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 t