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Conference Call

If anyone was so minded in writing a book of the last decade, the history of a football club called Wimbledon would be an interesting one. If a tad on the unbelievable side.

Owner problems, ground problems, ultimate betrayal and rebirth. And that’s just in a three year period.  It all seems a bit biblical. Yet on a sunny afternoon in mid April, in deepest poshe West London (or at least, full of people who think they’re poshe), not only was resurrection complete but the book rights were finally being serialised.

AFC Wimbledon are Conference South champions. And deservedly so – we have been the most consistent side throughout the season, our standard of football has at times been impossible to live with, we have the highest goal scored, top goalscorer, one of the meanest defences etc etc. Bar the odd period of blipping, we have been the team to beat throughout the whole season.

But if the celebrations in Wimbledon Village may have been slightly ahead of the formalities, and if KM was diluted because of that, you cannot blame anyone for getting out the Verve Cliquot early. For Jon Main’s header in the dying moments wasn’t just securing the promotion of AFCW, it was securing the biggest step in this incarnation’s all too brief history.

AFCW is now in the Conference. Not the Conference South, or the CCL, or Isthmian, or other divisions that make it a job explaining to the non-clued up. The Conference. Even the most gloryhunter of Premiership follower knows about that division, even if it’s only in sneering tones.

Be honest, how many of you have tried at times to explain the very concept of the Ryman Premier? Let alone the, ahem, eccentricities of some of what they get up to. At least the Conference is something the bulk of football fans have heard of. They get the majority of the NLP coverage, they get a couple of paragraphs per game in the NOTW weekly, and make up a significant part of Setanta’s coverage.

It gets its own pages on Ceefax and on the BBC’s web site, rather than getting lumped in with the all-too-broad brush of “Non league football”. In fact, it’s hard to even label the Conf as non-league football when you consider that we won’t be facing WSM, Maidenhead United and St Albans but Wrexham, Mansfield Town and Stevenage Borough.

All of a sudden, it feels good doesn’t it?

While the Staines playoff win was more emotionally draining, the Conference South title feels more like a coming of age. All of a sudden, we find ourselves catapulted back into a division that is totally at odds with the rest of non-league. In effect, we are back to where we once were.

No,  we’re not back in the League yet. But we took a giant step towards it. There is always a groundhopper element whenever you go into a new division. But at the end of the H&R game, there was something more to it. It wasn’t a case of “this place sounds good for a piss up”, it was more “this is where it all started for me”. The week after that result, even after the St Albans game, there was more than the odd reminiscence of a previous encounter from 1981…

One thing that just about any non-AFCW fan won’t ever comprehend is what we missed since 2002. Getting your result in your Sunday paper. Finding where you are in the league. Reports on the radio. Seeing the goals on telly. Preview in the paper beforehand. We have had precious little of that since 2002.

Granted, we’ve gotten more used to the distinct lack of interest since then,  but that doesn’t mean we’ve accepted it. Even before the H&R game we had previews in the Telegraph and Evening Substandard, to name but two. St Albans saw a big spread in the (national) Guardian. It wasn’t the sign of a small club getting its day in the sun, but a club that literally lost everything including its name and getting back what it once had.

It is almost impossible to explain to non-AFCW fans just what getting into the Conf means to us, just as trying to explain what the events of 28/5/02 were all about. They’d never feel what we did back then. But then, they possibly couldn’t feel that, and why should they?

Getting promoted to the lowest national league in the country wasn’t just a sense of relief. It was a small step of revenge. One thing that did seep out during the post-St Albans celebrations was the infamous “not in the wider interests” slur. If WFC’s motto was Honour Without Blemish, then perhaps AFCW’s should be In The Wider Interest? Has a ring to it, certainly. One does wonder what the 3-Man Commission were thinking and feeling at our celebrations. Probably nothing, because feeling and thinking are human emotions. I expect they were physically blocking ambulances for dying road crash victims when we were lifting the Conf South trophy.

Up until now, we’ve been in the backwaters. Be honest, nobody has really given a shit about what we actually do in the division we’re in. Now, we’re in a league where there will be a lot of attention lashed upon it (Luton Town). Suddenly, we’re there and saying hello to people again. AFCW could be ignored when they face Team Bath. They won’t be when they go to Kenilworth Road. Every time we get a mention, there will still be that unspoken question asked. You know, “remember that decision to relocate WFC?”.

It will eventually die down, though never eventually die off, but there’s a lot of unfinished business about. This is a start.

So, why the Conference? Why not get excited about League Two instead?  One reason is that if WFC was still around, going down to the Conference would have been the lowest level we would have tolerated. True, it would have been a bastard having seen us play at places like Old Trafford just a decade earlier, but them’s the breaks. After the shit of Dublin and Franchise though, we would have been glad to still have the club.

The former league sides that come down to the Conf have off-field problems or have been defying the gravity of crapness for far too long. In many cases, they see playing in the Conference as a place to regroup, to build themselves up as a club again. It’s a division that isn’t part of the league but isn’t the backwater it once was. Our views on what being in the Conference are different, but what we want out of it are exactly the same as the Lutons and Oxfords and Wrexhams.

When you think about it in those terms, having to go down to the CCL was a bit too low. OK, we know why we had to do it, but really it was never us. It couldn’t have been us. Even up to the Conf South, we were always “different”.  Sometimes a bit too different.

And it was a difference that I think we never fully grasped. The other teams (no matter how welcoming or hostile they were to us) never quite “got” us either. Some revelled in the attention they got from us for that particular day, others absolutely hated us crashing in them. But it was a culture clash, sometimes with some rather heated consequences.

Deep down, we’ve got a bit of self-respect back. I know people say how great the CCL and CS days were (though nobody gushes about the Ryman. Can’t think why), but in many ways it was a false smile. It was like being at a function you had to go to, with people you had absolutely nothing in common with, but you had to go along with it.

The Ryman days in particular were just awful. The standard of football was in many cases as poor as the CCL. But there wasn’t that friendliness, or making the best of a bad job, that you got lower down.

Hopefully for the last time, I can rail against the Ryman drinking club mentality. When writing about trips to Oxford and Luton, it’s always worth reminding yourself where you were about two years earlier. Yes, we may get Franchise shit thrown at us. But we won’t be told that we have no respect for the culture of the division we’re in – that being in the same lowly division for the past 40 years is somehow real and desirable.

I’m sure you can search back through various internet messageboards and find examples where we were looked at as the marauding Vikings, pillaging the tea bars and raping the chairman’s daughter. Before pissing over a 1913 club shirt worn by the club’s founder in a game against Old Etonians.

I suppose you can liken it to living in a village then moving to somewhere where they’ve got a tube station nearby. If there was one major bugbear of the past seven years, it was this : ignorance. True, culture clashes are always difficult to overcome, but at times the absolute lack of understanding by others towards us was just beyond tolerance.

Whenever we got accused of “abandoning” WFC, we always pointed out exactly why we did what we did. The next time, the same people were exactly saying the same things about us – it was as though what we said to them was simply ignored. Which it was.

The constant accusations aimed at us regarding killing Kingstonian, stealing their ground etc continue today, and now there’s no point in arguing the toss back. They don’t want to listen to us about it (and seemingly, those at Ks who are a bit more clued up than their fans who spread the shit about us to begin with). Mud sticks, unfortunately, and we have to live with it.

We’ve left a whole footballing culture behind, and nobody is shedding any tears over that. Aldershot fans warned us when we started out again that we’d end up hating non-league football, and they got proven right. In that special 2002/03 season, plenty were scratching their heads at why more people didn’t go and watch non-league football. In 2009, we now know why.

Non-league football will survive without us, as we’re constantly reminded. But it’s regressing, and has failed to pick up floating Prem supporters. Read the NLP over the course of a season and almost every week a team is in financial shit. But then, are you surprised? Look at how insular and parochial it is. Look at how a team – any team – with a little bit of money and ambition gets castigated. Happened to Aldershot, happened to us, and it’s now happening to Scarborough apparently. While we may be self-interested, at least we’re outward looking. We do know something about the wider world of football, which is something I’m not sure can be true for much of the non-league family.

It was a bugbear of many of the older WFC fans who had expeienced non-league football in the 70s and before to be told that we were totally ignorant of non-league football and should shut up and listen to the purists. Will Mansfield Town fans moan at us because we think their prices are too high? Or their stewards are cunts? Chances are, they’ll join in with the condemnation.

I guess that’s why we’re so happy to be back in the Conference. We can start being the club we should be, and the fans we always were. MGMT have a song with the lyrics “We’re fated to pretend”, and that’s kind of how the past seven years have felt. Though I wish I hadn’t listened to same song on the way back from St Albans, where we drew 0-0 and looked close to throwing the title away…

No, the Conference won’t be perfect. Higher prices, arsey stewards, segregation (is that a bad thing though?), TV moving fixtures. Stuff we’ve been immune from since 2002. Yet we’ve gone from the little village to the semi-detached with the tube station ten minutes away and the kebab shop open beyond 9pm. We’ve gone from primary school to middle school, where kids are taught about putting condoms on and algebra.

Despite all I’ve said above though, there will be a little bit of sadness at leaving the lower reaches of non-league behind. There will be the loss of innocence in a way. The ability to change ends at half time. The little quirks like the kerosene end at Ashford Town (Mx). The Merstham cheese rolls. The curry at Southall. The “rivalries” with the likes of Walton and Hersham, Withdean 2000 and others. Losing 3-0 to AFC Wallingford with Thames Valley Police turning up. Turning up en masse at grounds across the south east and taking over – literally. Getting Westfield to open up their club bar before one of the cup finals at Woking before the coppers had other ideas. The Whyteleafe club shop with mis-spelt name of the club.

The first game at Slutton. The first game at Sandhurst. Winning the penalty shootout against Brimsdown in the LSC and thinking we’d won the Premiership. Playing Banstead and thinking how amazing it was to play somebody higher. Getting stuffed at Slough and thinking this was how the big boys did it. Having Netherne as our reserves. Overweight goalkeepers. Games against people like BAT Sports, Oxhey Jets and Wootton Blue Cross. Beating Barnet 3-0 in a pre-season friendly. Rob Ursell. Kevin Cooper. Mehmet Mehmet. Corinthian Casuals at Wembley. Nuts TV. Playing Met Police with the obligatory “you’ve come in your colours” to the bored coppers.

The constant postponements of playing Ditton and BAT Sports. AFC Wallingford agreeing to play “home” games at KM. Playing in Merton for the first time in about 14 years, against T&M. Newport IoW with people asking if they needed passports. Newport County, with people asking the same question. The bouncy terrace at Weston Super Mare. Playing Palace in the Slurrey Senior Cup and wondering how good it was to beat them 2-0. The planes at Bedfont. The 78 game unbeaten run.

Those sort of memories make you wonder if we were being a little bit too eager to get promotion, to celebrate getting into the Conference, and we’re forgetting the joys that can be had at this level.

But then there was the fun at Ramsgutter. Feltham Arena. Staines Town deliberately slashing the playoff ticket allocation when we’d already put ours on sale (complete with a 3h queue at Wheatsheafe Lane which subsequently backfired on them). The Ash manager saying we weren’t a threat. Colne. The Coney Hall abandonment and following shit-storm. Reading Town’s ground. Chessington and Hook. The meatheads around Herne Bay. Eamogate.

Getting bored a quarter of the way through the second CCL season when the novelty wore off. Watching turgid shit at places like Bashley, Ash United and Leatherhead. The Soccer AM media circus that surrounded us against Windsor and Eton. Nick Roddis. The can throwing incident at Walton Casuals. The ever-so-sudden price rises for catering whenever we visited.

The comments that we were BBB. The top bod at an opposing CS club who said in the boardroom that AFCW should have started in junior league. The same attitudes prevailing in places like the Tony Kempster site. The freakshow groundhopper types. The non-league purists. Darlogate. The way the Slurrey Senior Cup committee chucked us out of their competition without even a right to reply. The 18 points. Finding out just what the “non league family” really thought of us when we tried to get them back. The reaction when we got 15 points returned. The constant finger pointing at us. Helping out Fisher and discovering that their turnstile operator wore a Franchise scarf as thanks. The discovery that a couple of other fans from other sides wore same scarves as “solidarity”.

Turdey. The tall poppy syndrome. The tedious chip on the shoulder we’re shown. The usual list of grievences against us that are easily argued against but still repeated ad nauseum. The smear and innuendo about us “killing Kingstonian”, totally ignoring anything we put to rubbish that. The last minute goal at Bromley on Easter Bank Holiday Monday and susequent justification for it. The Eastleigh handball goal, with their chairman telling us to stop complaining. The feeling it’s OK to cheat against us and we have no right to complain back. The non-league fan I spoke to who was utterly, utterly amazed that we were so open with our accounts and said “We just don’t do honesty in non-league”.

And then you wonder why we’re so glad to go to Mansfield next season.