On May 28, 2002, a brutal murder was committed in English football.
While the back pages were dominated by a metatarsal injury that was threatening to keep David Beckham out of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, a three-man FA arbitration panel quietly voted in favor of Wimbledon FC's proposed move to Milton Keynes.
An FA panel had already voted unanimously against the decision, and Dons fans had expressed their vehement opposition for many months. When the relocation decision was eventually overturned in legal proceedings, FA Chief Executive Adam Crozier called it "an appalling decision".
However, against the wishes of everyone except the Wimbledon FC executives––who were driven by the prospect of a lucrative stadium complex deal in the suburban town of Milton Keynes––the club were torn away from their home and their fanbase, and displaced 60 miles away.
To add insult to injury, Wimbledon fans were issued with a glossy booklet (pictured above) that explained how Wimbledon's identity would be retained in its shiny new home: the club name crest and colors would be kept. Stands in the new stadium would be named after Wimbledon legends.
The club finally moved in September 2003, and the following year were renamed MK Dons. They were given a new logo and they now play in white, not the famous yellow and blue strip of the Crazy Gang. None of the stands are named for Wimbledon legends.
A consortium of Milton Keynes businessmen had effectively purchased a league place and killed Wimbledon FC. It is the first––and hopefully last––example of American-style sports franchising in the UK.
(While franchising is commonplace in the USA, it is almost unheard of in most of Europe. An English football club, it can be argued, is defined more by the community it represents than its legal ownership.)
Yet from the ashes of franchising and financially motivated decisions rose a phoenix: AFC Wimbledon. Fans who refused to follow the new team in Buckinghamshire started a new club from the very bottom of the football pyramid.
The fan-owned and fan-operated club was founded in 2002. Nine years and five promotions later, the Dons are back in the football league. Their fairytale rise through the ranks can only be matched by the original Wimbledon FC, who also took an incredible nine years to go from non-league chancers to mainstays of the top flight.
On December 2, the two clubs will meet for the first time in the FA Cup second round. MK Dons manager Karl Robinson believes it will be a fantastic tie, and chairman Pete Winkelman shares his enthusiasm. For many Wimbledon fans, however, the thought of playing the team who caused them so much anguish and heartbreak is a painful prospect.
The club's official position is that they will honor the tie, while an official statement from the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (WISA) has urged fans not to boycott the game:
"We are naturally disappointed that AFC Wimbledon will have to play Milton Keynes, a football franchise, that stole Wimbledon's original league place, in the second round of the FA Cup.
"After careful consideration, WISA has decided not to formally request a boycott of the fixture by Wimbledon supporters.
"We don't see this fixture as a big grudge or rivalry match, but as one that should never have been allowed to happen."
At this point, I should declare my lack of objectivity. I am a lifelong Wimbledon fan, and the prospect of attending a game at stadium:mk is extremely unappetising. To hand over ticket money to a "franchise" that stole my club is absurd. The thought of watching them play arouses anger and a queasy feeling at the pit of my stomach.
For these kinds of emotional reasons, many fans plan to stage a boycott, regardless of WISA's advice. Over the years, Wimbledon fans have successfully encouraged fans of other teams to boycott away games in Milton Keynes, so attending a game there could appear hypercritical.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact the issue of legitimacy. Many do not recognise MK Dons as a legitimate entity; they should never have been allowed to exist. Attending one of their games would therefore create a moral quandary.
However, I believe WISA were correct to discourage a blanket boycott of the game.
The club are honoring the fixture, so why shouldn't the fans? Supporters should be perfectly entitled to attend the match if they wish to––to tell them not to go is to restrict their liberty.
Also, there will be eleven Wimbledon players on the field who are trying to win a game. They will find it easier to do so with a traveling army of support.
AFC Wimbledon's success can be perceived as an embarrassment for Milton Keynes, and turning up en masse will also be an embarrassment for the 2002 arbitration panel who said the new phoenix club was "not in the wider interests of football".
I am not comfortable with the idea of attending a game at stadium:mk, but I am less comfortable with the concept of my team playing an important FA Cup tie with no physical support.
With a boycott, AFC Wimbledon fans are in danger of being defined by a hate of MK Dons, rather than a love of their own team.
I have accepted the unfortunate fact that 'The Franchise' exists, and I want as many fans as possible to watch them get beaten.
A large proportion of Wimbledon supporters––my own friends and family included––would rather avoid throwing money in the MK Dons coffers, preferring to contribute to an event that would benefit the growth of AFC Wimbledon. A live TV screening at Wimbledon's Kingsmeadow is an option currently being mooted.
That is a perfectly acceptable opinion, and those who feel too uncomfortable to attend should not feel compelled to.
But as the eyes of the world focus on Buckinghamshire Dec. 2, I would like them to see AFC Wimbledon supporters represented in their thousands, backing a team who are clearly in the wider interests of football.
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