Non-League Football

MK Dons is why franchising should never take off in Britain

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It was far from jolly hockey sticks when Wimbledon moved to MK

MK Dons beat AFC Wimbledon 2-1 in the FA Cup second round, but it did little to extinguish the bad feelings between the two clubs. But it is time to put away that axe as the people who watch MK Dons are no longer the least bit interested in the heritage of AFC Wimbledon.

Milton Keynes was a town, sorry- City, waiting for football to emerge. With a population of close to 200,000 and a lot of them belonging to the socio-economic group that warmly embraces football, it was only a matter of time before someone got it right in Milton Keynes. It probably took them a long time to find their way round, for those unfamiliar with grid-like town lay-outs still find it hard to navigate MK!

The way it was all handled by the management of the old Wimbledon FC club was appalling and left many Plough Lane/Selhurst Park regulars heartbroken. The fact is, Wimbledon were a non-league club punching astonishingly above their weight. The Taylor Report put paid to Plough Lane and once the “Crazy Gang” bubble burst  on the field, they were destined to fall like a stone.

Milton Keynes had seen a number of aborted efforts to create a broadly accepted football club, but this was at non-league level and they all floundered. Wimbledon’s move to Bucks in 2003 was not the only attempt to establish football in the city – Charlton Athletic, as far back as 1973, and Luton Town, 10 years later, were all part of discussions to relocate.

AFC Wimbledon was formed in 2002, in response to the proposed Wimbledon move to MK. They climbed from the Combined Counties League to the Football league in nine seasons – a remarkable and often overlooked achievement.

Both clubs are now established and thriving. MK Dons are third in League One and have a realistic chance of promotion this season. AFC are struggling in their second season in the League but they are, at least,  back in civilisation.

It’s taken a while for MK Dons to be accepted, but they have a good ground and public support. But the bitterness runs deep and that was evident in the FA Cup game.

It also demonstrates that franchising a football club is a dangerous occupation. Football is a business but it relies on the intimate and emotional patronage of its audience. The culture, history and identity of a club is more important in football than virtually any other business.  This is not always appreciated by the plethora of foreign investors in the game or by get-rich-quick property developers. The team represents the town or city it belongs to, and that’s exactly where its audience has been built up. To discard that, like Wimbledon’s management  did, is foolhardy, cruel and a kick in the teeth for the people that helped build the club.

Franchising is a very dirty word in British football, but Wimbledon’s move some 45 miles from its spiritual home was not the first. Albeit on a shorter scale, does anyone realize that Arsenal were amongst the first to take such a bold move. They were, essentially, a south London club until 1913 – Woolwich Arsenal. That shift seemed to work out well, but today it would be met with pure and utter outrage.  Supporters – often somewhat irrationally – get bent out of shape over a stadium relocation in the same town but on the outskirts, so the sort of move made by the Dons was bound to upset the fans.

Franchising is something more akin to American sport, but it also exists in Europe, notably in Austria. It cannot be allowed to be a success in English football.  But it’s time for AFC Wimbledon fans to move on, though. They’ve vented their spleen and had their say. Be happy you’ve made a comeback and enjoy your status as a real, organically built, club….something that MK Dons will take years to credibly achieve. Try dropping the “Dons” up there in the land of featureless landscapes, that would be a start….

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