AFC Wimbledon: The true people's champions

A football club's journey from absolute obscurity to glory
AFC Wimbledon: The true people's champions
The emotions of the team are through the roof as AFC Wimbledon win the League 2 finalAFC Wimbledon official website

The world is gearing up for the most prestigious tennis tournament, The Championships held at Wimbledon. Over time Wimbledon has garnered the reputation of being the Tennis capital but a lot of us don’t know about its rich footballing history, too. AFC Wimbledon has been the premier football club in the area. AFC generally is an abbreviation for Athletic Football Club but in the Plough Lane stadium in southwest London, it’s referred to as ‘A Fan's Club’. AFC Wimbledon is a fan-owned club with 74.1% owned by Wimbledon Football Club Supporters Society Limited, generally known as The Dons Trust.

Today sports is dominated by money. The economics of sports has certainly taken over the fan interest and we have seen owners make decisions strictly based on money. Just a few months back, we witnessed the whole circus about the European Super League where all the top clubs from Europe came together to start their league with massive financial benefits for all the participant clubs. The European Super League clearly expresses the owner’s mindset regarding the fans. This project was called off with several fan protest across leagues around Europe. The fans are now distanced from the team they support and have to endure every bad decision taken by the ownership.

This club rose out of several protests against bad ownership who moved the club to a new location. But with only fan support, the club has risen through the ranks and reached the third division in the English Football league system. The club represents the reason why sports have any relevance in our lives. AFC Wimbledon is a symbol of community, togetherness and harmony. It keeps reminding us why we love the beautiful game so much.

The lows…

Until 2002, the said football club was called Wimbledon FC. The club rose from the lower tier of the UK football leagues and had even won the Football Association Challenge Cup (more commonly known as the FA Cup) by defeating Liverpool in the 1987-1988 season, who were the champions that season. Wimbledon FC was in the top flight of the English Football, the Premier League and was relegated to the second tier of English Football in the year 2000.

In 2001, the club announced its move to the town of Milton Keyes in Buckinghamshire which was met with a lot of protest from the Wimbledon fans. In 2002, however, the football club was permitted by the Football Association to relocate north to Milton Keynes. The club was in a financial crunch and played its first match in the new town and was renamed the Milton Keyes Dons (MK Dons). Although this move also took the Wimbledon FC's championships from the past to the new club in Milton Keyes, it wasn't accepted by the local supporters. As a result, the fans protested which lead to the town losing their club.

AFC Wimbledon's first team
AFC Wimbledon's first teamAFC Wimbledon official website

… And the highs

On 30th May 2002, a group of agitated supporters of the Wimbledon Football Club led by Kris Stewart and fellow founding members Marc Jones and Trevor Williams met in The Fox and Grapes pub at Wimbledon Common to plan the next step of the protest. As a result, they decided to start a new club and call it ‘AFC Wimbledon’. So, on 13th June 2002, a new manager, a playing strip and badge based on that of the original Wimbledon FC, and a stadium were unveiled to fans and the media at the packed-out Wimbledon Community Centre.

They held open tryouts in a public park, hired a coaching staff, rented a stadium, found a video game company to sponsor them, and began the 2002–2003 season in the ninth tier of English Football. Then in their debut season in the Combined Counties League Premier Division, they nearly missed the promotion as they ended the season in the third position. Since then they have been on the upward climb through the various divisions of English Football.

Today, AFC Wimbledon are in League One, which is the third-highest football division in the UK. This the highest promotion in the club's history. They also defeated MK Dons in 2013, chanting, “Where were you? Where were you? Where were you when you were us?” And all the supporters stood and sang, “Stand up if you own your club.” And they sang, as they always do, “Show me the way to Plough Lane.”

In 2013, John Green - a well-renowned writer and YouTuber - found out about the club. He was inspired by the club’s journey and started an online streaming series called “AFC Wimbly Wombly” where he played FIFA with AFC Wimbledon as his team of choice. His streams became very famous and then he started donating the money which he received through the Ad revenue from the streams. He then became an official sponsor of the club in 2014 with his motto of DFTBA (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome) seen on the team jerseys. In 2015, the club renamed the north stand as the John Green stand in their home stadium, The Kingsmeadow Stadium.

Excited fans cheering for AFC Wimbledon at crucial FA Cup match
Excited fans cheering for AFC Wimbledon at crucial FA Cup match AFC Wimbledon official website

The New Life

AFC Wimbledon has been in the League One division of English Football since 2016. The team had its best season in the league in their first season after promotion when they finished 15th. Since then, they have been a low-table team with finishes at the 18th position in the 2017-18 season and successive 20th position finishes in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 season. In the 2020-21 season AFC Wimbledon finished at the 19th position.

The 2020/21 season had a very special and emotional moment as the team returned to its spiritual home, the Plough Lane Stadium. The team had a very shaky start to the campaign. The season was turning out to be a disappointment as AFC Wimbledon were in the relegation zone at the start of April. The team had to part ways with Glyn Hodges after a disappointing start.

The team hired the new manager, Mark Robinson who won his first game against Wigan Athletic in February. The teenage sensation, Ayoub Assal who joined the club at the u-12 level, didn’t disappoint and repaid the faith shown by the new manager. The team had its first four consecutive game win streak since 2009. They found new winds and steadied themselves and avoided relegation. Wimbledon only lost 6 out of the 21 games under Robinson which are great signs for the future of the club.

AFC Wimbledon’s first FA Cup match at Plough Lane
AFC Wimbledon’s first FA Cup match at Plough LaneAFC Wimbledon official website

AFC Wimbledon was a decent team on offence with great performances from the team’s star striker, Joe Pidott who was the fourth-highest scorer in the league with 20 goals. The team displayed great promise in attacking from the wings and scoring directly from set-pieces but struggled a lot in finishing off chances. They also struggled in keeping possession which invariably affected their ability to protect leads.

Defensively they struggled a lot. Injuries to key defenders Luke O’Neill, Ben Heneghan and Terell Thomas dented the team’s defence which led to problems in defending set-pieces and through balls. They conceded 70 goals which were the seventh highest in the league. The new manager implemented a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation with a base of four defenders instead of a 3-5-2 used by the former manager, Glyn Hodges.

In totality, it was a very emotional season for AFC Wimbledon. The reunion with spiritual home, The Plough Lane Stadium; parting with their cult hero - Glyn Hodges and the incredible comeback towards the end of the season to avoid relegation has promised a bright future ahead. Assal has been a great find for the team and his key performances starting from March were pivotal in the comeback. The encouraging words from Mark Robinson ensure that next season is going to be very exciting for the AFC Wimbledon fans.

Unfortunately, despite Wimbledon having a rich footballing history, the world is mostly attracted towards The Championships. This dichotomy represents how tennis has taken over the identity of this town. Tennis, historically a sport of the rich and elite, represents those who have enforced their dominance and suppressed the commoners. The town is known around the world as the host of The Championships and has lost its identity of being a football-crazy town run by the common folk. In a way, AFC Wimbledon tries to end this narrative and tell the story of its people with a club that is run by its fans. It tries to sustain the town’s true identity by not allowing any singular person to own a significant stake in the club.

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