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Nine years on

An anniversary can be a double edged sword at the worst of times. Normally, it’s a celebration of some kind – your wedding, your birthday, first job, first grope, a defining victory, that kind of thing. On the flip side, an anniversary can also refer to somebody’s death, or some other tale of woe that you will never fully overcome.

Which is why today, for AFCW fans, you can be forgiven for feeling a bit confused.

Depending on what we’re doing, future 28ths of May will either be a source for a great told-you-so moment, or that ever-so-slight rekindling of anger, of injustice,  of simply the memories of having your noses rubbed in it.

On this particular anniversary, the mood is the ultimate “fuck you”. Danny Kedwell’s penalty was not only the promotion-winning one, it meant much, much more than that. Never has a moment been so symbolic – if it’s possible to have the biggest middle finger, it would have been raised at that precise moment. And continued to be raised well into the new season.

It’s a shame that one cannot do it literally – vindication is such a powerful emotion, after all. We all know it showed the footballing world what could be done with a bit of planning and a determination like no other.

It managed to go even deeper than that, as in it proved to a certain set of people that their way was wrong. In one spot-kick, the whole ethos and reasoning behind franchising Wimbledon FC’s league place to Buckinghamshire was tarnished forever. The arguments – no, lies – that the club simply had to move, that it would go into admin if it didn’t – and what a fantastic front page this was to create at the time – and the still repeated claim that WFC was “saved” by moving to Buckinghamshire were gloriously rubbished in the most public way possible.

Even writing this nine years to the day of THAT decision still raises strong emotions. Despite everything that has happened since then, it will still feel like a wrong will never be totally righted. Even thinking back to the structure of the three man commission itself – why was every decision before then that went in our favour allowed to be appealled, yet the 3MC wasn’t? To this day, and to many days beyond, it will feel that we were led up the garden path and stabbed in the back right at the gate.

Personally speaking, I will always be convinced the authorities wanted franchises in football, and we were a test case. That the experiment failed is of a great deal of satisfaction but not exactly one to give us revenge. Even promotion to the Football League was described afterwards in one paper as AFCW fans being in “partial peace”.

Which is why the chant of “Nine years, it only took nine years” will be the most poignant chant you will have heard for ages.

So, why did it take a year short of a decade? If you’ve already read this far, people were (and are) so determined to prove a point that it almost became inevitable. It wasn’t of course, in fact, here’s what Clive Tildsley said before Stevenage:

I’ve charted your story now and where you began. What strikes me is that there was no inevitability about your rise – it would have been very understandable if for some reason you had lost momentum. But you didn’t. Looking from the outside, to have come this far is amazing and I respect that enormously. Obviously you want to continue upwards, but even if you weren’t able to, what you have done so far is still a major achievement.

Until AFCW either got its new ground or got back into the Football League. we were never going to take the real steps needed to reclaim Wimbledon. Doing the latter was a massive, massive jolt to that particular system. Everything we’ve wanted to prove for the last 108 months will finally come to fruition.

But the main reason why we’ve progressed is that we’ve actually been pretty well organised. Our ability to adapt to some pretty polarised footballing cultures has been amazing. The AFCW that started its first competitive game at Sandhurst with the straw bales is totally different to the one that finished amongst the laser blue seats at Eastlands.

What was AFCW in 2002? Or 2003? Or the Turdeyland era? Or the AFCW that got out of that poxy league and headed to Newport? Or the Conference bound one? Or the one that went full time? Or the one that now has an invite to Cyprus for the Football League AGM…?

Yet looking back, it almost seemed so effortless. This was because the club was willing to adapt, progress forward and most importantly of all learn from its mistakes. In other words, it changed because it had to.

Many would say it had a plan, but in fact it didn’t. Not initally, anyway. It was certainly not getting to the Football League in nine seasons, which we wouldn’t have done if we’d explicitly set out to do it. Sure, we wanted to be back in it, but we were going to take our time and get it right…

That is why getting promoted to the 91 Club feels more like a natural progression than the Holy Grail. It’s a significant step in more ways than one, certainly the biggest in the AFCW era, but one senses this is just the beginning, and the last nine years was just us paying our dues.

This was brought home to your editor the day before this article was written when I passed Walton and Hersham’s ground. It was only a twinge of nostalgia, and I didn’t bother getting out of the car, but I did park up for 30 seconds by their two rusty turnstiles and the memories came trickling back.

Yesterday, Stompold Lane looked like what it really was – a tatty, old-style municipal athletics track where the local lowly non-league team plays to a couple of hundred every other week. Back in our day, it was something different. Who could forget being told we were plastic fans by those wearing Chelski shirts? I bet none of them even know they have a local football team now, let alone go there.

But just that brief stop-off reminded me that while the last nine years haven’t been irrelevant, they will cease to have much meaning beyond nostalgia. Like Walton and Hersham are. We got our club back, and now we’ve got our League place back, and that’s partial closure. We don’t need to pay any attention to that level again, unless you want to.

There’s a temptation over this summer on a quiet day to return to some old CCL, Ryman and even Conference haunts, just for old times sake. While Sandhurst and Merstham will feature  highly on the list, do yourself a favour and visit the Axewounds, or W&H, or Bromley too if you have a caravan to sell. You will probably only do it once, in fact that’s all you’ll need to do.

And I think this is what the conclusion of the last nine years has been, and how it’s defined the Football League club called AFC Wimbledon. It’s been a journey but that’s all it’s turned out to be. In the grand scheme of things, there was nothing that special about it, just a process we had to go through. Perhaps it was inevitable we would be where we are now after all?

I’ve written god knows how much on this site for the last nine years, yet I’ve hardly sat back and read anything from the Ryman and even BSS days for ages. Perhaps I never will? I’ve only ever watched the playoff final on Football Hurts sporadically, and after the club gets the Luton DVD out (hint…) I may never dig it out again.

Or to put it another way, by this time next year I will have watched Danny Kedwell’s penalty much more than Mark DeBolla’s free kick.

Am I just taking one last potshot at a level of football I’ve never really liked and actually find quite hypocritical? And by that, I mean how quickly and readily players will move on for a few extra quid, while fans convinced themselves players in non-league love the game and their clubs. I suppose I am, but in the cool light of day, I’m starting to feel like Aldershot fans felt when they went up.

As far as developing the club itself goes, and the statement it’s made, and the trials on Wimbledon Common etc, the last nine years has meant a lot. In fact, it’s meant everything, and the next nine years will be as interesting again. Maybe even more so. For the football and the culture itself we’ve left behind, even I’m shocked at how little it’s ultimately meant sitting here today. Guess I really did hate it that much after all…

There is one more thing to say on this anniversary, and that’s about the Conference itself. Or Blue Square Bet Premier, for commercial purposes. A division we’ve probably spent the best two years in, yet seems to slip many a Womble’s mind.

Two years ago, I was estatic to go into the BSP. Two years later, I am even happier to be out of it.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a good division for our development. It made us shake off a lot of the bad habits we’d picked up in the backwaters, it showed us what being an ex-League club was all about. It was like the demo version of a new computer game. Once we got over pinching ourselves at playing Mansfield and Luton, we overcame that fear and even started to enjoy ourselves at these venues.

Except Bootham Crescent, of course.

And I did enjoy it. Going to Barrow, taking two hours “home” to Manchester then realising just how far north I still was. The smash-and-grab at Wrexham the season just gone. Beating Crawley in our World Cup final. Even Nathan Elder’s miss (OK, that’s pushing it a bit…).

But I can’t help think that we’ve gone up at exactly the right time. I’m not just talking about people like Fleetwood and Mansfield spending money, but the whole non-league scene itself.  It seems like it’s dying a slow death. Part of that is down to the most lop-sided division anywhere I can think of : you have a full time professional outfit with 7000 attendances on the same field as part timers with 400 on a good day. That’s unsubstainable as it is at the best of times.

Kettering and Rushden are in big shit, Hayes and Yeading have had to merge but are struggling too. Indeed, if they don’t leave Woking by this time next year they could find themselves going down the route of Grays and Team Barf. Not to mention those lower down the divisions – in the next nine years, many of the clubs we’ve played won’t exist in their current form, be it through mergers or just disappearing altogether. A couple are already consigned to history’s dustbin.

Ironically, the CCL level clubs like Sandhurst may be the ones left standing – at that low level, they are genuine focal points for their local (usually small) communities. As we all know, Merstham sold so many cheese rolls that their rebuilt clubhouse is still used for all manner of social functions.

But that’s not our problem anymore (unless we get relegated, that is, although by the sounds of it you have to be seriously fucked to get relegated from L2). On this day in 2002, we lost what we have now. On this day between 2003 and 2010, we dreamed of what we  have today.

And right now, on 28 May 2011, we’re already mentally planning the next nine years…