Luton and Wimbledon look to rejoin League united by a sense of injustice

Today's Conference play-off final at Eastlands brings together two clubs with proud traditions who are bitter about their controversial loss of status. Glenn Moore reports
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Manchester has partied all week, but neither City nor United's celebrations are likely to be as heartfelt as those of the club which wins today's match at the FA Cup holders' home.

AFC Wimbledon and Luton Town, two clubs united by a sense of injustice, meet at Eastlands seeking to regain the Football League status each feel was wrongly taken from them.

The Wimbledon story is well-documented, though no less compelling for that. To recap, the original club, having climbed from non-League to the top flight, and won the FA Cup in 1988, were bought and moved despite fan protests to Milton Keynes in 2003. "Franchise FC" subsequently became MK Dons, who lost in the League One play-offs on Thursday, but from the ashes rose AFC Wimbledon. Founded, owned and run by supporters, they began with public trials on Wimbledon Common, where the original club started in 1889. The trials threw up several members of a squad that began life in the Combined Counties League, the game's ninth tier. Four promotions later they are on the brink of a return to the League.

The fans remain angry that the game's authorities permitted MK Dons to form, but are proud, in chairman Erik Samuelson's words, "that we have taken that anger and have turned it into something positive and fantastic, rather than wallow in schadenfreude against the other lot. When the FA commission allowed the move they said the 'creation of a new club [by fans] would not be in the wider interests of football'. Who in hell says so?"

They are bitter in Luton too, at the two seasons' of points deductions, 10, then 30, that forced successive relegations upon a club which was in the Championship as recently as 2007. The latter deduction, claimed managing director Gary Sweet pointedly last week, included 10 points for similar offences to those allegedly committed this season by QPR, who were merely fined.

Like AFC Wimbledon, Luton fans channelled their anger into action. The club is now run by a consortium formed by a group of supporters and attendances, at an average of 6,242, dwarf the rest of the Conference and better all but three in League Two.

"We are a Football League club," said chairman Nick Owen. "We have had two enjoyable years in the Conference, going to new places, meeting new people, but we are desperate to get back up."

Owen is best-known as a television presenter. He now fronts the BBC's Midlands Today magazine programme and includes ITV's 1990 World Cup coverage and TV-am in his resume. His first love, however, is Luton Town. He was at boarding school when they played in their only FA Cup final, in 1959, and remembers watching the second half of their defeat to Nottingham Forest on the headmaster's television. Babysitting duties meant he had to follow events at Maine Road in 1983, when David Pleat danced a jig across the turf in his cream slip-on shoes as Luton stayed up in the old First Division, on the radio, but he did get to Wembley when the Hatters won the 1988 Littlewoods Cup, and the FA Cup semi-finals of that year and 1985.

All golden days for the Bedfordshire club, but none of those encounters were as important, in Owen's view, as today's. "It is the biggest game in our history," he said. "A cup final is a big day, but if you lose it is not life-changing. It is hard to over-estimate how important this match is."

At Kingsmeadow, in Kingston, where AFC are based while they continue to pursue a return to Wimbledon, there is not quite the same sense of desperation. "It would be a dreadful blow not to win," said Samuelson, "but we are in it for the long haul. We are a stable club, financially sound. While it would wreck the summer it won't change the bigger picture of where we are going. We will get promoted [at some stage] and right the wrong done to us."

Nevertheless, both clubs recognise that the chance may not come again immediately. Exeter City, defeated finalists in 2007, went up the following year but the other losing finalists in the last five years remain non-League.

It is a tough league to escape. Most Conference teams are now full-time, many are ex-Football League, and several are well-funded. Samuelson will not name names, but Crawley are one of the sides he was referring to when he said: "The wage bill at this level – and without revealing ours I can tell you three weeks of Wayne Rooney's wages would cover it – is such that a moderately wealthy investor can distort the structure. We will actually be better placed to compete if we go up because every League Two club receives £600,000 from the Football League, so there is more equality."

As he sits at Manchester City's ground today, Samuelson may reflect that it is not much different in the top flight, but the issue does present a problem for clubs like Luton and Wimbledon who seek to balance budgets and live free of debt.

Finance is also a topic among fans, in particular the cost of tickets for a match some distance from both clubs. The only concessions were in the "cheap" section (£36 plus add-ons). Those 7,000 sold out quickly meaning all remaining tickets were £41, plus £3 booking fee and £2.25 postage. Neither club are happy and despite some club-subsidised coach travel the ground is likely to be half-empty. The attendance, though, will be close to the 25,963 who watched these teams in an FA Cup semi-final at White Hart Lane 23 years ago. Both were then in the top flight. Football is more popular now, but the level of support the clubs command despite their lowly status is nevertheless impressive.

Luton start narrow favourites, largely because their more experienced team beat Wimbledon 3-0 at home in the league and drew at Kingsmeadow, but the Dons finished six points clear and their young team is confident – "I see no fear in their eyes," said manager Terry Brown, a veteran of the non-League scene.

Gary Brabin is Luton manager; such is the sense of urgency at Kenilworth Road that Richard Money, former player-turned-manager, left the club in March when they were third in the table, apparently by genuine mutual consent. Brabin, who managed the Cambridge United team beaten in the 2009 play-off final, took over and while there was no catching Crawley, performances have improved. Among his staff are Dmitri Kharine, the Russian who was once between the sticks at Chelsea, and Alan Neilson, a player with Newcastle, Southampton and Fulham.

Wimbledon's staff include reserve-team manager Marcus Gayle, who played more than 200 Premier League games for the original club. While he represents the Wombles' heritage, Owen has invited four members of the 1959 FA Cup final team to join him at the game. Today, however, is about moving forward as two clubs seek to consign the wrongs of the past to history.

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