Danger! AFC Wimbledon's trip to MK Dons is an inflammable cup tie and could ignite a crazy atmosphere
22:47 GMT, 30 November 2012
There is a buzzword going around AFC Wimbledon’s training ground in south-west London and everyone is saying it.
'It’s important that I don’t inflame this,' says Neal Ardley, the man who played more than 300 games for Wimbledon FC and now manages their spiritual successor.
He goes on to promise he will never take a job at Milton Keynes Dons, regardless of the money offered.
Careful: AFC Wimbledon manager Neil Ardley is one of many who don't want to 'inflame' the situation
'I don’t want to inflame passions beyond where they already are for Sunday,' adds Erik Samuelson, the AFC chief executive who has been at the club since the day in 2002 when they were formed.
He says he will not shake the hand of Pete Winkelman, the chairman of 'sordid' MK Dons.
'I’ve been told I shouldn’t inflame anything,' explains the club’s commercial director, Ivor Heller, one of AFC’s founder members.
He describes MK Dons as both a ‘boil that needs lancing’ and ‘rotten, rotten, rotten’, and insists he will not spend any money if he can help it at stadiummk.
And there is talk of the secret banner he is preparing to unveil.
‘We have to tone things down in the build-up,’ added Heller. ‘Obviously, I’d like to say what we really think, but I mustn’t inflame things.’
MK Dons v AFC Wimbledon. FA Cup second round. The two sides meet on Sunday for the first time and it promises to be fiery.
Toned down: Ivor Heller says he can't say what he wants to
Jack Midson is currently playing for his 14th club, but this one, he says, is ‘special’. When he joined in June 2011, one month after a fifth promotion in nine seasons launched AFC into League Two, he was told to sit down with the other new arrivals and listen to a history lesson.
‘It’s no secret that it is a sticky subject,’ said Midson. ‘This club is unique and we all know it from the start.’
Samuelson elaborates: ‘We do it every pre-season. It’s about making sure they understand where we came from, why we came from there, certain standards of behaviour expected and, if we are ever drawn against Milton Keynes, making sure they speak to us about what to say before talking to the press. We started planning a long time ago for playing them.’
The bare facts of what happened are well known. In September 2003, Winkelman, with the permission of the FA, relocated debt-ridden Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes.
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No man's land: This little FA Cup replica lies in Morden Library, rather than with either of the clubs
SO, WHY IS IT IN THE LIBRARY
Click here to find out
AFC — ‘A Fans’ Club’ — started in the Combined Counties Premier League, the ninth tier of English football, and picked most of their first ever team from the 230 people who turned up for trials at Wimbledon Common on June 29, 2002.
What has followed has been one of the most heart-warming stories in sport, as the phoenix club, of which 75 per cent is owned by fans, stormed through the divisions with big crowds, reaching the Football League in 2011. Their progress is eerily similar to Wimbledon’s in the Seventies and Eighties.
‘This is a remarkable club,’ said Ardley. ‘We got a train home from Morecambe on Saturday and there were a load of Millwall fans.
‘I had a season there so we got talking. The brilliant part is when you hear Millwall fans saying what a brilliant club they think this is. You’d think they’d hate anyone local to them. We feel like there are a lot of people who want us to do well.’
Wimbledon FC, meanwhile, were renamed as Milton Keynes Dons in 2004. Some call them ‘Franchise FC’, others are less flattering. Samuelson reckons ‘only a handful, maybe 20’ of the Wimbledon FC fans who initially followed their team up the M1 continue to do so.
‘Over the years there has been a visible trickle of people who started there and came back,’ he said.
Snub: Chief executive Erik Samuelson and Co will not use using the MK Dons hospitality
Winkelman has laid out his defence this week, claiming the club would have gone bust without his input and, somewhat provocatively, asking why AFC supporters didn’t buy the club when it was in administration.
In return, some AFC fans are expected to attend in radiation suits, claiming MK Dons are contaminated. Others say they won’t buy anything beyond a ticket as they don’t wish to hand over their money; many are boycotting the game altogether.
Ardley, who went to AFC’s first home game against Chipstead in the Combined Counties League in 2002, talks of how members of his coaching staff try to rile him by ‘saying I played 300-odd game for Milton Keynes’.
MK Dons manager Karl Robinson says his staff were told by AFC they couldn’t come to Kings-meadow on scouting missions.
Samuelson, for his part, will join the rest of the board by sitting among the fans and snubbing MK Dons’ hospitality. ‘Over the last nine years a lot of fans of other clubs have not gone to watch Milton Keynes because of what they feel was a wrong. So for us to say, “We’ll pop in, shake hands and have a prawn sandwich” would be a bit disrespectful to them.’
For all the hurt they struggle to conceal, the stated desire to ‘not inflame things’ is genuine.
Protest: Some AFC Wimbledon fans will wear radiation suits like this because MK Dons are 'contaminated'
‘We have reminded the fans how important it is we continue to represent ourselves in the best possible way, how easy it is to lose a reputation,’ said Samuelson. ‘We want to demonstrate to the world we are responsible and will be mature and dignified about this game.’
At some point on Sunday, a game will break out. MK Dons are piping hot favourites, having played some superb football this season under a promising young manager in Robinson. They are third in League One and have not lost in eight games.
‘They are exceptional,’ said Ardley. ‘The football they’ve been playing is the kind of football I’ve been trying to get played since I worked at academy level.’
Ardley is expecting a decent turnout from former Dons. ‘Stewart Castledine and Gareth Ainsworth will be there — maybe a few others, too,’ he said. He hopes on-loan Neil Sullivan will be cleared by Doncaster to play in goal.
His own prospects are not so great. AFC are one place above the League Two relegation zone and most at the club agree that next weekend’s ‘six-pointer’ against Barnet is the big one.
But there is no denying the magnitude of this match. It’s football’s youngest but most legitimate rivalry — and the result will not end the issue.
‘For me, it ends when they drop the Dons from their name,’ said Heller. Samuelson added: ‘There are two views on their continuing to use the name Dons. One is that it is an insult, the other that it is a reminder of their sordid origins.’
The touch paper has been lit.