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As so often in the Wimbledon story, it all came down to a penalty kick. In the final moments of 2012/13, Jack Midson stepped up to score from 12 yards. It was a goal that not only secured victory over Fleetwood Town but preserved the new Dons’ hard-won League Two status. The wave of euphoria as relieved fans invaded the pitch to celebrate evoked memories of good times past.
Just two years earlier, it was Danny Kedwell whose final penalty kick in the shoot-out decided the Conference play-off final against Luton Town at the City of Manchester Stadium. Such penalty heroics were hardly something new for older supporters, who remembered the saves from the spot that immortalised the names of Dickie Guy and Dave Beasant in FA Cup folklore.
It was preserving that glorious past that drove followers of the club to start again in the summer of 2002 after a specially appointed three-man FA commission shocked football fans everywhere by allowing the old Wimbledon FC to relocate to a Buckinghamshire new town. Determined not to let a proud 104-year history die, Dons supporters organised themselves and within just six weeks AFC Wimbledon – a club the commission had declared would be “not in the wider interests of football” – was born.
The new Dons’ opening match in the Combined Counties League attracted 2,449 fans to Sandhurst Town’s Bottom Meadow ground, where terracing was improvised from bales of hay. After finishing third at the end of that first campaign, AFC Wimbledon secured a league and cup double in 2004. The next season they won the Ryman League First Division South before taking three years to escape the Ryman League Premier Division.
Under the guidance of the experienced Terry Brown, the Dons won the Conference South title in 2008, but the Conference National proved a slightly tougher nut to crack. However, after finishing eighth in their debut season, the Dons secured the runners-up spot in 2011, and captain Kedwell demonstrated nerves of steel in that play-off final in Manchester as he fired home the decisive goal.
The rise of AFC Wimbledon has brought inevitable comparisons with their illustrious predecessors’ climb from the Southern League to the old First Division during the 1970s and 80s. That success culminated in a victory over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final, prompting BBC commentator John Motson to deliver the immortal line, “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club.”
Those days may be in the past, but the collective spirit lives on in the large numbers of fans who give up their time to run the present club. After 11 years of unbroken success, the fans are beginning to come to grips with the difficulty of trying to compete in League Two with one of the smallest playing budgets in the division.
Ever a realist, chief executive Erik Samuelson summed up the Fleetwood game from his own perspective. “It was a dramatic and very exciting final day, and we all ended up on a high as a result of that. But when you stop and think that we were only 18 minutes away from returning to the Conference, it is important to make sure that we do learn lessons.”
And the man charged with coupling such hard-headed realism with the enthusiasm of the supporters is Neal Ardley. He made over 200 appearances for the Dons in their Premier League days, and by refashioning the side in mid-season last year he quickly established a reputation as one of the brightest young managers around. He will need all his intelligence and guile as he seeks to move the club up to a new level this time around.
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