In May 2011, AFC Wimbledon returned to the Football League, defeating Luton Town on penalties in the final of the Conference National play-offs. It was their fifth promotion in nine seasons, completing a journey that began in June 2002, when the Dons Trust decided not to let the relocation of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes at the behest of their profit-driven owners spell the end for football in the community.
The episode, which saw the franchising of a club with 104 years of history accepted and endorsed by the game’s governing body – despite a reasoned, professional, impassioned campaign against it from supporters of Wimbledon FC – remains one of the most controversial moments in the history of the game in England.
Rather than accept the ruling, and the assertion that forming a new club in the area would “not be in the wider interests of football”, supporters pressed ahead with plans to do just that, and on July 10th 2002, AFC Wimbledon’s first match took place in front of 4657 supporters (they lost 4-0 to Sutton United).
At the time, Chairman Kris Stewart said: ‘People tend to think, “football fans, what do they know?”, but we have a microcosm of society here with accountants, lawyers, journalists, delivery drivers, teachers. They all have their skills and they are all very useful.’
Those co-operative sentiments have been a driving force throughout the subsequent years, something which can clearly be seen in the club’s charter for the 2011/12 season: “AFC Wimbledon is a club collectively created, owned and run by its fans. In everything we do, we strive to provide the very best football club we can, recognising that were it not for our fans we would not be here – and without them, there would be no point being here anyway.”
Owned by the Dons Trust, an Industrial and Provident Society run under the one member one vote principle of the co-operative movement, the club still relies on a network of committed volunteers, whom have recently been recognised by Team London for their work not only at the club, but in the wider community. The award praises their “outstanding contribution to improving London and the quality of life for Londoners.”
As well as providing entertainment on the pitch every other Saturday, AFC Wimbledon is an active participant in both Merton (where the original Wimbledon FC were housed) and Kingston, where the club currently shares a ground with Kingstonian FC. Teams have been established for both sexes from the age of eight, whilst the AFC Wimbledon Community Football Scheme has become one of the main providers of coaching in the community.
On the pitch, the club continues to go from strength to strength. Having established itself as a stable presence in the Conference National, a return to the Football League was secured in May 2011. As of February 2014, AFC Wimbledon are in their third season in League Two, and look well placed to continue their success, backed up by a solid co-operative foundation.