Wimbledon edge closer to League return

KINGSTON-UPON-THAMES - Kingsmeadow Stadium in South-West London is typical of many non-League football grounds, but is providing the backdrop to a remarkable story of sporting redemption.

Hidden away behind a busy suburban main road, its four modest but well-maintained single-tier stands are the current home of AFC Wimbledon, the fan-owned club that rose from the ashes of the original Wimbledon FC.

The Dons defied the odds more than 30 years ago by rising from non-League football to the top tier of the English game, winning the FA Cup in 1988 before dying a painful death in 2002.

Now the new Wimbledon are on the threshold of emulating their forerunners by climbing back into the Football League, eight years after enthusiasts who refused to let the club die held public trials for new players on Wimbledon Common.

Erik Samuelson, the club's 62-year-old chief executive, told Reuters: "A terrible wrong was done to this football club, and we have spent the last eight years battling to put that right. We were not just going to lay down and die."

It is hard to believe now, but Wimbledon finished above both mighty Chelsea and Arsenal in the Premier League in 1994/95. They also famously stopped Liverpool winning the FA Cup and League double in 1988, beating them in the Cup final with Lawrie Sanchez heading the only goal of the game.

Wimbledon were always battling against the odds and punching above their weight but the fact that they had a tiny fan base and no ground of their own for the last 11 years of their existence made them vulnerable.

In the end the club that gave soccer the "Crazy Gang" of Vinny Jones, Dave Beasant, John Fashanu, Dennis Wise and others and polarised opinion over their playing style and methods was killed off by a combination of politics and business deals.

There had been a proposal to move the club to Dublin but eventually, in a hugely controversial act, it was "relocated" by new owners to the city of Milton Keynes 130 km north of London. That was the end of Wimbledon FC, but a new dream took hold.

The fans formed their own club and now, after four promotions through the non-League ladder, are one step away from a return to the Football League.

NEMESIS CLUB

A fiercely-contested 2-1 win over Crawley Town at Kingsmeadow in front of 4,000 passionate fans saw Wimbledon go back to the top of the table and Samuelson, an erudite former partner with accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, is delighted.

"My dream, my passion, is to see us back in the Football League with our own stadium back in our home borough of Merton. Although we might only be football fans, we are extraordinarily passionate fans and we did not let this club die. Now we are going to make a return to the Football League happen."

What incensed Samuelson and the other founder members was the politics that forced the original Wimbledon out of business, and led to the creation of their nemesis, the "franchise club" Milton Keynes Dons, who took Wimbledon's place in the League.

Eight years on, there is no lessening of the vituperation Wimbledon's fans have for the Milton Keynes club, who now play in League One, the third tier of English football.

Samuelson is more considered in his comments than some but still cannot totally disguise his feelings about what happened.

"The FA washed their hands of us, handed our fate over to an independent commission, and then said: 'You can't blame us'.

"That doesn't stop us, we do blame them. A lot of fans wear T-shirts with the famous quote from the FA Commission report that says: 'The creation of a Wimbledon Town would not be in the wider interests of football'.

"That was wrong. A massive wrong was done to the club, let's not worry about who did it, but it needs to be put right and the best way to put it right is to do something positive by getting us into the Football League."

ADDED SPICE

Wimbledon's reserve team coach Marcus Gayle, 40, is one of only two men to have played for both the old and new Wimbledons, and the only man to score for both.

"A lot of people have made a lot of sacrifices for this club, for it still to be around, and hopefully if we do not win promotion this season it will be next season when they get their rewards," he told Reuters.

"But, even so, a lot of people do not want us to be successful and rise up because it means we would have passed them twice in their history.

"We did it once, 30 or 40 years ago, now we are doing it again over the last seven or eight years and there is that added spice towards us.

"But we have a good foundation, good roots and we can grow, we can reclaim our status."

Manager Terry Brown advocates caution however. "We are a mile off being the finished article, we are a very young side that is going to get better if I can keep it together.

"I want to nurture these players and we want them to become Football League players at this club whether it is this year, next year or the year after.

"At the moment we are not a League Two side, we are not big enough or strong enough, but on nights like this, when we win a top-of-the-table clash like this, it gives you an enormous amount of belief. It can only help us realise the dream."

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