they could have done what so many others had done and put their allegiance to an elite Champions League side. If Wimbledon isn't in Wimbledon, what is the point of following the team - one more than 50 miles away in Buckinghamshire?

The Football authorities didn't like the idea either but an independent panel voted by 2-1 to allow the move - and if that wasn't enough of a slap in the face, the two who voted for franchising expressed the view that proposed attempts to create a new Wimbledon wouldn't work.

Well it did work - and how. Within 10 years AFC had shot up the pyramid and returned to the League. For the first time now they have drawn 'FC Franchise' as they call them but there is no triumphalism about this.

The MK Dons have been making noises about their excitement at the draw but many of AFC's fans will stay at home because they still do not believe the game should be taking place.

There isn't a real precedent for a game like this. No one can predict what the atmosphere will be like, or how many AFC fans will decide to travel. One thing is for sure though. Outside a small area of Buckinghamshire, the vast majority of football supporters will be willing on AFC Wimbledon.

It's hard on the players and coaching team at MK but there's no doubt that the club is still cast as the villain in these proceedings - even this week MK Chairman Peter Winkelman had to admit to being 'not proud' about how the club was born. If he feels that way, imagine what AFC fans think . . .

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Hugh Larkin

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