Dons and Bankies stand up against the franchises

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AFC Wimbledon's elevation to the Football League wasn’t just a victory for the club – for many it was a victory for football as well.

The minnows from south-west London won the FA Cup in 1988 – beating the mighty Liverpool at Wembley – and played in the first few years of the Premier League before being sold off and relocated to the new town of Milton Keynes as their identity was stripped from them. It's a story that's famous in England, but not completely unfamiliar north of the border.

In Scotland this weekend, Clydebank FC will kick off the season as newly-promoted protagonists in the West Region’s Super League Premier Division, nine years after their extinction as a club operating in the Scottish Football League and eight since reforming as a junior side under the auspices of the Scottish Junior Football Association.

Their story holds many parallels with AFC Wimbledon as to how they got their clubs back from the dead after being rolled over by what became Milton Keynes Dons and Airdrie United respectively. It's certainly one in the eye for the franchised clubs that now operate in their place.

In the case of the Bankies, they can take great heart and inspiration from Wimbledon’s story and, like the “Crazy GangD”, can boast a list of top players that donned their colours in their career, such as Davie Cooper, Darren Jackson, Tommy Coyne and current Bolton manager Owen Coyle. Even pop group Wet Wet Wet once had their name emblazoned across the jerseys in a unique sponsorship deal.

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Between having to move grounds, proposed moves to Dublin, shadowy owners, crowds dwindling and financial problems, both teams have seen it all over the last decade and are very much enjoying a renaissance in their current guises operating in their respective levels.

Clydebank chairman Gordon Robertson has been there, done it and bought the T-shirt in his years with the club. He admits AFC Wimbledon’s story has been a magnificent one and believes their tale in many ways encapsulates what football should be about.

“As a football fan, what the guys at AFC Wimbledon have done is absolutely fantastic and I was delighted when I heard they beat Luton in the play-offs," Robertson tells FourFourTwo. "I have to admit I was a keen follower of their results and their progress. For me it was a triumph for what football should be about, in terms of the community aspect of things and being motivated to be involved.

“Hearing about the club’s history, they care about where they are and what they want to achieve within their community. They don’t want it treated like a toy that’s passed round and they see that it’s worth nurturing. That’s football at its very best. The guys at Wimbledon have more than exemplified that.”

The road to the end for Clydebank in the senior ranks began in 1996 with the sale of their ground, New Kilbowie, by owners the Steedman family. Homeless, the club became nomadic, playing at Morton’s Cappielow and Boghead Park, the former ground of local rivals Dumbarton.

Boghead Park in 1996: hardly inspiring

The Bankies were sold to Bermudan-based businessman Dr John Hall and the idea was floated of the club moving to Dublin yet still playing in their home league – not unlike Sam Hammam's notion of basing Wimbledon in the Irish capital – but logistics and regulations put paid to that. It didn’t stop attempts to move Clydebank to Galashiels, in the Scottish borders, or even Carlisle.

As these attempts to relocate continued, the club were slowly dying. Failure to achieve what he wanted saw Hall sell up to David McGhie, an associate of agent John Viola, in 2001. But despite loading the team with experienced names, Clydebank missed out on promotion from Division Two in their final season.

With Airdrieonians already in liquidation, businessman Jim Ballantyne looked to get the newly-branded Airdrie United into the Scottish League, but after missing out on the Scottish League place vacated by Airdrieonians’ demise – which went to Gretna, who themselves went bust in 2008 – he trained his sights on the fragile Bankies.

A deal was made and soon Clydebank were named Airdrie United and relocated, while Bankies fans were left angry and upset that their once-proud club had been taken over and taken away almost in the blink of an eye. A year later they had regrouped and were accepted into the juniors’ fold.

While AFC Wimbledon have used the non-league pyramid system to climb 'back' into the English Football League, Clydebank’s route back to the senior game in Scotland is more prohibitive. Having reached the Premier Division of the western region, they have now gone as far as they can: there's no nationwide junior division above them and no relegation from Scottish Football League into the non-league ranks. However, junior clubs can qualify for the Scottish Cup if they win either of the three regionalised Super Leagues or the Scottish Junior Cup.

Robertson admits there is still huge animosity towards Airdrie United, but prefers to look to the future rather than dwell on the past – and for that matter Clydebank's current circumstances.

“Airdrie United are the embodiment of our final blow and a lot of people cannot forgive that," says the chairman. "I would go so far as to say they loathe Airdrie. In my opinion, they are right, but only so far as they were the team that put the nail in the coffin. As a team, they mean nothing to me. They are just another club.

“But who knows, if we had survived that takeover bid and carried on, we could have gone into liquidation ourselves if the money from United Clydebank Supporters’ Trust [UCS] hadn’t come through. Put it this way, we didn’t have a ground and could have folded regardless. There were no guarantees at that time.

“The UCS bid to buy the club was solid – not a pie-in-the-sky, ambitious, hope-for-the-best sort of bid – and my own belief is that while there was a bid on the table by the Trust, Airdrie should morally have taken a back seat and allowed us first refusal on it.

“There’s a lot of antipathy towards Airdrie by Clydebank fans and I’m sure some of the Airdrie support would understand why. If we were to meet them in a competitive match again, without question, the supporters would love to beat them. They wish them nothing.

Airdrie United replace Clydebank in 2002

“It’s important to remember this is all ancient history now and our aim is to be the best club we can be under the flag of the SJFA and look at the fact that the progression we’ve made in being promoted to the top flight in the West Region reflects this. We’ve done it in eight years and reached the final of the Scottish Junior Cup [in 2009] and will continue to progress.

“Everything that happened eight, nine, even 10 years ago is not to be dwelled on any more and while supporters still hold a level of animosity towards Airdrie and the part they played in our demise, it only brings a destructive and negative edge and doesn’t fully reflect the so many positives that have come from what happened.”

Clydebank’s promotion to the West Region Super Premier League is as far as they can go in Scotland’s somewhat misshapen football ladder – you can't call it a pyramid, with four entirely separate systems (seniors, juniors, amateurs and welfarers). While AFC Wimbledon could theoretically find their way to the Premier League one day, as fanciful a notion as it is for the time being, the Bankies’ progression will be halted unless serious changes are made to the league structure north of the border.

Robertson would never rule out a return to the senior ranks if a route back into the Scottish League were to become available, but acknowledges it’s a story football romanticists would revel in if it were to ever happen.

“Our aim at Clydebank is to bring the club to a logical conclusion, i.e. to be the best club we can possibly be. If an opportunity ever arose where that could be achieved, we would have to look at it in the best interests of the club. It can’t happen under the current structure, but we would never completely rule it out.

“Of course there is the notion that a club killed off by a combination of neglect, self-interest and greed then resurrected by people who don’t have any of those things on any agenda and re-establish it in the senior ranks would be a great thing, but we’re not in England and that system doesn’t apply here.”

For AFC Wimbledon, the long road back is in some way completed – and ahead of schedule, going by the Dons Trust Aims on the club’s official website. There, the stated ambition for the club is “To get AFC Wimbledon promoted as high up the pyramid as possible with an aim of achieving league status in 10 years, i.e. for season 2013/14.” They’ve done it two years earlier than planned.

Dons players celebrate their play-off shoot-out victory

Their first Football League game last weekend kicked off a whole new chapter in the club’s history and a chance to go on the sort of ladder-climbing their previous incarnation enjoyed in the late '70s and 80s, culminating in winning the FA Cup in 1988.

In achieving what they have, chief executive Erik Samuelson has opted for a similar attitude of that of his Clydebank counterpart: rather than get bogged down in bitterness and recrimination, he's used the energy to work at something they would see as ethically better.

“It was wrong what happened to us," Samuelson tells FourFourTwo. "Of course it was and it’s something we cannot change. What we chose to do was channel our frustration into something positive and instead of watching the results and league tables and hoping MK Dons would lose, we decided to work to create a football club starting from the bottom and achieve promotion the proper way.

“Instead of taking over another club’s membership and transporting it, we’ve started from scratch and proved we can achieve promotion to the Football League – on a fraction of the money, interestingly. Milton Keynes are entitled to have a team of their own, but they should have done it correctly.”

While Clydebank vs Airdrie United is unlikely to happen in the immediate future, the prospect of AFC Wimbledon vs MK Dons grows closer with every season. With the Wombles’ rise through the English non-league pyramid – they've enjoyed five promotions in nine seasons – only one division separates the two sides now.

They almost met in the FA Cup last season, when the second round draw meant Wimbledon had to beat Ebbsfleet United while MK Dons had to knock out Stevenage. ITV snapped up the potential game for live coverage, only to see Stevenage knock out the Milton Keynes men on penalties. AFC Wimbledon made it through, the first time they'd gone further in the Cup than the 'franchised' version.

However, Samuelson knows the day will come when his side will lock horns with the Dons of the new town and has vowed to deal with it in the correct fashion – even if it means ignoring the elephant in the room.

“When the time comes, we will deal with it in a professional way and play them because you have to," he pledges. "It won’t be something we’ll enjoy, if I’m honest, but it will be something to look forward to.”

AFC Wimbledon’s rise and story is certainly one an inspiration in turning adversity into something positive. While Clydebank supporters can only dream of a return to the Scottish Football League one day, chairman Robertson is hopeful that their story can already inspire others.

“The story of AFC Wimbledon is, no doubt, an inspirational story and I hope people in Scotland can take that from us and the fact that we’ve put Clydebank back on the football map," says Robertson. "Any football supporter in this country knows we exist and we’re doing well at our level.

“It would be nice to think that our progress can be recognised in a similar way to Wimbledon’s and be used as motivation and show that a club representing a community can survive amidst adverse circumstances. It also gives people a chance to keep supporting them and provide reassurance they will always be there and not let egomaniacs take over and use it as their plaything.”