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Blog - ESPN FC United

Dons vs. Dons: Does anybody win?

When the football fans from Wimbledon, U.K., travel 58 miles (93 kilometers) to the city of Milton Keynes to watch the current Wimbledon football club, AFC Wimbledon, play the former Wimbledon football club, MK Dons (ne Wimbledon FC), in a second-round FA Cup match this Sunday afternoon, they will do so angrily and reluctantly. Much of this emotion stems from a nickname-sharing arrangement that AFC's supporters never co-signed.

The MK Dons, founded in 2004, call themselves Dons because for more than 100 years the team was located in Wimbledon, and that's what people in Wimbledon call whichever football club plays in their town. It's what they used to call Wimbledon FC, and it's what they currently call AFC Wimbledon: the Dons, derived from "Wimbledon."

The MK Dons no longer play in Wimbledon. They haven't for a decade. But the team, which plays in Milton Keynes, regards its continued use of the Dons nickname as a nod to the club's history. To AFC fans, their opponent’s use of the Dons nickname is a reminder that 10 years ago, an ownership group in Milton Keynes stretched a long arm down to their town and, as Wimbledon fans see it, burgled a financially vulnerable team that had nevertheless played in and represented Wimbledon for more than a century.

Though the team was no more stolen from Wimbledon than the Sonics were from Seattle (make of that what you will), the relocation was perceived as a disgusting affront to the traditions and etiquette of English football. It was a theft in spirit. And it left the relocated team with a geographically illogical nickname that it has been loath to abandon. Now AFC Wimbledon, a grassroots "phoenix club" formed in the wake of Wimbledon FC's departure, has to travel to Milton Keynes to play the MK Dons (ne Wimbledon FC) in a game of football.

The subtext of the match is that it's an implicit acknowledgement of the Milton Keynes side as a real football club, that the team's owners were successful in their sacrilegious quest to acquire an established football team in one of the top levels of English football rather than develop one from the ground up. AFC Wimbledon's supporters will have to revisit all the emotions associated with the loss of the team they loved, and they will have to do so while seeing their own nickname embroidered on the scarves of opposing fans.

Come this Sunday, the Dons will face The Dons.

"The nickname is a beacon of the theft of our team and the idea of franchise football into the English leagues," says Simon Wheeler, the chairman of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association. "This match is not something I wanted to happen."

---

Wimbledon Common is the name of the 1,140-acre park that sits in the heart of its namesake town. Its eastern border is a tree-lined street called Parkside, the right edge of which touches the front yards of the types of homes you'd expect to find along what was two years ago Britain's most expensive street. The Pope stays there whenever he swings through England.

Intersecting Parkside to the east is Somerset Road, a winding route that brings travelers to the picturesque fences surrounding the presumably more picturesque All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which hosts the tennis grand slam that borrows its host city's name. Near the southeast corner of the Common is a street called The Causeway. It runs across the park's patchy grass to Camp Road, one of the small roads that form an intra-park loop. Along Camp is The Study, a private girls' elementary school that causes a knot of traffic when classes end and parents flood the streets with SUVs. In another life and century, part of the Study was Old Central School, a grade school that graduated the players who would form the Wimbledon Old Central Football Club in 1889. Sixteen years later, the team dropped the "Old Central" to become Wimbledon FC, the name it would play under for the next 97 years, from 1905 to 2002.

On the same block as The Study is The Fox & Grapes, a sleek, if not soulless, gastropub (their word, not mine) that until a mid-2000s renovation was a neighborhood watering hole. At the start of the 20th century, Wimbledon FC used The Fox & Grapes, which sits just down the street from the Common, for its locker room.

At the start of the 21st century -- May 28, 2002, specifically -- a cohort of Wimbledon FC fans gathered there, as they had innumerable times before, but this time draped in uncharacteristic dourness. They had just come from the London offices of the Football Association, where they confirmed news from earlier in the day that their cash-strapped football club was being sold by its owners and relocated to Milton Keynes. The lot of them got sensationally drunk. Some revisited an ongoing debate, dating back to the first hints of a possible relocation, about the viability of launching a new club.

Two days later, on May 30, 2002, those fans joined many others in the Wimbledon Community Center, a faded white two-story building roughly a mile southeast of the Common. It was the annual meeting of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association, a seven-year-old fan club/advocacy group. The timing was coincidental; the meeting had always been scheduled for that day. But the week's happenings drew a capacity crowd, with fans standing on furniture just to fit in the room.

Everyone was reeling. Over the span of more than a century, Wimbledon FC had grown from a negligible semi-pro team to become "The Crazy Gang," one of the most buzzworthy clubs in English football. They reached the top tier in 1986, upset Liverpool to win the FA Cup in 1988 and were among the teams that launched the Premier League when it was created in 1992.

The team's eventual relegation out of the top level in 2000 was upsetting but didn't change the fact that it, the football club from Wimbledon, was on a hell of a run. That such an extreme high could so quickly have caved into an emotional abyss was unfathomable.

Then Kris Stewart, at the time the 35-year-old chairman of WISA, took the floor. Stewart is a commanding presence -- he’s fond of the way The Observer columnist Will Buckley described him as a "genial semi-bear of a man" -- and fueled by weariness from protests and bitterness from looming betrayal, he looked out into the crowd and launched a phrase that would become a rallying cry.

"I just want to watch some football."

Stewart wasn't saying he wanted to watch a team that would one day set the English football record for the longest undefeated streak. Nor did he expect to watch a team rise through the ranks of English football at an unprecedented pace. The genial semi-bear just wanted to watch a team that belonged to Wimbledon. If he had to start that team himself, so be it.

---

Take a spin around the Internet and you can readily find renderings, location options, political support and a $700 million naming-rights deal for a proposed football stadium in Los Angeles.

What you won’t see is the name of the team that will occupy it. The project is based entirely on the belief that an opportunistic NFL owner will pluck, oh, I don’t know, the Panthers out of Charlotte and relocate them to the more desirable digs and market of Tinseltown. There's no question that some team will take advantage of this offer. Disregarding the loyalty of fans is as American as obesity.

That doesn't fly in England. The idea of franchise football -- that teams are commodities rather than extensions of their communities -- isn't just foreign to British fans; it's appalling. English football is structured in a merit-based pyramid system. The sport has more than a dozen tiers of circuits, the topmost of which is the Barclays Premier League. Below it are the other three levels -- Championship, League 1 and League 2 -- that constitute the Football League. Further down the pyramid are increasingly provincial organizations.

At the end of each season, the top teams get promoted to the next-highest level, while the basement dwellers get demoted. In a given year, there are 92 teams in the four top leagues and hundreds of others in the lesser ones.

Prior to 2002, not one of those clubs had ever been purchased and moved to a new city.

That may have remained the case had Wimbledon FC not tumbled into a financial bog common among overachieving Premier League teams: It had taken on a payroll during its top-flight years that it couldn’t sustain following a 2000 relegation. Within a year, the club was bleeding cash, and its owners, who had paid 28 million pounds for a controlling interest in the team during its mid-'90s Premier League heyday and whose revenues were limited by a disadvantageous stadium-sharing deal, were trying to salvage their investment. Way they saw it, they had two options: Declare bankruptcy or take seriously the group of investors that had come calling from the north.

Milton Keynes was founded in the 1960s after the government combined a cluster of villages to create a new urban area. By 2001, the population had quadrupled in size to roughly 200,000. Keen to develop a shopping and entertainment center with a football stadium as its centerpiece, the Walmart-like superstore chain ASDA partnered with Pete Winkelman, a local music producer, and tasked him with finding an established team to base in the venue. Winkelman reached out to a handful of clubs and asked if they'd be willing to relocate. Wimbledon FC's owners listened.

"America is a bit more grown up about the franchise system. In England it's very cultural," says Winkelman, who is now chairman of MK Dons and someone who would not get a free beer in Wimbledon. "It needed to be somebody like me, a naive outsider who had no history in football, to do the unthinkable and ask why this couldn’t happen."

The Football Association tried to prevent the move, but when legally compelled to give an objection that wasn’t merely "principle," it passed the buck to an independent three-man commission. That trio considered the evidence and, while noting that they really, really hoped it didn’t set a precedent, ruled that the bleak outlook for Wimbledon FC made relocation the best option. The move ended up being delayed by a yearlong detour through bankruptcy court, but it was nevertheless clear that that Wimbledon FC was not long for Wimbledon.

The Dons Trust already existed at that point. Comprised of supporters who paid a nominal sum for a single share, the corporation had been created in early 2002 so the supporters would have a business entity that could act if an opportunity to buy a stake in the team was presented. Following the May 30 meeting, Stewart and longtime supporter Ivor Heller incorporated the football club itself, AFC Wimbledon, and designated the shareholders trust as the legal owner.

It's a structure similar to the one that owns the Packers (though that team was founded in 1919, and in the mid-'80s the NFL changed its laws to prevent that from ever happening again). Then the organizers put out a call asking for contributions of 200 pounds. It was an arbitrary number they hoped would be reasonable enough to generate a good financial base. Within two weeks, the Dons Trust had collected 80,000 pounds.

"We had to choke back a tear when we got it all, but that's also when everything got serious," says Stewart, who was named CEO of the newborn club. "People were relying on us. We knew we had better not f--- this up."

The capital was modest but sufficient to get a lower-tier club off the ground. After registering the team with the FA, the AFC crew started addressing necessities. They needed a home. Stewart's primary concern was securing a serviceable field close enough to Wimbledon to reinforce a sense of community. That's what they found in Kingsmeadow, a stout single-grandstand stadium 10 minutes away in Kingston that holds about 4,700 fans, the majority in standing-only terraces.

For uniforms, the group turned to Wimbledon-based sportswear company Tempest Sports, which specialized in cricket, field hockey and something called netball. Tempest was happy to provide the kits. They just had to learn how to make them first.

"The initial jerseys were made out of the wrong material. They were heavy, and the collars didn’t quite work," recalls Stewart. "It was exciting to see, but we're lucky players didn't die."

Filling out the roster was one of the final steps. Once they had inked manager Terry Eames, a Wimbledon FC fullback in the '80s, an open tryout was announced for a Saturday afternoon in Wimbledon Common. Eames thought the team was winding him up when they reported 230 advanced registrations. That Saturday, despite brutal late-June heat, more than 300 players turned up.

The organizers had asked for players with a reasonable level of football experience, and the majority of prospects met the criteria -- though the combination of heat and questionable fitness resulted in an uptick of intra-park vomiting. By the end of the day, AFC Wimbledon had narrowed the field to 60 and then whittled it down further the following week. In short time the team had its first side, or something approximating it.

"You would watch some of those early players," says Charlie Talbot, a London-based comedian who was editor of the club's program, “"nd wonder if you weren't a better option yourself.”

Still, in a development that was both symbolically and financially significant, the club was able to land a six-figure jersey sponsorship deal with Sports Interactive, the maker of popular football video game Championship Manager. All that remained was to set the squad in motion. A friendly was arranged at nearby Gander Green Lane, the home of then-sixth-tier club Sutton United FC, for July 10, 2002. Lines formed an hour and a half before the start time, and kickoff was pushed back twice to give everyone time to get in.

"It was a preseason friendly between two non-League clubs, and 4,652 people showed up," says Stewart. "That's unheard of."

Mixed into the waves of Wimbledon faithful were football fans from around the country, there to show support and witness history. The AFC Wimbledon team that took the field had been together for less than two weeks. Some of the players had never met before that afternoon. Because their official jerseys weren't yet ready, the AFC side was dressed in borrowed uniforms that Sports Interactive employees wore for charity games. Throughout the game, the delirious Dons fans sang their fight song and cheered. Some cried.

When time expired, AFC Wimbledon had lost its first-ever match 4-0. Its supporters rushed the field.

---

Things went well after that first friendly. The team built on a 36-7-3 inaugural season in the low-level Combined Counties League by going undefeated in its second campaign, which continued on in a 78-match undefeated streak that lasted from February 2003 to December 2004. It remains a record for any level of English football.

Since 2002, AFC has earned five promotions in nine seasons, the most recent one following AFC's shootout victory over Luton Town in a 2011 Conference National promotion playoff match. That win was their ticket to League 2, the lowest of the four top circuits.

"When we started out, we said our expectations were to get back to League play," says Erik Samuelson, a former partner at accounting firm PWC who has served, voluntarily, as team CEO since 2006. "We didn't know if that was realistic. But this is football. You can't have reasonable expectations."

Having so far excelled at being realistic, the supporters are now trying to determine how to maintain their momentum. The promotion to League 2 entitled AFC to 600,000 pounds in revenue-sharing from a TV deal and money the Premier League gives to Football League teams, but every other club gets that cash as well and many of them have deeper coffers.

To avoid the financial hamstringing that can result from long-term contracts, the club gives competitive salaries, but the majority are one-year deals with a one-year team. Agents hate it, says Samuelson, but players get a chance to showcase themselves with the knowledge that if things sour, an out is only a season away. That strategy worked well enough for the club last season, when it finished 16th out of the 24 teams in League 2, but it is tough to keep ahead of their limitations. As of Nov. 28 they sat in 22nd place, just one spot -- and one point -- away from a relegation spot. In September, AFC fired Terry Brown, the manager who had presided over the three promotions the team had achieved since 2007. The move hasn't done much to right the ship.

So, this isn't the best time to be dredging up memories of the worst moments in the history of Wimbledon fandom. Of the litany of objections that Wimbledon supporters direct toward Milton Keynes, one of the loudest is that Winkelman & Co. didn’t just take their team; they also took their spot in The Football League.

As proud as everyone is about having proven that a team can scrap its way from nothing to League play in less than a decade, the MK Dons are still safely entrenched in a League One position that Wimbledon's football club earned. And the town isn't going to get that back either.

Which doesn't leave much upside to Sunday’s match. Advancing in the FA Cup would be nice, but no one's forecasting a 1988 redux here -- and AFC supporters certainly don't want applause from anyone involved with MK Dons.

"I can see a day that ended with an AFC win as being a horrible day with a silver lining," says Talbot, "but being confronted with apologists for the theft of our club and league place will be horrendous."

Even if the score does favor AFC when the final whistle blows, few fans will consider it a victory. Not while they're forced to revisit the past decade every time Milton Keynes' club's name is announced.

"I thought I was close to closure as a result of our success, but this draw proved I am not and that the fan base isn't either," adds Talbot. "What would help would be MK Dons dropping the 'Dons' name and abandoning any pretense that their theft was in the interest of 'preserving Wimbledon.' That would be the closest to closure we could get."

Neil Janowitz is a New York-based editor for Fast Company magazine. Previously he spent five years as an editor with ESPN The Magazine. He has written for Wired, Men's Health and the New York Times, and is co-founder of the sports-comedy production group 12 Angry Mascots (12angrymascots.com). If you're desperate to follow more people, he tweets from @neiljanwowitz.