It was ended with casual flick. It couldn’t really have been more cruel. After ninety minutes of admirable defensive resolve, the underdog of AFC Wimbledon looked to have earned the draw their efforts deserved and a home cup replay to boot.
Yet the brilliance of the FA Cup is tied up in its unpredictability—things rarely run to script. Milton Keynes Dons were the favorites, but the match transcended the confines of the conventional cup game. The script was somehow irrelevant, voided by the enormity of the occasion and the ramifications of this one match some ten years in the making.
It was a classic story of betrayal, heartbreak and ultimately redemption. One club becoming two—a phoenix rising from the flames of the original "crazy gang."
The catalyst of the simmering animosity that underpinned today's game was a decision to allow the old Wimbledon FC, FA Cup winners in 1988, to relocate 60 miles from their prodigal home to a purpose-built all-seater in Milton Keynes.
Supporters of the original Wimbledon, outraged at the acute sense of betrayal, disowned their club, and after significant investment from the ardent supporter base, AFC Wimbledon were founded in 2002.
Starting out in the ninth tier of English football, the club secured a ground share with Nearby Kingstonian, and their admission to the Combined Counties league for the 2002/03 season was secured.
Player trials were held on Wimbledon common, and the club’s first game, a 4-0 friendly loss to Sutton United, was struck by extraordinary scenes where supporters stormed the pitch in jubilation at still having a team to support.
Although the club failed to get promoted in their first season in the Combined Counties League, finishing third, the average home gate was a remarkable 3,000, higher than Wimbledon FC, who were plying their trade in the old First Division.
The culmination of the bad blood came in 2004 when Wimbledon FC were granted the right to rename themselves MK Dons, a decision that still rankles AFC fans today. Fans, outraged at the decision to maintain the moniker "Dons" with the new club bearing little resemblance to its original team, perpetuated a feeling of deep resentment between the sides.
Indeed, a TalkSport poll two weeks ago debating the removal of "Dons" from the Milton Keynes club’s name to facilitate a severance between the sides received 68 percent approval.
AFC Wimbledon have, in the intervening years, rocketed up the footballing pyramid, securing five promotions in nine seasons and last year reclaiming the football league status.
MK Dons, meanwhile, have stayed relatively consistent over the past decade, moving from League One to League Two and back again and strongly challenging for promotion over the past three seasons. After a ten-year hiatus and an ever-lessening class divide, the clubs don't play in consecutive football-league divisions.
The match was never going to be about the result.
Many AFC Wimbledon fans, still too bitter at the perceived injustice that was served against them, boycotted the match, and many of those who attended refused to purchase refreshments that would financially benefit MK.
The game, for the most part, was a tense, stagnant affair. Don’s attacking predilection and obvious supremacy in class were mostly stifled by an admirable Wimbledon defensive display.
It took until the brink of the halftime whistle for the deadlock to be broken, but it was shattered in some style. Former Irish international Stephen Gleeson picked up the ball fully 30 yards out, unleashing a sumptuous strike with the outside of his right foot that flew past Wimbledon keeper Neil Sullivan.
Logic, at this point, would say game over, but it seemed as if 42-year-old Sullivan, a player for the former Wimbledon, was AFC’s lucky charm, as Jack Midson scored with a powerful diving header midway through the second half.
That was how it stayed until the second minute of added time, when Dons substitute Jon Otsemobor nonchalantly swung a heel at a speculative late strike. Flicking over his head, ,evading the desperate dive of Sullivan and nestling in the top corner, it was a fluke not befitting the occasion.
Otsemobor looked for a second, struck with visible shock at what he had achieved before the stadium erupted. It was cruel for Wimbledon, but cruelty is a condition to which the FA Cup is accustomed.
In reality, however, the result would simply have been the cherry on top of a cake that AFC Wimbledon have created over the past ten years—a cake made of the sweat, tears and exertion of ten years of tumultuous emotion, which has finally paid dividends.
The cake did not need the cherry—the cake has been made. For the fans of AFC Wimbledon that is enough.