AFC Wimbledon: The Dons are back – and they mean business

It took nine years but this week the club who died return to life in the big league – and they're run by fans.
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The Independent Football

On Friday, AFC Wimbledon play their first match as a Football League club, a Carling Cup tie at Crawley Town. It comes 34 years after the original Wimbledon entered the League and just nine seasons after a small group of supporters decided to start again when the Dons were given permission to relocate to Milton Keynes by the Football Association.

From the first open trials on Wimbledon Common, through five promotions, the most recent from the Blue Square Premier League, the club have been owned and run by fans.

The chief executive admits he is still unnerved to be called "boss" by the reserve-team manager, Marcus Gayle, a player he used to cheer in the Premier League. Dickie Guy, who famously saved a Peter Lorimer penalty for non-League Wimbledon in an FA Cup tie at Elland Road in1975, is the club's president.

Dickie Guy: Club president and goalkeeper when the club entered the League in 1977

I was fortunate enough to have been in the side when we went into the League for the first time, and to be president now that we're back is wonderful. I'm immensely proud. The play-off final in Manchester was incredible. When that final penalty went in I actually sat down and burst into tears, and I wasn't the only one.

I keep saying "incredible" but it's difficult to find other words to describe it, the whole story – starting in non-League, going into the League, up to the First Division, winning the FA Cup, having the ground taken away, starting from scratch on Wimbledon Common with anyone who fancied their chances of getting a game, and back in the League again after nine years.

It's almost the same story being told all over again. Someone should make a film of it. But maybe it's too far-fetched, even though it's true.

The first time round we didn't really know what to expect, but a lot of these players have a bit of experience at League clubs. We could look after ourselves in non-League, but when we got into the League it was more physical, a bit quicker, than we were used to. The only thing I'm concerned about this season, because we have got a good footballing side, is that we might get bullied.

But Terry [Brown] has signed a few stronger players, and I fancy us to be around the play-offs. There's a lot of excitement around the ground.

We've got the support of fans all over the country. A guy came to my house to mend the washing machine and said, "You used to play football, didn't you? AFC Wimbledon – what a fantastic story."

Erik Samuelson: Chief executive

I started as finance director and I've been chief executive for five years. It has been the best nine years of my working life, discovering your lifetime's dream in your early fifties.

When I look back, I wonder what on earth made us think we could achieve something like this, but we just did. I remember doing a five-year plan that showed us being promoted every other year, which was presumptuous – but we didn't know any better.

I'm sure that a lot of outsiders thought it wouldn't last, which I understand, but they underestimated the determination of everyone associated with this club.

At the moment we probably have 250 to 350 people volunteering, and over the years we have had around 700 people doing something actively for the club. It might not have got to the Football League so quickly, but it was never going to be a flash in the pan.

None of us knew too much about running a football club but many a sensible businessman loses his heart to a club and then his head, and we've been desperate not to let that happen.

We are happy with our model and never again, as far as I can see, will anyone hijack our club and move it somewhere or take it in a directionthat the fans don't want.

And to me that's worth giving up an awful lot of other things.

Seb Brown: Goalkeeper, following the tradition of Dickie Guy and Dave Beasant in saving two penalties in the shoot-out victory over Luton

I used to go to watch Wimbledon at Selhurst Park and I was at Southampton, aged 10, in tears with my dad when we were relegated from the Premier League in 2000. I was probably a bit too young to understand everything that was going on after that, but I knew the club I supported was going away.

We were looking for a new team. As soon as AFC Wimbledon was formed that was the continuation of Wimbledon for me. It was the same people, the same spirit, the same family orientation. It's a whole community, and it's made more special by the fact the supporters started it from scratch.

Saving the penalties in the shoot-out, that was the culmination of it all, one of the best moments of my life, having the roar of everyone behind me and knowing what it meant to everyone in our half of the stadium, the volunteers and all the people who do so much for the club. If I hadn't been a player, I would have been there with them.

Marc Jones: One of the four founders of AFC Wimbledon

I go back before AFC Wimbledon was launched to Wisa, the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association, fighting against plans to go to Dublin and other idiotic schemes.

At one of the first games I went to, there was a sit-down protest against a possible merger with Crystal Palace – I think that was 1984. So all the things we had gone through meant that our collective consciousness had been cultivated in something akin to a petri dish. By the time the FA decision was made, we were ready and able rather than merely stunned and naïve.

I don't see getting back into the League as closure. For me that will be getting the club back to its own stadium in Merton, hopefully SW19. More important for me was the first-ever match, the fact that we had kept the club going, at whatever level.

We never patronised other [non-League] clubs or thought we didn't deserve to be there. When you met someone who had been a chairman for 27 years and was up early buttering rolls, or a lady who served in the tea bar for 50 years, that's pure football.

That's what Milton Keynes will never have, because they don't understand it.

Nicole Hammond: Board member of the Dons Trust

Coming back from the play-off final, I was following Twitter and it seemed that people from every club in the country were pleased for us. It's unusual to get so many football people agreeing like that.

The FA Commission that decided Wimbledon could move to Milton Keynes in 2002 said something along the lines that there was a route into the League through the football pyramid but that it was far too tortuous and that's why they had to get the fast track instead of doing it themselves.

We have shown it was possible. We have been fuelled by rage, and I don't think that's necessarily over. We're one step closer to facing them on the pitch, which is an uncomfortable feeling.

But the fan base values owning the club over that progress. Last year we put together a survey of the AFC Wimbledon community, and we came out with pretty clear results; the main one being that remaining fan-owned was the priority by some distance over going back to Wimbledon and moving up the divisions.

But we've been overtaken by events in that we won promotion to the League, and Merton Council are being extremely helpful in helping us look for a home in the medium to long term.

Terry Brown: First-team manager since 2007

Did we really expect to get three promotions in four years? I didn't. Those are things you only dream about, but you knew there was fantastic potential when you saw the passion of the crowd.

It was a club that you thought would get back in the League sometime, and I knew I would love to be driving it when it did.

We were a giant in the Combined Counties League, in the Ryman League we had one of the largest wage bills, but we're no longer one of the biggest fish.

We're not a Plymouth Argyle, but maybe you wouldn't want to be after the way Plymouth was run. We won't go into debt, we won't take on a rich benefactor, so how far this model can go is unknown, although as yet we haven't found the ceiling.

We've only been full-time for one year and we were lucky enough to get up [into the League] at the end of that year. We asked the scouts to find the best young players who still lived with their mums and dads, because we couldn't pay people enough to buy houses in this area.

It was the only way, without spending money we hadn't got – which we were never going to do – but the beauty is that you have a set of lads who have played together a few years, understand the club, value the support and want to be part of it.

It is still really close-knit. When I watch the DVD of the play-off final, I realise I recognise 80 to 90 per cent of the crowd.

You'd expect them to talk about when they played Liverpool and Manchester United at Selhurst Park, but they talk more about Allen Batsford and Dickie Guy and Plough Lane, knocking on the League door the first time.

Boys of ’77: Where are they now?

Bill Edwards: Still attends games.

Dave Donaldson: Works for British Airways; occasional match-goer.

Terry Eames: Managed the club for a while. Lives in Horsham.

Dickie Guy: AFC Wimbledon president; has his own building firm.

Roger Connell: Leads a life of leisure.

Jeff Bryant: Electrician; watches AFC.

Richard Teale: Coaches, attends games.

Paul Denny: Believed to be in the US.

Kevin Tilley:Triallist for AFC in Combined Counties League, but not selected. Attends games.

Dave Galvin: Last heard of involved with insurance business.

Owen Harris (Physio): attends games.

Barry Friend: Unknown.

Billy Holmes: Deceased.

Dave Bassett: TV pundit.

Allen Batsford (manager): Deceased.

John Leslie: Car dealer and not a bad darts player. Occasional match-goer.

Glenn Aitken: Regularly attends games.

Willie Smith: Lost track, but came to Batsford's funeral.

Steve Galliers: Works locally; son Sam plays for the supporters' team.