False Nine editor, Andrew Belt, attempts to sum up the significance of AFC Wimbledon’s first game against the MK Dons…
Imagine you’re a boxer and you’ve just won a world title belt.
Imagine that your promoter steals the belt and gives it to another fighter, and the boxing governing body is happy for that person to take over as champion of the weight division you were the best in.
It isn’t the new title-owner’s fault as the governing body allowed this to happen.
It’s back to square one again and you start boxing locally before moving your way up again to the professional ranks of the sport once more.
Along the way you come up against the boxer who took your crown. The belt you lost all those years ago is long gone and, despite feeling no animosity towards your opponent, the match-up conjures up a catalogue of bitter feelings and brings back unwanted memories that you had done well to let go of previously.
It’s the fight you didn’t want to happen…
Now, Wimbledon were never exactly world-beaters in their pomp but the scenario described above could be one way of drawing an analogy with the strange sequence of events that have involved the club since the turn of the millennium.
What can be said with certainty is that fans of the original Wimbledon loved their club and, 10 years after the FA granted the club’s chairman, Pete Winkelman, his wish to relocate the club from south-west London to Milton Keynes, the hole it’s left in the hearts of their supporters remains.
The formation and subsequent success of AFC Wimbledon has gone some way to plugging that hole but the old Crazy Gang they will never be. The continuation of their non-league roots maintains some parallels with their previous incarnation and the work of the supporters in taking the club into the Football League has been incredible.
Earlier in the week, I watched on with disgust at a plastic surgery show that broadcast a hair transplant, in excruciating detail, and a deeper level of disgust would have been felt by Wimbledon fans when they saw their club eventually transplanted to the new town of Milton Keynes. MK Dons, like the latest follicle treatment championed by Wayne Rooney, are an inevitable and now accepted part of the modern world.
AFC supporters, quite rightly, have disputed the Dons part of their name, and getting rid of it would go some way to disassociating themselves from their murky past. That Milton Keynes, with a population of just under 250, 000 people, have their own Football League club is good but, the way it was achieved stinks and fans of the club, blameless in choosing their local team, find themselves in the awkward situation of following a club hated by most other teams’ supporters; “ Franchise FC” the popular chant goes.
The team play in the soulless 22, 000 all-seater capacity, Stadium MK, and have recorded decent average attendances of around 8000 in League One this season. The stadium’s capacity will be increased to 32, 000 at the end of the season as the club embarks on its ambitious campaign to appeal to the masses in Milton Keynes.
What’s missing though, for a club officially founded in 2004 following AFC Wimbledon’s reclaiming of their former incarnation’s history, is a real rivalry for MK. A lack of history makes them a unique opposition in their division and this, in particular, explains MK boss, Karl Robinson’s delight at drawing AFC in the FA Cup Second Round. He was reported to have danced around his living room in excitement at the prospect of facing Wimbledon.
Knowing how much rivalries have shaped the face of football, the fixture is the closest MK will ever get to playing in a derby with a great deal of intensity and passion thrown into the mix. Anticipation has grown in the town with over 15, 200 tickets sold at the time of writing, higher than a season’s best crowd of 11, 037 at Stadium MK for the visit of Crewe.
MK Dons need AFC Wimbledon more than the League Two club need Milton Keynes.
It’s difficult to generate excitement for a team short on foundation and intent on reaching a successful future. But the FA Cup game, like no other, has, ironically, managed to get MK fans’ passions fired up for the encounter.
It represents a clash of ideologies, with MK looking ahead to a glorious future with the precision of a corporate brand and idealising sold-out stadiums. Wimbledon, on the other hand, represent respect of tradition and emphasise the growing importance of the fans’s say on the way clubs are run.
AFC Wimbledon represent integrity and the heart of football; MK Dons, the lavishly-funded, ruthlessly ambitious project. A game that pits modern football versus an historic and modest institution.
Tellingly, only one team going into Sunday’s clash has ever won the FA Cup, though, the other has more realistic ambitions of claiming the trophy in the future.
Much like Andrew Flintoff’s shot at boxing this weekend intrigued for its story rather than the quality on show, Sunday’s game too will bring a most peculiar narrative into the public eye and make for compelling viewing.
Stadium MK will be a maelstrom of emotion as the gloves come off for a first meeting between two teams intrinsically linked by a stormy past.
Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrey_belt