Your Dons say: Time to talk about THAT game

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DONS columnist Dominic Damesick predicts an MK win on Sunday. In more ways than one.

It finally seems pertinent to write about THAT game. Sunday brings the paradoxical nature of my football support into sharp focus. I would consider myself to have only ever truly supported one team, but at the same time would call myself a former Wimbledon FC supporter.

I feel I have always supported the same club, but support a different club now to when I began my footballing journey. Go figure! I would imagine the more reasoned amongst the AFC fanbase would be aware that they, too, face the same paradox.

From my perspective, Milton Keynes Dons will always have, at its very core, Wimbledon FC. It is inextricably integrated into its very being; into its DNA. Milton Keynes provided a vessel, a shell, for the core of Wimbledon FC to live on within, and I always strongly felt that it was preferable for Dons to live on in some form, than to wither away to nothing.

The many detractors of MK Dons cannot have it all ways – they criticise MK Dons for abandoning Wimbledon’s identity, then lambast them for keeping the Dons as part of their name. For the record, I believe it is imperative that the ‘Dons’ part of the name stays, giving the football club a name that truly represents all its aspects: its past; its present; and its future. For those who ask what the word ‘Dons’ has to do with this football team, MK Dons have an inextricable link to Wimbledon FC, like it or not, and that is reflected in the name. It’s quite a simple concept really!

Despite their reputation and assumed position as media darlings, I have long harboured a sense of disappointment towards AFC Wimbledon fans, which stems from the manner in which their club was formed. The independent FA appointed panel gave clearance for any potential move to Milton Keynes on May 28 2002. AFC Wimbledon was formed within days of that announcement.

This might seem unproblematic at first glance, and those behind the creation of AFC have pointed out that the commission’s decision could not be appealed and that they needed to ensure they had a football club to watch for the 2002/03 season. Yet, the fact of the matter was that Wimbledon FC had not moved when AFC Wimbledon was created, and was under no obligation to do so. The commission’s decision simply gave the club permission to move, it did not require it to do so.

True, it appeared Wimbledon FC had been sent to the gallows, but this was not sufficient excuse to abandon the club – at this point the decision to walk away (for those who believed that moving the football club to Milton Keynes was unacceptable) was a choice, not a compulsion. If an innocent man is given the death sentence, his supporters should not stop fighting for his survival, but must defend his cause until he draws his last breath. The fans behind the creation of AFC Wimbledon, and supported it from its inception, did not do this.

They jumped the gun, and betrayed their football club in its ultimate hour of need. They were not there to hold its hand as it died, or to try against all the odds to keep it alive, but were down the road, pursuing new adventures, leaving their former love to waste away. Wimbledon FC did not move to Milton Keynes until September 2003 – over a year after AFC Wimbledon was formed.

When Wimbledon Football Club entered administration, seven weeks before it moved to Milton Keynes, WISA should have been at the forefront of organising an audacious, desperate bid to buy the club. It probably would have failed, but there would have been no shame in that. If they did not have the finances, then their outrage seems misguided.

For a group who so often referred to Wimbledon as ‘their club’, WISA made scant effort to make such rhetoric an actuality. Instead, their resources and members could be found at a new football club – akin to asking a new partner to move in before the other has even had time to collect their things and move out.

The logical conclusion would be that WISA would rather have seen Wimbledon die at Selhurst Park, then find a means of existing elsewhere, which seems an unwholesomely self-interested perspective to take. Indeed, if this had occurred, it would only have resulted in the creation of AFC Wimbledon, or some other alternative, to fill the void (or the continuation of AFC Wimbledon, given that they had been created in anticipation of Wimbledon’s demise, rather than at the occurrence of it).

Yet, instead what happened, is that Wimbledon was able to survive in another form – through a reincarnation – bringing joy to some original Wimbledon supporters, and to new fans too. The charge has often been made that those fans who followed the club up the M1 to Milton Keynes were the ones who betrayed the football club, but my conscience may just be clear on this one: I was there for the last full season Wimbledon spent in south London; I was at the last game Wimbledon FC played at Selhurst Park; and I was there for the last game Wimbledon Football Club played under that name. Where were those who abandoned Wimbledon FC on May 28 2002? Supporting a new club: that, of course, being what AFC Wimbledon is – a new club.

How AFC Wimbledon can be a continuation of something that still existed when it was formed is beyond my powers of logic. AFC Wimbledon fans can argue, with some credibility, that their original football club was ripped away from its roots and died a tragic death, but they cannot argue that they fought for its survival until the very last.

Pete Winkelman, the man who moved Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes, is at the heart of all the controversy which will surround this match. The MK Dons chairman has endured relentless abuse and vitriol over the years, but has always maintained a sense of dignity – a comment I am sure some football fans will find deeply ironic, but one that is nevertheless true. Winkelman is in many ways, though, a red herring, in any investigation of what caused the demise of Wimbledon FC.

Winkelman approached Wimbledon regarding a potential move to Buckinghamshire. He is thought to have done this with other football clubs over the years – Luton Town and QPR among them – but had been knocked back by all potential suitors. Yet, he succeeded in wooing the owners of Wimbledon and, eventually, the independent commission.

The manner in which he managed to do this is complex, and Winkelman does certainly not emerge from it spotless, but in essence the reason he was able to move the football club to Milton Keynes is that he offered Wimbledon FC a stadium, and a future as a sustainable football league club – the two things it could not find in south west London.

Winkelman had no loyalty to the fanbase or identity of Wimbledon FC – the club was just an integral cog in a long-term business strategy. This is the charge often levelled at the MK Dons chairman, and it is one that seems mostly accurate. Yet, this does not make the Dons’ chairman any more of a villain that dozens of his counterparts up and down the country.

While it might be romantic to think that all chairmen have a football club’s best interests at heart, the truth is that many of these figures are shrewd businessmen – rational, calculating and financially driven. For the Norwegians who owned Wimbledon FC, and for the MK stadium consortium, moving the club to Milton Keynes made business sense – morality or sentimentality did not enter the equation.

Levelling accusations at Winkelman that Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes was a property deal, or that he did not care about the fans in south west London, seems obvious rather than scandalous. Of course Winkelman wanted to see returns for his investment, and of course he put his financial interests above the concerns of some disillusioned supporters 60 miles south of Milton Keynes.

Does that make him a monster? No. It makes him a businessman, and an astute one at that. And, in the football world of today, having financial motivation and a business strategy is hardly worthy of pariah status: it is pretty much the norm.

This Sunday, AFC Wimbledon fans will descend upon Milton Keynes en masse. One cannot help but feel that their actions border on the hypocritical. There are fans of AFC Wimbledon who called for other clubs’ supporters to boycott MK Dons fixtures; who have refused to recognise the existence of MK Dons; who have condemned the Milton Keynes project at every opportunity.

Yet, at the first opportunity, the first time when their moralising rhetoric required them to ‘put their money where their mouth is’, those fans have abandoned what they purported to believe in so fervently, and will attend this football match.

In the process they will: not boycott as they asked others to do; recognise the existence of MK Dons which they have long denied; and legitimise the Milton Keynes project by contributing to its resources. Moral posturing is easy when it does not affect the individual directly, but when it does such morals are put to the test – a test that over 2,000 AFC Wimbledon fans would seem to have failed.

Of course, one could argue that AFC Wimbledon fans are just going to the game to support their club, and principles and morals do not need to enter the equation: this is just a football match after all.

Yet, this argument rings hollow, given that many AFC Wimbledon fans have spent the last decade spewing out holier-than-thou diatribes, advising other football fans on what to do to have a clear conscience, and championing their superiority over ‘customers’ of MK Dons.

Indeed, true to form, despite having managed to undermine many of their long-standing principles, sections of the AFC Wimbledon community who are attending the game continue to try and assume the high-ground, by proudly stating that they will refuse hospitality from Winkelman; and will spend no money at stadium:mk or the surrounding outlets. What a completely futile piece of moral posturing.

It is akin to selling one’s soul to the devil, and then refusing to buy anything from the gift shop in Hell. (Note: I am not calling Mr Winkelman the devil, but am led to believe this is how he is perceived by my wombling cousins). At best, such logic is misguided and paradoxical; at worst it is hypocritical and manipulative.

It will be interesting to see what criticisms are levelled at MK Dons supporters by those AFC Wimbledon fans who attend the game on Sunday in the aftermath of the match. How could they condemn an MK Dons supporter once they have committed the same ‘cardinal sin’ as them, and supported (in a financial sense) a football franchise?

Still, I would not expect AFC Wimbledon fans to understand: they abandoned their club in 2002 to set up an idealistic football model, and 10 years later are now abandoning those ideals. I anticipate a victory for MK Dons on Sunday, both on and off the pitch.