Why AFC Wimbledon are having the last laugh

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The Independent Football

As much as it troubled them to gloat over the misfortunes of others, the deserted football fans of South London could not suppress a smile or two on Tuesday evening as Wimbledon of Milton Keynes became the first Nationwide League club to be relegated.

Less than two years after an FA Commission gave the Norwegian owners of Wimbledon FC permission to relocate the club 70 miles to the north, the supporters left behind saw their old team's tumble into the Second Division - their seemingly inevitable fate for much of the season - as further evidence that the move should never have taken place.

"The promised football frenzy in Milton Keynes has failed to materialise," announced Nicole Hammond, chair of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (Wisa), on the group's website. "It was said the club would get bigger crowds in Milton Keynes, yet the gates there are lower than they were in London before the move was announced.

"The club has had to sell most of its best players in order to meet its running costs and this has translated into results on the field. It has been an unmitigated commercial disaster."

Vehemently opposed to a move that they saw as "morally wrong" irrespective of the rancour felt towards "greedy businessmen", Wisa is finding it easy to crow. AFC Wimbledon, the new team formed in the void the old one left behind, goes from strength to strength.

Watched regularly by crowds of 2,600, they are a staggering 18 points clear in the Seagrave Haulage Combined Counties League, with 34 wins and no defeats from 37 matches and a goal difference of plus-120. They could clinch promotion by Monday tea-time if the holiday results go their way.

With the restructuring of the non-League pyramid not yet finalised, AFC are not sure where that will place them next season, except that, thanks to the demise of the club they call "the franchise", it will be not one but two steps closer to the day that the two products of this bitter division meet as equals, a bizarre prospect that could, in theory, take place in as little as three years.

No one on either side really believes it will happen so quickly. "Realistically, we would like to think we could be playing in the Conference within five years," the AFC Wimbledon chairman, Kris Stewart said. "We have won games too easily this year but it will be more difficult at the next level. The team will have to be playing at its best all the time.

"If you think that it has taken a club of Aldershot's stature 11 or 12 years to get from the bottom of the Ryman League to where they are now, with a chance of getting into the Third Division, you appreciate that there is a long road ahead."

And just as Stewart and the Dons Trust, AFC Wimbledon's collective owners, do not foresee a stratospheric rise for their club, neither does Inter MK, the consortium which is about to complete a takeover at Milton Keynes, predict a continuing decline for theirs.

Driven by the energy and commitment of Pete Winkelman, the music industry entrepreneur behind Inter MK, the relocated Wimbledon will come out of administration on 26 April, agreement will be reached on clearing £25m of debts and work will start on a 30,000-seater stadium, to be finished by 2006.

To his club's disenfranchised former fans, Winkelman may be just another "greedy businessman" motivated by the potential for profit, an image not helped by the involvement of Asda-Wal-Mart, who are to build a superstore as part of the stadium development. But it is impossible to deny Winkelman's enthusiasm for the project, nor his conviction that what he is doing is good for football - quite the opposite of what AFC's supporters believe.

"I'm a football fan, I have been since my father took me to watch Wolves when I was six, standing on a box on the North Bank at Molineux," he said. "I've lived in Milton Keynes for 10 years, and for all that people mock the place for concrete cows and roundabouts it is green and clean and a nice place to be.

"But there is no football club, at least not one that reflects the interests of a community of 250,000 people. There are clubs not far away but people here do not identify with Northampton or Luton, for example. For my own part, I had a footballing son who had to travel to another town to train at the level he needed and he was not alone.

"We wanted to put that right and there were two options: build up an existing club or create a stadium and try to attract a club to it. We chose the latter because you need a seven-days-a-week operation to underwrite the cost of the football club.

"I feel sorry for Asda and the way they have been portrayed in this. This project has been developing since 1997 and they have been on board only in the last two and a half years. They have been good for us because they gave us financial credibility when we needed it."

Winkelman admits he courted Queen's Park Rangers and Barnet but Wimbledon, rapidly going under with debts mounting at £800,000 a month, and their former chairman, Charles Koppel, saw salvation in the move.

Back at AFC, however, they still cannot agree with what has happened. "I've never met Pete Winkelman but he seems very enthusiastic and believes Milton Keynes deserves Premier League football," Hammond said. "But he clearly does not understand how football works, that clubs get success by moving up the pyramid, not by moving around the country. What has happened is bad for football because if it succeeds, it will just encourage other failing clubs to up sticks and move."

The mantra that spurred on Hammond and Co at the start of their protest movement was that Wimbledon belonged to the town of that name, or at least to the Borough of Merton, which makes it ironic that their home is outside, more so that they are landlords, having for so long been tenants. AFC's home is Kingsmeadow, bought from the administrators of Kingstonian, who are now their tenants.

"The Plough Lane site has planning permission for housing but we have not entirely given up hope of going back and we keep in touch with Merton Council," Hammond said. "However, in the medium term, being where we are suits all parties fairly well and we are actually only a mile outside the borough boundary."

Across London and up the M1, relegation has failed to dampen Winkelman's hopes. "To say that there were 2,400 people prepared to come the other night to an uncovered stadium with Arsenal against Chelsea on the box and us about to be relegated in the rain - surely that says there is potential here."