by Chris Dunlavy
LEICESTER City. Burton Albion. Bristol Rovers. When the annals and almanacs are dusted off decades hence, 2015-16 will be remembered as the season of the fairytale. Tired old divas have been shoved off the stage. Princes turned into paupers. Downtrodden underdogs named best in show.
Rarely in the history of our game has the age-old hegemony of power and money been so thoroughly subverted. And, incredibly, the best may still be to come.
It is now 14 years since Wimbledon fans had their club stolen by a combination of greed, corporate skulduggery and craven FA compliance.
They weren’t asked. They weren’t consulted. At one stage, they were flat out lied to, with owner Charles Koppel insisting he was seeking a “local solution” while informing a Norwegian news channel that “the plan is for Wimbledon to play in Milton Keynes”. Which, of course, they did.
Koppel, who, fittingly, now works in gold mining, rarely showed anything but contempt for the supporters he was shafting.
He demanded a clear-the-air meeting, arranged at fans’ expense, then failed to turn up. Arguing against a return to Plough Lane, he told a residents’ association meeting that “football supporters are not necessarily the kind of people you want sitting on your doorstep”.
Dissenters were cast as parochial luddites. “They’re the ones who’d prefer we went back to Plough Lane and played third division football,” he sneered. “They’re not true supporters.”
To Koppel, fans weren’t part of a club’s fabric, bound to it by tradition and history. They were braying, brainless sheep to be herded wherever he wanted.
Even the FA panel – a three-man team whose decision to approve the move hammered the final nail into the club’s coffin – stuck the boot in, churlishly telling supporters that a phoenix club “would not be in the wider interests of football”. As if shifting a club 56 miles up the road was.
But Wimbledon’s fans refused to be bullied and brow-beaten. They told the FA to stick their advice, severed ties and started all over again.
Money was collected in buckets. Players were procured via open trials on Wimbledon Common. Fans who’d once travelled to Old Trafford sat on bales of hay at tiny villages around Surrey as the Dons re-spawned in the Combined Counties.
Back then, seven divisions separated AFC Wimbledon from the club they’d lost. Now, after victory over Accrington in the League Two play-off semi-finals, the team founded by three blokes in a community centre is just 90 minutes away from parity. This is not a dig at MK Dons. With one notable exception, very few of those associated with Wimbledon’s demise remain at Stadium:MK.
Wimbledon’s trophies have been returned to Merton. MK have a progressive manager in Karl Robinson who nurtures English talent. For all the wrongs of their past, they do a lot right in the present.
No, this is not about revenge. It is about illustrating that the power of collective action, about proving community spirit and bloody-minded determination can overcome greed and self-interest.
Time and again, those Dons fans were fobbed off, lied to and kicked in the teeth. Time and again the authorities let them down. But guys like founder Kris Stewart, chairman Erik Samuelson and director Ivor Heller never gave up. This is their reward.
Samuelson once said his dream was to get into the Football League, build a new stadium and then ring all the people involved in Wimbledon’s theft to say ‘Why did you bother?’
If Neal Ardley’s boys beat Plymouth at Wembley next week, he won’t need to. The message will be loud and clear.
For all Leicester’s heroics, their title was won on the back of a Thai billionaire. Wimbledon’s rise was built on elbow grease, blind devotion and a burning sense of injustice. That’s why, 14 years since their darkest hour, promotion would be the greatest fairytale of all.