In 2002, fans of Wimbledon FC founded a new club, AFC Wimbledon after the original club was relocated to Milton Keynes, 56 miles away from the club’s home in south London.
Since their formation in 2002 and after having to initially hold open tryouts on Wimbledon Common to find players, AFC Wimbledon have been on a journey to recover their place in the Football League. The club enjoyed success on the field immediately, winning four promotions by the 2009-10 season to see them reach the Conference Premier, just one step below the Football League. This period saw the club go on a 78 game unbeaten run, which is a club record but also an English senior football record.
After a single season of consolidation in the Conference Premier, in 2010-11, the club finished second in the division and qualified for the end of season play-offs. They thumped Fleetwood Town 8-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals, setting up a play-off final appearance at the City of Manchester Stadium against Luton Town. The game went to penalties and the club secured their return to the Football League after winning the shootout 4-3. Just nine years after the phoenix club’s foundation, AFC Wimbledon were back.
The next few seasons saw the Wombles consolidate their position in League Two and begin adjusting to their new level. After a strong first campaign that saw the club survive relegation comfortably, the next season went down to the final day, with AFC only securing their survival on the final day of the season.
But by the 2015-16 season, the club’s fortunes were looking brighter and fans had started looking upwards rather than constantly looking over their shoulders. As well as more encouraging news on the pitch, the club was working hard to improve itself off the pitch as well. Top of that list was a return to AFC Wimbledon’s original home in south London (until this point Wimbledon has been using the Kingsmeadow stadium in Kingston-upon-Thames). The club agreed to sell this ground to Chelsea FC and applied for planning permission to build their own 20,000 seater stadium in Merton. Plans are at an advanced stage and the proposal is currently in the hands of the Mayor of London who will make the final decision on the construction.
This created a feel-good atmosphere around the club that spread onto the pitch and under manager Neil Ardley the club enjoyed a storming 2015-16 season, qualifying for the playoffs.
The first leg of the semi-finals saw them snatch a 1-0 home win over Accrington Stanley. The second leg was full of drama, as Accrington took the lead, only for the Dons to turn the tie around in the second half. Not even the failure of the floodlights right at the end of the game could trouble AFC Wimbledon, who ended up securing their place in the play-off final at Wembley after winning 3-2 on aggregate.
The Wombles are now just one game away from promotion to the third tier of English football, a remarkable achievement for a club founded just 13 years ago. A win at Wembley against Plymouth Argyle would put the club just one tier away from where it was before it was stolen from the fans who loved it so much.
There will also be the opportunity for the club to face off in the league for the first time against Milton Keynes Dons, the club that was moved from Wimbledon back in the early 2000s. Many fans of AFC will have mixed feelings about this, given that they don’t believe MK should be allowed to exist as a club but for others the chance to establish some bragging rights will be an exciting prospect.
In the end, the story of AFC Wimbledon’s rise back through the football pyramid is a heartwarming one and it gives great testament to the fans who have made this possible. Those fans, who own their club and have put in so much effort to bring the club this far, should be applauded and surely all neutrals will be cheering them on when they take to the Wembley turf.