AFC Wimbledon's Promotion Wasn't A Fairytale; It Was Much More Important Than That

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 21: AFC Wimbledon fans display a banner during the Blue Square Bet Premier League Play Off Final between AFC Wimbledon and Luton Town at City of Manchester Stadium on May 21, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)

By rebuilding their club from the ashes of FA disregard, AFC Wimbledon showed that some stories knock fairytales into a cocked hat.

It was joyous. It was wonderful. It was inspirational. It was the outcome that everyone -- bar Luton fans -- were hoping for and, as Danny Kedwell planted the final penalty beyond Mark Tyler, and sent AFC Wimbledon into the Football League, the narrative was done. "The fairytale", gushed the exultant commentator, "is complete".

Except, and let's be very clear about this, this was no fairytale. Fairytales are magical stories of bliss and light, told to terrify children into refusing sweets from weird old women. This was something of far greater importance: the story of a club that the ruling authorities of British football decided to simply let die, only for the fans to refuse to go quietly into the night. AFC Wimbledon are not a club born from enchantment, and they have not been restored to league football by the wave of a wand. They've got there through graft, and they should never have had to.

A brief recap. On May 28 2002, a three-man "independent commission", appointed by the FA, concluded that Wimbledon Football Club -- who were in dire financial straits following Sam Hamman's chairmanship and an abortive move to Dublin -- should be allowed to move from the London borough of Merton to the commuter town of Milton Keynes, some seventy miles to the north. The club would retain its league position, and would to all intents and purposes remain the same club; it would just do so, and be so, somewhere else. Their judgement stated that the decision would provide board and shareholders with "an opportunity to place the club on a more solid financial footing".

The idea that Wimbledon could dissolve and then reform at the bottom of the pyramid, where they'd started over a century before, was dismissed by the committee as "not in the best interests of football". Wimbledon's fans, who clearly understand the game a damn sight better than those who actually run it, disagreed. AFC Wimbledon was formed and went into the league pyramid at the ninth step, the Combined Counties League, five steps below what was then Division Three and is now League Two. And, just nine years later, they are back in the league. It is, however you slice it, an extraordinary achievement.

But not -- not -- a fairytale. Calling their rise a fairytale is not just a denigration of the astonishing work of a group of fans who were effectively told by the FA that the monetary concerns of the club's directors were more important than the community to which the club had belonged for years. It is, in a very important sense, an abrogation of responsibility.

By ascribing the return of AFC to magic, English football is able to avoid the awkward questions that led to the whole sorry saga. Not just about the simple incompatibility of English football and franchising, but about the dark priorities of those at the top of the game. What the decision to allow Wimbledon to move demonstrated was that, in any clash between the fans of a club and the owners of the club, the FA will take the part of the owners. It doesn't matter who they are, where they come from, what they intend to do or how they intend to do it: if you've got the keys to the door, you get to call the shots.

All of which is logical, as long as you're content with the idea that a football club doesn't belong, in any significant aspect, to its fans. Assuming you're not, and that you're human, you're then forced to ask yourself: has anything changed? Is there any evidence that those at the top of the game have grown more attuned to the fact that a football does not exist in its corporate entity but exists as an entity given character by its fans; a church defined by its congregation, not its clergy?

Because that was the true lesson of AFC's formation. It was not that a group of fans -- a community -- will attempt to rebuild what is stolen from them; that much was always likely, one way or another. It was that the football community, by which I mean those fans that are interested in football but disinterested in Wimbledon as such, would recognise that the club continued to exist not in the franchise but in the phoenix. Wimbledon's history continued in AFC, and everybody (or almost everybody, football being football) knew it. Even the franchise admitted as much, first changing their name to the MK Dons, then acquiescing to a request from the Football Supporters Federation, in October 2006, to return the honours and patrimony won by Wimbledon to Merton.

Given what happened, it seems unlikely that further experiments with franchising are on the cards. But the wider culture of prioritising the corporate over the community persisted and continues to persist: witness the laissez-faire attitude toward leveraged buy-outs, or the bemused tolerance towards the ownership of Leeds, or the meteoric ascent of Sir Dave Richards, or the tissue-paper joke that is the Fit and Proper Persons test, or any other of English football's litany of shrugs, nods, and forelock-tugs in the face of men with firm handshakes, skimmed-milk smiles, and designer cufflinks.

Because when the money runs out, the fans don't. They can't. They belong to a club, and the club belongs to them, in a perhaps slightly tragic but fundamentally beautiful way. The greatest thing about Wimbledon is that they are an object lesson that there is an alternative; that football doesn't have to belong to stupid people making stupid decisions for the benefit of a selfish and self-serving minority. That simply by caring about something, and working for something, a community can reclaim its own identity and can stand up in the face of those who would simply have sloughed them off like so much dead skin.

In truth, even if Luton had been awarded that penalty in normal time, and gone up instead, the AFC story would still have been just as impressive. But fairytales are about moments of revelation; about glass slippers sliding onto conveniently distinctive feet. This was not about such a moment but about nine years of attempting to resurrect something both special and normal; a protest march, inspired in the specific by a series of atrocious decisions by a supine governing body, but in the abstract by a culture that prioritises the needs of the owners over the fans, that listens to money over love, and that works not for us but for them.

That culture persists; this was a sign that it doesn't have to. There is another, better way.

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