There he stood, the Pied Piper of Milton Keynes, at the centre of a post-match throng signing autographs for kids who knew nothing of the controversial antecedents to this game. Relief more than delight was the dominant emotion. He had witnessed two pitch invasions, mercifully nothing more than harmless goal celebrations that outgrew the space behind the nets, and saw his “franchise” nick an FA Cup tie with a flicked back-heel two minutes into added time that must have felt like a double larceny to the 3,000 travelling supporters behind the opposite goal.
To the AFC Wimbledon priesthood Pete Winkleman is the devil made flesh, the man who stole their club, if not its heritage. To the citizens of Milton Keynes, he is a galvanising force binding the community through the football club. There is a generation of young fans wearing MK Dons shirts who think the club has always stood on the plot next to Asda.
They are attached to an institution that has a brilliant outreach programme in the community and in the tens of villages on the city’s perimeter. Interest in this contest was sparked for them only by a vague understanding of the shameful machinations that took place a decade ago.
They remain utterly untouched by the toxic remnants associated with the stunt that fast-tracked Milton Keynes to the upper echelons of the professional game, backed by a major investment from the American retail giant Walmart.
The blame sits with those at the Football Association who sanctioned the move. To scar the club now, as so many Wimbledon diehards are wont to do, is pointing the gun at the wrong target. Do they forget that the Scandinavian owners dropped them like a shot, Plough Lane had gone and the host borough of Merton did not want to know? Still doesn’t.
Winkleman, the entrepreneur who engineered the coup, has since expressed his regret at the way events transpired and apologised for his part in it. That, in a civilised society, ought to be enough.
When this fixture came out of the hat it provided a graphic opportunity for the governors at AFC Wimbledon to restate their case.
It remains a defining feature of their club, which to a degree is fair enough. But at some point the emphasis must shift to what they are rather than what they were. The time has come to move on. Let us hope this fixture proves the catalyst for that. At some point a football match was always going to break out. And when it did the banter flowed.Both sets of fans staked their territory with banners proclaiming respective loyalties. We are the Dons. No, we are the Dons. In truth neither is.
Ten minutes into the match a small aircraft flew low over the stadium trailing a motif which read: “We Are Wimbledon”. Indeed you are. But not the club of the Crazy Gang, not the first iteration that made Plough Lane a place football’s established elite feared to tread.
Those days are gone, laid to rest when Winkleman collected the keys and headed north of the capital with his bastard child.
On a day of biting cold the traffic around the stadium was uncharacteristically busy two hours before kick-off. Ordinarily the rush picks up only when the meatballs are served at the neighbouring IKEA or the TK Maxx store announces the delivery of a shed load of designer clobber from Burberry.
More than 16,000 braved the chill. For the most part the first half did not match the atmosphere. The ball was largely in possession of Milton Keynes. That meant little to Neil Sullivan in the Wimbledon goal, who was no more than a spectator in shorts and gloves.
The visitors made defensive organisation a priority and showed zero interest in whatever adventures might be possible across the halfway line. The price for that was a goal smashed home by Stephen Gleeson on the stroke of half-time that Cristiano Ronaldo would be proud to own. Collecting the ball 30 yards out, Gleeson detonated a right-foot shot that swerved away from the goalkeeper into the roof of the net. Sullivan could not have reached it with three hands.
The pattern continued after the break with the home side going close to a second when Dean Bowditch volleyed the wrong side of the post and into the side netting.
And then from nowhere the move of the match. Belying their status as a fourth-tier side Wimbledon carved open Milton Keynes down the right with a slick passing move started and finished by Jack Midson, who threw himself at the incoming cross to plant his diving header past former Wimbledon keeper David Martin. The goal came in front of the visiting fans, who spilled on to the pitch in celebration.
The match appreciated the goal as much as the Wimbledon supporters. From then on it never looked back. Wimbledon thought they had the game won in the last minute when Steven Gregory rifled a shot bound for the bottom corner before Martin, at full stretch, diverted it past the post.
And then came a moment of cruel beauty, Jon Otsemobor deflecting a shot over Sullivan with an instinctive flick of the heel, to book a trip to Sheffield Wednesday in the third round. Cue another pitch invasion. “It’s been a tough week, enjoyable but difficult as well. I’m tired,” said Karl Robinson, Milton Keynes’ manager. “Both teams can walk away from this stadium feeling very proud of themselves. Yes both sets of fans spilled on to the pitch, but it there was no malice in it. Just passion. I thought their fans conducted themselves very well. As did ours. We know about the criticisms surrounding this club and I know some expected trouble. It didn’t happen. Ultimately football was the winner.”
His opposite number, Neil Ardley, had no complaints. He accepted the late delivery of a just outcome with grace. “I’m proud of this club, from where it has come in the last ten years,” said Ardley. “This was a celebration of our club. I’m proud of the way we handled the week. The main thing was to have a go on the pitch and we did that.”