FA Cup tie should close AFC Wimbledon-MK Dons dispute

The supporters of Neal Ardley's team are unlikely to ever forgive those that allowed Wimbledon FC to move to Milton Keynes but should define themselves on their own achievements
By Oliver Platt at Stadium MK

The story of Wimbledon FC is unique and so was this cup tie. Rarely has an FA Cup second-round encounter been so anticipated but this was no regular grudge match; many AFC Wimbledon supporters denied that it was one at all. For 89 minutes this was a fairly dull affair punctuated only by two moments of real quality; then, suddenly, emotions spilled in the stands and on the pitch. Jubilation, despair, pride and, perhaps most of all, relief.

For now, it is all over. The Wimbledon manager, Neal Ardley, called it a milestone. "From the fans' point of view, I don't think they'll ever forget [how Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes]. But it's a milestone for them, that they've got this out of the way, the first ever match [against MK Dons] in a big cup competition. And it's a celebration of how far we've come in a short space of time. I think that's what it should be."

That seems a good sentiment with which both clubs can move on from this fixture. AFC Wimbledon have achieved remarkable things and blazed a trail for fan-owned clubs in the English leagues. But, like it or not, MK Dons have an exciting future ahead of them, too.

The ending to this chapter of the tale was devastating for the 3,030 visiting supporters but Ardley remained dignified in defeat. Jon Otsemobor won the tie with a stunning flick of his boot less than two minutes after Steven Gregory had squandered a gilt-edged chance at the opposite end.

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"I'm proud of the club, for where they've come in 10 years," Ardley said. "I think this is a celebration of us. I'm proud of everyone and the way we handled the week. I think this moment, that our fans have dreaded, has come and gone. Whether it's us or them talking about moral victories, it's a celebration of how far this club has come in a short space of time. The main thing for me was to do them proud and have a real go at it and we did that."

A small number of fans failed to contain their excitement at Otsemobor's winner and invaded the pitch; there were similar scenes in the away end when Jack Midson cancelled out Stephen Gleeson's opening goal in the second half. Vitriol flew between the two sets of supporters throughout but it never boiled over into anything unsavoury and, after the final whistle, the most positive lesson from this week became evident: both clubs are delighted with what they have got.

"Maybe I got a bit excited about the goal near the end but I'm not going to apologise for that," Karl Robinson, the MK Dons manager, reflected. "I love this football club and I love the players who wear our shirt. I know we get a bit of stick but I'm sure you'd rather see me celebrate than just stand there with a stone-faced smile."

AFC Wimbledon will baulk at the suggestion that they might follow the example of MK Dons in any way but, in Milton Keynes, they have had no choice but to try to define themselves on the good that they have achieved since they landed at the National Hockey Stadium in 2003, because their birth was far from English football's finest hour. This week, their owner, Pete Winkelman, has admitted his regret but he is not the only one who made mistakes and is far from the biggest culprit.

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Winkelman has been urged by Wimbledon and their local media to drop the 'Dons' suffix that forms part of the Milton Keynes club's name. That will not happen and they know it. It is time that AFC Wimbledon became a club identifiable not for the supposed ills of another but for what they strived to build themselves. Because what they have built is fantastic.

AFC Wimbledon will play MK Dons again and, eventually, they will win. It is probably too much to suggest that these two clubs could become rivals in the traditional sense; or perhaps it is just too soon. But the current back-and-forth is exhausting.

"I'm tired," Robinson admitted. "It's been a really tough week. It's been enjoyable but it's also been difficult as well. I thought the game typified two teams with hunger and passion for the club they played for. I think two teams can walk away from the stadium very proud of themselves, and that to me is all I wanted."

Could a rivalry emerge? "I hope so. Do I believe it will happen? We've got to sit back and reflect. We'll always have our doubters; the headlines will always be negative. Understandably so, for different reasons. I just hope that we can all make this a rivalry that we always look forward to. It might not be liked by certain circles, granted, so I'm not sure it's one they'd be too happy to see again. But that's their choice. I would be."

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