One of the most exciting, high stakes, win-or-go-home soccer matches of the year kicked off on Wednesday at 7:45 pm GMT. It was a thrilling game, with twists, turns and suspense right until the very end. No, it wasn’t the Europa League Final. It was the second leg of the SkyBet League 2 play-off semifinal.
OH BOY, I really got you there. You must be really peeved about that good ol’ fashion switcheroo.
Now what if I told you I’m deadly serious. The League 2 Semifinal between Accrington Stanley and AFC Wimbledon is all of the things I mentioned. It was the most important game played on Wednesday.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you probably know what’s coming: A history lesson. Yes, once again we look to the past to understand the present. But this time we don’t have to go back to 1880, we just have to go back to 1980. Well, 1977, but close enough.
For most of Wimbledon FC’s history up to 1977, they were a non-league side, playing in the amateur ranks. However, in 1977 they gained promotion to the fourth tier of the English Football Pyramid, the lowest professional tier. Teams that gain promotion are often favoured to be one of the first going down. However, Wimbledon stayed up and the very next season, they miraculously gained promotion to the third tier.
In the following two seasons, Wimbledon were relegated, promoted and relegated once more.
This is where the story gets out of this world. Their first season back in the fourth tier, the won the title, gaining promotion. Then they got promoted again, to the second tier. Two seasons later, they got promoted again. To the First Division, just four years after playing in the fourth division.
To put this in perspective, imagine if a baseball team playing in a league below single A became a full fledged MLB team in four years. Now imagine they did it with their hands tied together. By this time, it was 1988 and Wimbledon were miraculously still in the top flight and even more miraculously in the FA cup final against Liverpool. And against overwhelming odds, they won.
This would be the apex of Wimbledon FC’s reign as the following seasons would get worse and worse for Don supporters. The biggest of these downturns was the selling of the team’s home ground at Plough Lane. The number of ticket sales at the clubs new shared ground of Selhurst Park declined, the club’s performance failed to improve and 12 years after lifting the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium, it was announced that the club would be moved to Milton Keynes.
This may seem normal to many American sports fans, but it’s unheard of in England. The brand is not what’s important about a team, it’s rooted in the community. As I detailed in my article about the Anfield walkouts, the foundation of a club is built upon the men and women that come to the grounds every game and sing and cheer for their team. You can’t uproot that and move it elsewhere, it just won’t work. And it didn’t. Fans refused to go to watch Milton Keynes play, and it seemed there would just be no football in Wimbledon.
Except there was to be football in Wimbledon. Those fans were still fans, and they still wanted to fill a stand and sing and cheer for a team from Wimbledon. There was a void that needed to be filled, a gap in the market and so, on the 30th of May, 2002, a group of Wimbledon FC diehards formed a new football club: AFC Wimbledon. They unveiled a new crest, new uniforms, plans for a new stadium, a new manager and even held open tryouts in a park in the heart of Wimbledon.
Starting in the 9th tier, AFC Wimbledon were already abnormal. They were drawing thousands of supporters for matches that usually had 50 people in attendance. They shot up the amateur ranks, gaining 4 promotions in 8 years. Then, after being in the Conference Premier for just one season, they made it to the play-off final. And, on the 21st of May, 2011, AFC Wimbledon became a full fledged professional football club once again.
After a lacklustre start to their first season in the 2011/2012 season, AFC Wimbledon sacked its Manager and brought in former Wimbledon FC winger Neal Ardley. Under Ardley things have taken off for the Dons. They’ve brought in a lethal strike force in
Lyle Taylor and ‘Strongest Man in FIFA’ Adebayo Akinfenwa.
With this offensive powerhouse, the Wombles have staved off relegation for four seasons.
All of this is made all the more impressive when you consider this: the club is owned entirely by its fans. That’s right, there is no foreign owner dumping money in, there is now faceless sporting group pulling the strings, there is only The Dons Trust. Essentially, you can buy membership to The Dons Trust and become an equal part owner of AFC Wimbledon.
Additionally, a majority of the workers at AFC Wimbledon are volunteers, selling tickets working match hospitality and so on. Even the Chief Executive, Erik Samuelson is paid exactly one guinea a year. When he was asked why he takes this salary, he said ‘Because it sounds posher than a pound’.
So Wimbledon, a club owned by its fans have stayed up again and again and now, they have a chance to win promotion. The club finished 7th in the league, meaning they take part in a four team play-off for promotion. Since 7th is the lowest team, they would play the fourth place team for a spot in the finals.
The first leg was held at Kingsmeadow, Wimbledon’s (temporary) ground. The historic ground of Wimbledon is on Plough Lane, you know, the stadium that was destroyed. Plans are in the works to build a new stadium on Plough Lane, but until then they play in Kingston and sing ‘Show Me the Way to Plough Lane’.
So the stage was set for AFC Wimbledon to take on fourth place Accrington Stanley. It was a restrained affair, with the club’s trading uninspired attacking moves. Yet, in the fourth minute of stoppage time, 21 year old midfielder Tom Beere scored his first ever league goal, giving AFC Wimbledon a 1-0 advantage going into the second leg at Accrington.
In the second leg, Accrington Stanley opened up the scoring with a 39’ penalty conversion through striker, and I’m not making this up, Windass. Fantastic name. It was 1-1 on aggregate when it got worse for the Dons after a 58’ goal to put Stanley up 2-1.
Remember when I said that AFC Wimbledon had the strongest player in all of FIFA on their team? Well he didn’t take too kindly to losing, so in the 68’ minute he used his tree trunk neck to head in the equalizer to send the game into added time.
Do you also remember how I said AFC Wimbledon had two star players? Well, I lied. They have many. In the 104’, midfielder Jake Reeves made an unbelievable run and his parried shot landed at the feet of aforementioned Lyle Taylor to give Wimbledon the winner and ticket to Wembley for the playoff final.
And as luck would have it, that final is on a Monday in late May. May 30 to be precise, 14 years to the day after AFC Wimbledon, the mighty phoenix it is, was raised from the ashes of Wimbledon FC. And on that day, they have an opportunity to win promotion to League 1, which is, coincidentally, the league in which the franchise from Milton Keynes play.
Narrative. Football. Hope. Redemption.
Come on you Dons.