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Dec 1, 2012

Delicate balance of past and present

On a rainy afternoon at a modest sports ground in suburban Greater London, representatives of the world's media - from France, Norway and beyond - are gathered in a cramped pavilion to discuss and preview an FA Cup tie between a third-tier and fourth-tier side.

If it sounds like a strange situation, that's because it is. League Two AFC Wimbledon travel to meet League One's Milton Keynes Dons for the first time on Sunday since the creation of the former. It is a match that everyone wants to see - apart from perhaps the clubs themselves.

When an independent panel convened by the FA decided in May 2002 that Wimbledon should be allowed to move 70 miles north to Milton Keynes, the vast majority of the club's supporters resolved to form AFC Wimbledon, keeping football in their community. The phoenix club have risen from virtual park football to Football League in under a decade but the hurt is still raw, while most MK fans still feel their club is unfairly bequeathed pariah status.

So the wider interest in a tie without precedent is clear. When Wimbledon manager Neal Ardley holds court in his small office, he stands behind his desk with a dozen journalists squeezed in around it. "It's just my luck it is two months into my job," he smiles ruefully.

On the other hand, Ardley is the best man to understand and explain the transition between eras and the strong feelings the match evokes, having been in his last of eleven seasons as a Wimbledon player when the club's directors announced its intention to move in 2001-02, a season overshadowed by relentless protest on the terraces.

"We probably felt at the time it probably hindered our play-off bid that year," he remembers, "because things were so tough around the place. We were praying and hoping something like that wouldn't go ahead and it did. Out of a terrible situation came a story here, with AFC Wimbledon being founded, and what a remarkable 10 years this has been. There is a gulf between the teams on the pitch at the moment, but what these guys have achieved off the pitch is nothing short of remarkable."

That gulf, in all the talk of what the match's ideological significance is, has perhaps been overlooked a touch. The home side are heavy favourites, particularly given the respective teams' recent league form. Ardley is candid and clear-headed enough to separate the political and the sporting, and freely admits that he admires the system implemented by MK boss Karl Robinson.

"The football they've been playing is the kind of football I've been trying to get played since I worked at academy level," he says. "It needs a lot of bravery. A lot of work from the coaching staff, a lot of patience. It's pleasing on the eye, a lot of rotation, a lot of movement, a lot of technical ability."

Ardley knows that it will take time for his own side to reach that stage. "I like to play, but I'm a realist," he says. "I know we're in a big fight in the league and we need to get out of that. Eventually if I am here long enough, I might be able to change things a little bit. I'm not stupid enough to think I can come here and quickly change it."

If Ardley is brutally realistic, it is because he has to be. He is bedding into a first senior post after five years in charge of Cardiff City's academy, and coming to terms with a team struggling near the bottom of League Two on one of the division's lowest budgets. He admits his starting line-up for the FA Cup tie is up in the air, as he negotiates the availability of his six loan players with their parent clubs.

Bluntly, if Wimbledon are to retain their democratic, fan-based operational ethos, money has to be found from somewhere. TV money for example, which will be gleaned from Sunday's clash and - Ardley hopes - any subsequent third round tie. "For the club, if you can get a big tie, financially, wow," he adds. "And that might just be the difference between being able to bring in one or two players in January, maybe, that could make the difference to the league. So you can't underestimate the thought of that."

There is, however, unmistakable frustration at misconceptions of the clubs' respective identities, which could be cleared up by the publicity surrounding the game. Robbie Earle recently complained that he is listed on some statistical sites as a former MK Dons player, and Ardley concurs: "That eats away at me because I never played for them. It's more the fact that Wikipedia or whatever, when you look at it, it shows you have made 300 appearances for MK Dons. But no, I didn't."

None of the current playing staff are in any doubt over matters of club identity. "Just playing for Wimbledon," says striker Jack Midson, "you feel part of the history. Looking at all the calls we've had, the messages we've got on Twitter, and all the media that are here today, it just sinks in what a big game it is not just for us, but for the history of football."

The 29-year-old is keen to stress that his team needs to cut off from the outside clamour and deal with the on-pitch reality, but acknowledges that's only possible to a certain degree. "I've had random people come up to me and say good luck for the weekend," he smiles, "and coming back on the train from the Morecambe game (the most recent league match), other football fans all saying they want us to do well."

Midson is also the club's penalty taker. What if he was called to take a spot-kick with, say, five minutes to go, with the scores level? "It is added pressure, but I'll embrace that pressure... and I've got in my head where I'm putting the ball anyway," grins the former tennis coach. The ultimate Wimbledon cliché underlining the continuity of the area's football community might just be the perfect twist to this peculiar meeting.

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