The fundamental weirdness of MK Dons vs. AFC Wimbledon

Chris Brunskill

On Sunday, in the FA Cup, AFC Wimbledon will come face to face with the club that took their league position and tried to take their identity. It is, in its own way, as strange a game of football as has ever been played.

The cup competitions, for all that they've gone a bit mouldy around the edges, have one great advantage over the general league, which is their capacity to throw together two teams that have, through the incompetence of one or the excellence of another, managed to deny the calendar of a decent fixture. When the FA Cup sent Leeds to Manchester United in January 2010, it was enabling the country (and, as it turned out, Leeds) to once again enjoy a proper, spiteful game (even though, as it turned out, the game itself wasn't great). Of course, the down side of this capriciousness is the inevitable second round tie that looms this Sunday lunchtime, when AFC Wimbledon travel to MK Dons.

Generally, whenever some Issue appears, the air grows thick with Opinions, as one talking head after another takes their own sense of right and expands it to fit the world around them. This time, not so much. There's seems to have been a general willingness, for the most part, to acknowledge that the game is a deeply peculiar one, and that this fundamental oddness means it would be inappropriate to delve too deeply or prescriptively into the "well, of course what AFC Wimbledon should do is forfeit/send no fans/scorch and salt the very turf of stadiummk".

(Yes, that's the actual name. Italics, bold, capped down, no space. Still, at least the abandoned colon from the original name, stadium:mk, was able to find work again; we at SB Nation very much enjoyed his recent cameo in Being: Liverpool.)

The general air of delicacy has, however, been punctured by a few intrepid souls. One of those to tackle the issue head-on was the Mirror's fearless asker-of-those-questions-that-none-other-dare, Robbie Savage. "I don't want to be obtuse about this," he wrote, apparently without irony, "but why is MK Dons FA Cup tie with AFC Wimbledon a grudge match?"

It's not a grudge match, obviously. For a start, calling the ill-feeling a "grudge" is like calling the Udachnaya Pipe a hole in the ground: it's true, and it's completely inadequate. And for a finish, the term "grudge match" has a particular meaning within football, one that this fixture completely fails to fall into. Grudge matches are between clubs that have had recent rows about the poaching of players, or where one manager's been mocking the other lot for having silly plastic flags. Not for this.

So if it's not a grudge match, then what is it? Is it anything at all?

Let's go back to basic principles. The attachment to a club is the thing that makes being a football fan different to being a fan of football, having an interest not just in the game but a vested interest in a specific entity within the game. If you do - and I think most of the people reading this do, though doubtless to varying degrees of intensity - then it's one of the things that makes the experience of being a sport fan different to being, say, a fan of cheese, or music, or wicker furniture. Not having this attachment doesn't make you less of a fan of football, of course, not does it mean you don't understand the game itself. But it makes you different and, I suspect, quite rare.

(This point is perhaps arguable when it comes to some music. There are bands, large and small, that acquire vaguely football-esque followings of fans who turn up no matter what the quality at the time. But it's not the norm. And football clubs can't fall back on playing the hits.)

Part of having that vested interest, however casual or hyperpartisan it might be, is an almost-innate understanding of the kind of properties that a football club should have, in an ontological sense. Trying to pin this definition down exactly is a surprisingly slippery business; beyond the obvious criteria of 'a football club should have a football team that plays regularly', there's not much that's common to all football clubs. Some emerged from works teams, others were conjured into being to fill an empty stadium. Some are owned by their fans, others by complete bastards. Indeed, the pupating New York Cosmos might even dispute that you need a team at all. Still, you know a football club when you see one.

What makes the MK Dons interesting is the broad spread of opinion that agrees that they are, by virtue of their properties, or more accurately by virtue of that one specific, founding, almost-blasphemous property, fundamentally not a club. This isn't an all-encompassing or unanimous view -- some people don't care, some people allow it -- but it is significant enough to infuse the club, and particularly this tie, with an deep uncanniness. The meeting is hard to talk about because, while the strength of feeling is as intense as it could possibly be, it can't be described in the usual terms. It isn't a rivalry. It isn't a relationship. It isn't "the Dons derby". There isn't a word for how MK Dons stand in relation to AFC Wimbledon, or at least, there isn't a word that is fundamentally and straightforwardly a footballing word. It's bigger than that.

This is because MK Dons are, in footballing terms, an abomination. Not in the colloquial sense -- meaning a terrible, terrible thing; doubtless you'll have your own views on that -- but in the HP Lovecraft sense: a thing that should not be. I say this not to accuse Peter Winkelman and his merry men of being tentacled horrors from an Other Place, tempting as that is, but to point out that footballing chitter-chat it flounders when it bumps up against this in much the same way that those poor fisherman struggled when they opened the wrong door and let the mad thing out. When MK Dons play anybody else, it can be ignored; when they play AFC Wimbledon, there's nothing to do but gibber and wail.

And that, ultimately, is why you kind of have to pity Savage and whichever poor saps get the tricky business of covering this for television. It's an exceptionally significant game, but the significance won't neatly into the typical conceptions of footballing rivalry, can't submit to the traditional framework of grudge matches, and refuses to be caparisoned with the usual cup clichés. Whatever the result, in almost every way it's pretty much the opposite of what you'd want from a game of football, and even if AFC Wimbledon hammer them into the middle of Caldecotte Lake, it won't be revenge. For two hours on Sunday afternoon, most of the usual words are going to sound desperately and pathetically trite.

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