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Most Americans have no idea what promotion and relegation means in the sports world. Many foreign leagues use this for sports such as basketball and soccer, where they have several tiers of competitive play and more than enough teams in the top level to go around. The best leagues have this simply based on the worst few teams getting dropped down a level, and the best teams in the next tier getting promoted to higher levels of play the next year. American sports leagues, despite the massive amount of farm leagues and minor leagues, are based on a franchise system that is solely based on the bottom line. A team will never be relegated, because the owners of the teams have signed a contract with the league to field a team in that league in that city.
However, I digress. The simple system of promotion and relegation means that there are Cinderella teams every year that seem to reach new levels, attempting the impossible and breaking through. George Mason University, the team that ran to the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship five years ago, has nothing on AFC Wimbledon. AFC Wimbledon is a team currently in the fourth level of the English soccer pyramid: npower League Two. The crazy part is how they got there.
Who is AFC Wimbledon? Well, the Dons, as they are affectionately called, are the 2002 creation of some pretty upset fans. Wimbledon Football Club was formed in 1899, and they were never much of a factor until the 1970s. In 1977, they capped off a Cinderella run by getting out of semi-pro and amateur leagues and into the top levels. Just nine years later, the club made into the highest level of soccer in England. They would win the highest trophy, the FA Cup, in 1988, but there were no other championships. In 2000, the club was relegated amid financial problems and resulting poor play.
With stadium seating an issue, Wimbledon was told they should move to Milton Keynes, a new town with space to build a proper stadium. In late 2000, a group of buyers approached the club representing the city of Milton Keynes, and despite fierce opposition, the buyers eventually won out after a long arbitration and appeal process. Wimbledon F.C. left, leaving thousands of angry fans in their wake. The Football Association, the governing body that had established an independent commission to decide whether the move was in line with all of the policies, was strongly opposed to the move as well.
Wimbledon F.C. became known as “Franchise F.C.”, and just weeks later, Kris Stewart, an accountant who hated the move, was the founding chairman of AFC Wimbledon. Later on, AFC would be called the spiritual successor of the original Wimbledon, and AFC claims the trophies won by their predecessor. However, the first chapter was written in what has become one of the greatest success stories ever in soccer, with the knowledge of said events becoming more and more prevalent.
While Wimbledon F.C. played a few more seasons, continuing to flounder and be relegated before the transformation into Milton Keynes Dons Football Club, AFC Wimbledon held an open try-out for three days in June 2002 for anyone willing to play. This shows that the move all along was not to preserve the history and integrity of Wimbledon F.C. but merely a way to buy a club and not build one from scratch. Anyway, AFC Wimbledon didn’t need any history or legacy, because their raucous fans, fans who were all part-owners of the team as a part of the one-fan, one-vote philosophy of the Dons Trust, were literally willing them to win.
AFC Wimbledon applied to the Isthmian League – also known as the Ryman League for sponsorship reasons, but they were denied entrance into this part of the seventh level of the English soccer pyramid. They were eventually admitted into the Combined Counties League (CCL), one of the leagues in the ninth level of the pyramid. With a hastily created team, they played a friendly in front of 4,657 fans in which they lost 4-0 to Sutton United at their home of Kingsmeadow. Kingsmeadow is known as The Cherry Red Records Fans’ Stadium, with the Fans’ part of the name emphasizing the club’s amazing beginning. AFC want to eventually return home, but paying off outstanding debts in the club’s creation are the primary goal.
The Dons would go on to finish third in the 2002-2003 CCL, winning their last 11 league games. They had an average attendance of well over 3,000, which actually was higher than the attendance at Wimbledon F.C. matches in Milton Keynes. In the following season, the Dons would win their first 21 matches in route to an unbeaten season (unbeaten in soccer includes wins and draws) and a first place finish, ensuring promotion in just their second season. They would also win the CCL cup, giving them an elusive double (when a team wins both the league and the cup tournament in the same year).
Playing in the Ryman/Isthmian Division One for the 2004-2005 season, the eighth step in the pyramid, AFC smashed the competition, leading all season and earning a second successive promotion, this one to the seventh step of the pyramid and the place that originally turned them down just three years prior, the Ryman/Isthmian Premier League. While they would win the Surrey Senior Cup that year, there would not be a third straight promotion. Albeit qualifying for the promotion playoffs (some leagues have a few teams playoff for a final promotion spot), they would get defeated 1-0 by Fisher Athletic F.C.. The 2005-2006 season did not fair much better, as AFC would finish fifth overall, missing the playoffs, and they were also part of an illegal player debate that was resolved with the governing body discovering it was just an error. The Dons’ magic seemed to be running out after back-to-back years of not being promoted.
Nevertheless, the 2007-2008 season saw AFC stun Staines Town 2-1 in the playoff final, after the Dons had finished third overall. AFC Wimbledon had won their way into the Conference South, where yet again, the club won back-to-back promotions, finding themselves into the Conference National or the fifth level of the English soccer pyramid for the 2009-2010 season. They had been one of the top clubs all season, but they would not win the title until the final day of the season.
Life in the fifth level of the pyramid was another wake-up call for the Dons, as they had their lowest finish ever at eighth for that first season. They were some 35 points off the leaders. Things would change the next season, as AFC would still finish fifteen points off the pace of the leaders, Crawley Town – a team amid scandal of their own with unpaid debts and no homegrown talent, simply buying players, but their second place ensured them a spot in the Football League promotion playoff. AFC would win 8-1 on aggregate in the first round, and then, with the penalty shootout tied at three apiece, 2009-2010 AFC Wimbledon Player of the Year Danny Kedwell scored to beat Luton Town in the final.
In just nine years, AFC Wimbledon had gone from the ninth level up to the fourth level of the English soccer pyramid. This season, their tenth, has gone smoothly still. Before the recent international break, as of Oct. 6, AFC Wimbledon were in fourth overall, just two points back from first place. Fourth means promotion playoff. While the first five promotions were sweet, this one would be the best to date, if it happens.
Currently, in the npower League One, MK Dons, the team that stole the original Wimbledon F.C. away, is high in the table. While they are second, MK Dons is just three points away from not even qualifying for the promotion playoffs. If it all works out, AFC Wimbledon could be playing their first even matches with MK Dons in the 2012-2013 season in npower League One. Even if MK Dons is promoted, there is nothing to say that AFC won’t follow them there in two more seasons. That derby match would be something to see.
AFC Wimbledon’s success with a small group of fans behind them is nothing short of legendary. I’m sure if this team is promoted to the Premier League in the next few years, then there will be a movie about it. This is the real Cinderella story for sports, because everyone was against them, but they’ve found a way to keep winning. I’m currently trying to become a member of the Dons Trust, and lend my support. While I’ve loved Barcelona for well over a decade and Seattle Sounders since their MLS inception, AFC Wimbledon has made me all the happier.
They’re sponsored by a Sega subsidiary this year, giving them even more legitimacy with some official looking blue and yellow kits. Recently, FC United of Manchester was a new club that was created by former fans of Manchester United unhappy with the club leadership. They are directly inspired by the success of AFC Wimbledon.
I hope I get to see AFC get promotion in real life. For now, I’m stuck with playing FIFA 12 and playing them into the Premier League. Interestingly, npower League Two is the lowest level of the English soccer pyramid that is in the FIFA series. This is their first year in the game, leading to that many more people finding their team and discovering their story.
In essence, this is the real Cinderella story of sports, and the clock doesn’t seem like it’s going to strike midnight for AFC Wimbledon anytime soon. For more information about them, their website is pretty good to find contact info and info about the team in general. You probably wont find them on television, but there are lots of websites with people who will stream these lower league games online. Seriously, watch them. It might not be Manchester United versus Chelsea, but it’s still good soccer.