We were off to Wembley! I had my T-shirt – royal blue with canary-coloured writing that said: “AFC Wimbledon – Football League Two Play-Off Final May 2016”. William, my son, had an away strip and his friend, whose 11th birthday it was, had a cap. It was Monday, play-off finals day, and nearly 25,000 Wimbledon fans would be at Wembley to see their team face Plymouth Argyle for a chance to be promoted to League One.
Kenneth Tynan described a contagious addiction to bullfighting as “bull fever”. I have caught football fever. I had never been able to “get” football before now, even when it was ultra-fashionable in the 1990s. But then our son became obsessed. Our neighbour, an AFC Wimbledon season-ticket holder, noticed, and offered us the use of the tickets when he and his wife were away. The current ground in Kingston is only 10 minutes away.
The story of Wimbledon’s glorious ascent though the ranks of English football is so astonishing that if you read it in a novel you’d dismiss it as a fan’s crazy wish-fulfilment fantasy. It’s impossible not to get swept up in the romance of it, the giddy see-sawing between elation and the stinging pain of defeat, the raucous spirit of the crowd, the absence of corporate avarice, and the collective will to succeed of both fans (who own the club) and players, bound together with hoops of steel. Their chief executive, Erik Samuelson, a retired accountant and lifelong supporter, gets paid one guinea a year – “because,” he said, “it sounded posher than a pound”.
AFC Wimbledon, known as the Dons, rose from the ashes after a puzzling decision 14 years ago by a Football Association-appointed panel to allow the owners to relocate the club to Milton Keynes. The former Wimbledon FC – the team that in 1988 had beaten Liverpool to win the FA Cup in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the competition – was rebadged MK Dons, to the revulsion of most fans.
In America teams are franchises. The Brooklyn Dodgers can cross the country and transmogrify into the LA Dodgers without anyone really minding. Britain is different. Football teams are tied to places and people. The plan to uproot the Dons from their south-west London home arrogantly ignored this fact. And it foolishly underestimated the ability of football fans to protest, resist and organise.
The Dons’ disenfranchised supporters might have seemed wacky fantasists. They had no sponsors, no coach and no players. But what they did have was a lot of “social capital”. They were willing to work together for the wider good.
In the summer of 2002 they held open trials on Wimbledon Common (where Julius Caesar supposedly set up camp). Re-forming with sponsorship from a video game company, they kicked off in the Combined Counties League, the lowest tier of the pyramid. Since then they have inexorably risen, being promoted through the leagues five times – an extraordinary feat.
Meanwhile, the Wimbledon story is attracting wider attention. John Green is a successful American author of young adult fiction, whose novels The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns are welcomed as representing a new strain of realist fiction for teenagers in contrast to the prevailing fashion for dystopia and fantasy. He is an intriguing figure – he once worked as a university hospital chaplain counselling dying students, and considered becoming an Episcopalian minister, but took to writing instead.
He adores English football and has sponsored a stand at AFC Wimbledon’s current ground. Two months ago he announced that he had agreed a new film project, on “the greatest underdog sports story you’ve never heard, starring a bunch of middle-aged people with absolutely no athletic talent”. That’s the fans, of course, not the players, who have talent and drive in abundance and include the forwards Lyle Taylor and Adebayo Akinfenwa, a charismatic 16-stone giant known as “the Beast”.
And on Monday, they won! Promoted to League One, where they will now meet the recently relegated MK Dons. Now they move to the next challenge, to build their own ground, back in Wimbledon. Plans are well advanced for this, and are now before the new mayor, whose full-throated support would be welcome. Come on you Dons!
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph