“Sanchez, Cork, Young, and Fashanu in there…SANCHEZ IS IN THERE! AND IT’S A GOAL FOR WIMBLEDON!”
The cliché goes that a lot can happen in ninety minutes. At Wembley in the 1988 FA Cup Final, Wimbledon completed their remarkable rise from non-league to surprise cup winners via four promotions in ten years. Lawrie Sanchez’s goal and Dave Beasant’s historic penalty save from John Alridge produced one of the biggest shocks in cup final history and, thanks to John Motson’s iconic post-match summary, cemented the cult of the Crazy Gang from SW17.
If the events of those ninety minutes on a sun-drenched day in North London secured Wimbledon’s place in English football’s history books, what followed in the next fourteen years almost reduced them to a footnote. After establishing themselves as a top half team in Division One, the Dons were forced into a groundshare with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park ahead of the 1991/92 season. The Taylor Report, published in response to the Hillsborough tragedy, introduced minimum requirements for stadia across the country, including those at the highest level to be all-seater. Deciding that the work required on Plough Lane, Wimbledon’s home since 1912, would be too expensive in the short-term, the board struck a supposedly transitional deal with the Eagles. Unbeknownst to most, it would mark the beginning of the end for Wimbledon FC.
While the following decade saw its high points, including two cup semi-finals in the 96/97 season, a slow decline on the pitch played out in front of ever-dwindling attendances at Selhurst Park, and relegation from the Premier League in 2000 was followed by two years of stagnation in the second tier. The sale of the club by Sam Hamann to Norwegian businessmen Bjørn Rune Gjelsten and Kjell Inge Røkke had coincided with the club’s lowest ebb for fifteen years, and together with chairman Charles Koppell the decision was made to relocate the club to Milton Keynes in a bid to stave off mounting debt.
Though the move was initially met from opposition by the Football League and MPs alike, a three-man FA arbitration panel eventually voted two-to-one in favour of the move, and ahead of the 2002/03 season Wimbledon FC were relocated. Understandably distraught at the decision, fans put their heads together and formed the Dons Trust in February 2002. Two days after the move was confirmed, Kris Stewart and Marc Jones, members of the Wimbledon Indepedent Supporters Association, and Ivor Heller, the Vice-Chair of the Dons Trust, met with fellow supporters at the Fox and Grapes pub to discuss the formation of a new, fan-owned club. A week later, a ground share agreement had been struck with Kingstonian, former Wimbledon defender Terry Eames had been approached to manage the team, and £75,000 had been raised for the team. From the flames, the phoenix club AFC Wimbledon were born.
If the club’s formation sounds like something straight from the script of a hackneyed Hollywood blockbuster, then the subsequent sixteen years might have been rejected on the grounds of realism. Starting off in the Combined Counties League Premier Division, AFC Wimbledon achieved six promotions in thirteen seasons, becoming the first team formed in the 21st century to reach the Football League in 2011 and, after MK Dons’ relegation last season, now playing their football a division above the franchise that stole their football club. Speaking to That’s Liquid Football, Chris from the AFC Wimbledon Audio Fanzine 9yrs Podcast puts the club’s meteoric rise down to a labour of love, “The very fact the club was created and continued was built on passion and a love for the game. A mixture of good management and good accounting meant we rose through the leagues, attracting some of the big name non-league players with the promise of big crowds; now every player receives a schooling in the Wimbledon story and it’s a major selling point.”
After a decade and a half of almost uninterrupted success, this season has seen the Dons deflated. Poor recruitment under long-standing boss and former Wimbledon winger Neal Ardley saw the side struggle for goals in the opening months of the season and, having fallen into the drop zone in October, they’ve sunk to the foot of League One. Ardley and AFC Wimbledon parted ways in November after six years under his stewardship, eventually replaced by another former Don in Wally Downes. A no-nonsense midfielder in his playing days, Downes was a key contributor to Wimbledon’s rise through the leagues in the 1980s, though he would depart Plough Lane months before that famous Wembley win, shipped out to Sheffield United by Bobby Gould.
Though Downes may have arrived at Kingsmeadow with the reputation of being an old-school Proper Football Man, predictions that he might favour the kind of direct style of play associated with the Crazy Gang have been wide of the mark. A gameplan centered around pressing and quick transitions brought swift dividends, with the Dons earning nine points from Downes’ first seven games. Though Barnsley and Fleetwood Town may have capitalised on a side committed to attacking football, there are at least glimmers of a revival, although making up a nine point gap in the final three months of the season could prove a bridge too far.
But if is this to be the season that AFC Wimbledon suffer their first relegation, the squad are pulling out all the stops to provide happier memories of the campaign. They’d already set a club record by reaching the fourth round, and that remarkable victory over West Ham saw them equal Wimbledon FC’s best cup performance since Vinnie Jones et al met Chelsea at Highbury in 1997. Saturday’s meeting with Millwall gives the Dons another opportunity to go one better than their foes from Milton Keynes, who’ve yet to reach the quarter-finals. “The first time we reached the first round in non-league was, ironically, against Millwall. It would have been nice to get a Manchester United or Chelsea, for the dollar more than anything else, but we’re home, to a team that we could beat. Millwall have only won once away all season against bottom club Ipswich, so you never know!”
The road to the fifth round has been typical of a rocky season for the Dons. A first round banana skin at Haringey Borough was only decided by Mitchell Pinnock’s late goal, while it took Kwesi Appiah’s stoppage time winner to prevent a replay against Fleetwood Town in round three, after Downes’ team had relinquished a two-goal lead. Few gave them a chance against a West Ham side slowly finding some form under Manuel Pellegrini, but the 4,800 fans that squeezed inside Kingsmeadow witnessed an FA Cup classic in the making. “Spirit, desire and, importantly, attacking football was the key to the win over West Ham. Of course it helped that they believed they had won before kick off. But that shouldn’t take anything away from a huge team performance.”
Tin foil FA Cups, players celebrating with Wombles, and a lower league team sending a top flight outfit packing with a tuppaware each of humble pie, AFC Wimbledon’s win over West Ham had the lot, and Downes will be hoping that his side can continue to use the cup as a springboard for a late survival bid. To do so, they’ll have to overcome a side with plenty of their own cup pedigree. Millwall’s last-gasp win over Everton in round four may have been overshadowed by the Dons’ own giantkilling exploits, but Neil Harris’ team have plenty of experience when it comes to reaching the latter stages of the FA Cup. During the former striker’s second season in charge, the Lions beat three Premier League sides on their way to the quarter-finals, while Harris himself was part of the squad that reached the 2004 FA Cup final under Dennis Wise – a man with his own Wimbledon connections.
Win or lose, AFC Wimbledon’s historic cup run is a reminder of just how far the club has come since its foundation in 2002. Though relegation looks on the cards this season, supporters are sanguine about their current position. Would they swap a chance of survival for an FA Cup final appearance? “At this point, a cup final appearance is more likely! But as long as we show some balls in the league, if we go down, we’ll be back!”
With planning permission to build a stadium next to the site of the old Plough Lane granted in December 2017, and a slated opening date midway through next season, fans can now forget about the beginning of the end, and look forward to the end of the beginning.
Thanks to Chris from the 9yrs Podcast for providing the fan insight for this piece.