Dons fans celebrate League return but Rovers spoil party

Fan-owned Wimbledon lose on comeback and face battle to put down roots among bigger rivals

At Brighton, as Albion opened their new stadium, there were fireworks, waving flags and dancing girls.

At Kingsmeadow, as AFC Wimbledon made their Football League debut, the atmosphere was more low-key, the few festivities connected with live television coverage. Though there was enough sense of occasion to contribute to Wimbledon's nerve-ridden defeat, the atmosphere was anticipatory rather than celebratory.

There is a reason for this, and a clue came in the matchday programme. The "one, five, 10, 20 years ago" feature is a staple of such publications, gently jogging memories of where a club has come from. Few, though, illustrate such a roller-coaster past as AFC Wimbledon's.

One year ago they were in the Conference. Five years ago preparing for a season in the Ryman League. Ten years ago AFC Wimbledon did not exist, but the column referred to its predecessor, Wimbledon FC, which announced as the 2000-01 season began that it was moving to Milton Keynes. And 20 years ago? The club had just embarked on ground-sharing with Crystal Palace, leaving Plough Lane behind. Sam Hammam, the then chairman-owner, said: "I can say with my hand on my heart this is the single best thing ever to happen to Wimbledon Football Club."

That did not seem likely at the time; with hindsight it can be seen as the precursor to all the heartbreak subsequently experienced by Wimbledon fans – the poaching of their club and its relocation to Milton Keynes, the long haul up through non-League and the search for a base in Merton.

That continues, with three sites being examined at present. It is a long process and in the meantime AFC Wimbledon play in Kingston, at a ground they own, but share with Ryman League Kingstonian. They may be back in the League, but unlike Brighton do not feel they are back home geographically.

That said, how many present on Saturday actually watched the Dons play at Plough Lane? No one under 25 will remember doing so. Curiously the attendance on Saturday, 4,629, was almost identical to the gate at Wimbledon FC's opening Football League game in 1977 – a 3-3 draw with Halifax Town. Their average attendance that first season, which became a relegation struggle, was 3,139. Last season, in the Conference, AFC Wimbledon averaged 3,390.

As with the original club, there may well be periods of overachievement, for they have a promising young side backed by a flourishing youth system. But it is very hard, with the finances of the modern game, to imagine a fan-owned club like Wimbledon surviving in the Championship, especially if burdened by the cost of a new ground.

For now, though, Dons fans can savour being back in the League, playing clubs like Plymouth, Bradford and Bristol Rovers. On Saturday the latter took advantage of errors to take a 2-0 lead through Scott McGleish and Matt Harrold.

Wimbledon battled back, veteran defender Jamie Stuart scoring AFC's first League goal. Charles Ademeno, signed from Grimsby this summer, then levelled. But, unlike at Brighton, there was no fairy-tale finish. Instead it was Rovers who scored the late winner, Adam Virgo converting from the penalty spot after Brett Johnson's unnecessary handball.

Goals: AFC Wimbledon Stuart 40, Ademeno 67; Bristol Rovers McGleish 17, Harrold 19, Virgo pen 85.

AFC Wimbledon: (4-1-2-1-2) S Brown; Hatton, Stuart, Johnson, Gwillim (Bush, 80); Porter (Minshull, 62); Wellard, Yussuff; L Moore; Midson, Jolley (Ademeno, 68). Substitutes not used Turner (gk), S Moore.

Bristol Rovers: (4-4-2) Bevan; Smith, Anthony, Virgo, L Brown; Anyinsah (Carayol, 67), Stanley, Gill, Zebroski (Lines, 52); Harrold, McGleish (Osei-Kuffour, 62). Substitutes not used Bolger, W Brown.

Referee: K Stroud (Hampshire).

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