When the FA Cup second round draw pitted MK Dons against AFC Wimbledon, Karl Robinson, the League One club's manager, admitted he "danced around the room".The reaction in south-west London was not so positive. They hoped against hope that replays would render the draw irrelevant, and when they did not, they shut their eyes and thought about the money.
With their first-round replay against York televised merely because of the fixture it might set up, AFC should clear £150,000. For a fan-run club working to a very tight budget, that cash might just ensure one of football's most romantic stories does not have a very unhappy ending.
AFC Wimbledon, as football fans across the world now know, are the club formed by furious fans a decade ago after an independent Football Association panel inexplicably allowed Wimbledon's owners to move the club 56 miles to Milton Keynes. Beginning with trials on Wimbledon Common, where the original club played in the 19th century, the supporters embarked on an incredible adventure featuring five promotions in nine years before reclaiming a place in the Football League 18 months ago. As he went to take the decisive penalty in the Conference play-off shoot-out, Danny Kedwell turned to his team-mates and said: "This is our time". It was.
Life in the league has, though, been tough. Terry Brown, who oversaw three promotions, was sacked and replaced as manager by former Wimbledon player Neal Ardley, fresh from running Cardiff City's academy and now embarked on a steep learning curve. As if the relegation battle was not enough, he has had this tie dumped in his lap. There is much pride at stake but he is acutely aware that, on form, his team could get hammered.
To give an indication of the constraints Ardley is working under, he cannot pick his starting XI until this evening. That is because several of his players, including former Wimbledon team-mate Neil Sullivan, the goalkeeper, are on loan and their parent clubs do not want them Cup-tied. So Ardley must wait to see who is knocked out, then call the relevant manager and say: "Sorry about your result today... but can I now use your player?"
Adversity is, though, just something to be overcome at AFC Wimbledon. As significant as tomorrow's tie is, it is not as important as next week's match against Barnet. Wimbledon sit just above the relegation places in League Two: Barnet and Aldershot occupy them. "Barnet is a more important game," said chairman Erik Samuelson. "If we are going to move to a new stadium [the club has designs on a site next door to Plough Lane, which became housing] we need to be in the Football League."
"The league is massive," said Ardley. So much so that winning to him means primarily the prospect of a money-spinning third-round tie which would further enable him to strengthen the squad next month. Or so he says. In reality Ardley is as steeped in Dons lore as any of the fans and he appreciates the unique nature of the game. He joined the club at 11, made his debut at Plough Lane, and endured the gruesome season when the club was torn apart and home games marked by protests and empty seats. "What happened was wrong; it was a terrible thing," he said.
While Wimbledon's board have turned down MK's hospitality and those that attend will be in the away end, Ardley said he will be "professional". He will shake Robinson's hand. But he is annoyed when people say he played for MK Dons rather than Wimbledon, he has not visited stadium:mk to scout the opposition, and he would never accept a job at the club were it offered. "Sometimes you have to think there is more to life than money," he said. "This club is my club, it gave me my first chance. There are principles in life."
If Ardley's main concern is to avoid a drubbing, his chairman's worries revolve around the fans. "This stirs deeply held emotions," he said. "We have reminded the fans how important it is we represent ourselves in the best possible way. We have a very good reputation but it is easy to lose that."
Samuelson has done his best to bite his tongue at some of the crass comments of his opposite number Pete Winkelman, such as that MK is the "real" Wimbledon, but betrayed his feelings when asked about the "Dons" appellation. "One view is that their continuing to use it is an insult, the other is that it is a reminder of their sordid origins," he said.
Winkelman admitted this week he made mistakes, and once confessed he would never have become involved if he had foreseen the furore. Was it worth it? MK's gates average less than 10,000, the last published results reveal the club lost £1.7m and were £9.7m in debt. The parent company made a small profit, but were also in debt. MK have a thriving community and youth scheme, but it is hardly a success story. Could not Winkelman instead have emulated Crawley, or Stevenage?
AFC, meanwhile, have a fan-owned club and have had some happy times in the last few years, but budgets are tight and there are just as many painful memories. Those will resurface tomorrow. Many fans are boycotting the match, watching instead at their Kingsmeadow ground, but 3,000 will travel, some in de-contamination suits. Robinson and the TV nation may be savouring the tie, but for most AFC fans it is a match to be endured, then forgotten.
Tale of three clubs: Wimbledon timeline
1889 Wimbledon Old Central founded, playing on Wimbledon Common, changing in pub
1905-12 Club folds, reforms, settles at Plough Lane with name Wimbledon
1977 Joins Football League
1986 Reaches top flight
1988 Wins FA Cup
1991 Crystal Palace ground share
1999 Gates peak at 18,235; pay £7.5m for John Hartson
2000 Relegated to second tier; gates drop to 7,897
August 2001 Club announces plan to move to Milton Keynes
May 2002 Independent panel gives permission to relocate
June 2003 Wimbledon enter administration
June 2002 AFC Wimbledon founded by fans of Wimbledon as a supporter-owned trust. Trials held on Wimbledon Common. Club joins Combined Counties League (Premier Division), the ninth tier of the professional game. Ground-share with Kingstonian, in Kingston-upon-Thames.
June 2003 Buys Kingstonian’s ground from the landlord for £3m.
2004 Complete UK record 78 league matches unbeaten.
2011 After five promotions in nine seasons enter Football League, average gate 3,390, that rises to 4,294 last season
September 2003 Move to Milton Keynes, play at National Hockey Stadium
May-June 2004 Relegated to third tier, come out of administration, rebranded Milton Keynes Dons
2006 Relegated to fourth tier (League Two)
2006 MK Dons agree to transfer trophies and honours won by Wimbledon to Merton council
2007 Move to stadium:mk, current capacity 21,189
2008 Promoted to League One. Gates average 10,551 as they reach play-offs the following season
2011 Lose in play-offs for third time; gates average 8,659
Where are ex-Dons now?
Sam Hamman Self-styled 'father' of Wimbledon, becoming owner in 1981. Later sold Plough Lane, then the club, for more £30m combined. Subsequently bought and sold Cardiff City.
Charles Koppel Chairman when Wimbledon agreed move to Milton Keynes. No longer involved in football but claims to still receive death threats. Now businessman with interests in Argentine and South African mines.
Kjell Inge Rokke Co-owner with fellow Norwegian businessman Bjorn Rune Gjelsten when Wimbledon moved. Now key investor in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Norwegian champions Molde, funding new stadium.
Terry Burton Wimbledon manager when re-location decided. Sacked for backing supporters. Now reserves and head development coach at Arsenal.
Kris Stewart AFC's founding chairman and a key figure in its formation. Stood down in 2006 exhausted but has recently been re-elected to Dons Trust Board.
Glenn Mulcaire Scored AFC's first goal, at Bromley. Better known now as private eye jailed in connection with News of the World phone-hacking of the royal family. Facing more charges.Reuse content