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May 20, 2011

Injustice drives play-off hopefuls

There is a wonderful circularity about Saturday's Conference play-off final between AFC Wimbledon and Luton Town. The two sides met in what was a first match in this division for both in August 2009, playing out a 1-1 draw at Kingsmeadow. For one of the pair, the fourth meeting between the clubs since then will also represent a joyful exit from English football's fifth tier and into the Football League.

It is the organisers' dream tie between two of the biggest clubs in the division; something those organisers have not been slow to take advantage of, with the cheapest ticket price for the game at the City of Manchester Stadium an eye-watering £36 before administration charges. While that may be beyond the pale, it remains slightly bizarre to see these two names at this level.

It was 23 years ago in April that the two then-top-flight sides met in an FA Cup semi-final at White Hart Lane. Luton had already beaten Arsenal to land the League Cup, but Dennis Wise's late winner for the Dons gave Wimbledon the opportunity to go on and complete one of the biggest shocks in the competition's history - beating the omnipotent Liverpool in the Wembley final. The late '80s were halcyon days for Wimbledon and Luton, with both fixtures in the top half of England's top division.

Inevitable though toppling from so lofty a perch may have been for such a modest duo, the steepness of their decline has taken serious adjustment for both sets of fans. Luton were a Championship club as recently as 2007, with an ignominious slide quickened as the club began 2008-09 with a huge 30-point handicap, as punishment for the financial mismanagement of previous regimes. AFC Wimbledon's upward trajectory following the club's 2002 genesis - while the carcass of the legal entity of Wimbledon FC remains in League One as Milton Keynes Dons - is well documented. The two clubs that meet on Saturday were five divisions apart just four years ago.

A mutual sense of injustice at their treatment at the hands of the football authorities unites the clubs today, rather than the regrettable incident in that 2009 meeting at Kingsmeadow when Wimbledon mascot Haydon the Womble had his head swept off by a well-oiled visiting supporter. The disenfranchised Wimbledon fans that took the bull by the horns have not forgotten the FA's infamous quote that AFCW's formation after the Milton Keynes move was "not in the wider interests of the game." Luton chairman Nick Owen and managing director Gary Sweet, meanwhile, have both been outspoken critics of the governing body's lack of recognition of their efforts to put the club on the straight and narrow.

This game is a huge deal on the road to recovery. Victory is estimated to be worth £1 million. Five players from each side were included in the initial 40-man England C squad to face Portugal's Under-23s at Northampton this week before being pulled out to protect them for the final, underlining that club versus country is not an ethical debate in the Premier League alone.

If anyone was in any doubt that Wimbledon and Luton (who finished 2nd and 3rd in the regular season standings) should be the two to contest the pot of gold at the City of Manchester Stadium, then the semi-finals would have cleared that up. The Hatters dispatched Wrexham 5-1 on aggregate, while Terry Brown's side hammered Fleetwood Town 8-1 over two legs.

Despite the minor disparity in statistics Luton arrive in Manchester as marginal favourites. The Kenilworth Road club have a well-established professional structure, while the Dons having turned full-time just last summer. With that in mind, Wimbledon's very presence in Manchester is a minor miracle. Of the XI that started the second leg demolition of Fleetwood, only four had Football League experience with just 49 appearances between them - with former Northampton defender Brett Johnson accounting for 26 of those. Manager Terry Brown has confessed that he tends to sign young players who still live at home, as the Dons' budget struggles to "pay married men a living wage".

The controversial manner of Luton's descent to this level makes them a freak in Conference terms. Taking the draconian points deduction out of the equation, Luton would have finished 2008-09 in a comfortable enough 15th spot in League Two. Whereas those relegated from the Football League are normally catastrophically run clubs that topple into the fifth tier after long, miserable struggles (Chester, York), Luton began their non-league career in relatively decent shape, despite affecting a necessary 80% cut of their wage bill in the year preceding demotion.

Hence the expectation at Luton is that bit higher. The thought of another season at this level prompted the board to fire Richard Money at the end of March after 17 months in charge, with well-funded Crawley Town already streaking away at the head of the table. They certainly have a man with experience for the current situation now, with Money's replacement Gary Brabin having led Cambridge to the 2009 play-off final against Torquay. Opposite number Brown, like Brabin, has fallen at the last hurdle before, losing out on penalties to Shrewsbury with Aldershot in 2004.

Certainly a decent spectacle is in prospect, with the two sides already having scored 168 goals between them in the regular season. Brown has said he feels his side's passing game will thrive on the expansive Eastlands pitch, something Brabin believes that the likes of Claude Gnakpa and Alex Lawless can also make capital of.

If anything, the presence of the pair in the final adds weight to the argument that the two-up, two-down system of relegation and promotion between League Two and the Conference should be expanded, or even that the lower tier should be recognised as the "Third Division," as Brabin has suggested. It is clear, however, that both clubs' supporters have bright futures ahead of them after going through the mill in recent years.

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