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From Crazy Gang to Culture Club

By Peter Scrivener

Seven years ago, a Football Association-appointed committee said that "resurrecting 'Wimbledon Town' was not in the wider interests of football".

It was a statement that outraged many Wimbledon fans who were already hurting from the decision to move their club to Milton Keynes and they took it upon themselves to prove the doubting three-man FA panel wrong.

AFC Wimbledon
AFC Wimbledon's Jon Main is mobbed in celebraton by fans as promotion is effectively sealed last weekend

Fast forward to 2009 and 'Wimbledon Town', or AFC Wimbledon as the team became, has done just that in spectacular fashion by reaching the Blue Square Premier League after a fourth promotion in seven years.

Their rise from the ninth tier of the football pyramid draws inevitable comparisons with Wimbledon's climb from Division Four to the top flight of English football in the 1980s.

That rise was punctuated with a victory over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final, prompting BBC commentator John Motson to utter the immortal line: "The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club."

And this Crazy Gang spirit lives on in the supporters who give up their time to run the club.

AFC Wimbledon was conceived on 28 May, 2002 in supporter Ivor Heller's factory.

The date is a particularly poignant one in Dons history as exactly 25 years earlier the club had been elected from the Southern League, which they had won in the previous three years, to the Football League

Hellor, Mark Jones and Trevor Williams were plotting the conception while other supporters were in London's Soho Square to protest against, and then hear, the decision to move the club to Milton Keynes.

"We all felt that if Milton Keynes happened, we had to start another club," Heller who is now AFC Wimbledon's commercial director, told BBC Sport.

"We were in touch with Kris Stewart (who was chairman of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association and eventually became chairman of AFC) and he turned up the next day which really galvanised things. The rest is history."

And what a history. In seven years, the team have climbed from the Combined Counties League, the ninth tier of the football pyramid, to the fifth.

606: DEBATE

They cantered to their first title in only their second season with an unbeaten league record and followed that by winning the Isthmian League Division One at the first attempt.

After losing two Isthmian League Premier Division play-off semi-finals, the Dons made it third time lucky in 2008 to reach Conference South.

And this season, the club raced through the division, effectively securing promotion with a 1-1 draw at second-placed Hampton & Richmond in their penultimate game.

"I'm ecstatic," said Heller. "It's amazing. My major ambition was to get to the Conference.

"I've always been just a fan and I live and breathe every kick.

"But this is different to back in the 70s and 80s. It's a part of me and I'm a part of it. Everybody at the club feels a part of it.

"Some fans won't be satisfied until we're back in the Premier League, but the Conference was my ambition."

And now they are there, there is no rush to launch an assault on winning promotion to the Football League. The club have vowed to stay part-time in its first season in the Conference.

It is a calculated gamble, but one that fits in with the club's ethos of living within their means.

The club is built on a solid foundation and it was my dream to have my football club to follow when I got old

Ivor Hellor

"It's a massive financial leap to go full-time," said Heller. "So we'll do the best we can in the Conference and if that's good enough to get us into the play-offs or better, then great. If not, it's not a worry.

"We also have to get our youth policy right, develop our community scheme and stay true to our ethos, every club has its limits.

"The club is built on a solid foundation and it was my dream to have my football club to follow when I got old."

Club president and former Wimbledon goalkeeper Dickie Guy has also been involved since the start after he received a phone call asking him to check out potential goalkeepers at the club's initial trial on Wimbledon Common, in the summer of 2002.

He played for Wimbledon throughout the 1970s and was in goal during their famous 1975 FA Cup run where they beat Burnley at Turf Moor to become the first non-League team to defeat a top flight club on their own ground.

He then saved a Peter Lorimer penalty as the Dons held reigning First Division champions Leeds to a draw at Elland Road in round four before losing to an own goal in the replay.

"We will get back into the Football League, but it won't be next season," said Guy who made about 20 appearances for Wimbledon in the Fourth Division in 1977.

"It would benefit us to be a bit more physical next season, but I don't want to lose the style of football way we play.

"I feel fortunate to have been involved in the good times at the club when we were winning the Southern League and now in our current run.

"But playing was much easier than watching. It was always more relaxing to be on the pitch.

AFC Wimbledon
Ours really is a great story... and if we get to the Football League, believe me, they'll turn it into a film

Ivor Heller

"But it has been a fantastic season and much better than I expected - I would have been happy to be in and around the play-offs.

"We had a terrific start, tailed off by Christmas and were about 12 points behind Chelmsford, but then we steamrollered them all.

"We've felt the pressure and tension in the last few games and when we equalised against Hampton & Richmond last week I thought I was going to have a heart attack."

That 1-1 draw effectively sealed promotion ahead of Saturday's last game of the season.

The Dons welcomed St Albans to their home at Kingsmeadow, which has a capacity of 4,700, and had been sold out for days.

The Wombles ended the season on a high, with a 3-0 win and several supporters completed a charity walk from the Hertfordshire club to south-west London to watch the game.

Among them was board member and club mascot Dean Parsons, aka Haydon the Womble, who is looking forward to visiting places like Luton and Mansfield next season.

Just 17 years ago, Wimbledon v Luton was a top-flight fixture and the Dons beat the Hatters 2-1 in the semi-final of the 1988 FA Cup at White Hart Lane.

"The first game I ever went to, in 1983, was against Mansfield," he said.

"We are just one step away from the Football League and I'd like to think we can now beat our 15-year plan to return.

"In manager Terry Brown we've got a man who has done it before.

"He almost took Aldershot up from the Conference when they were only part-time in 2005 and lost to Shrewsbury in the play-offs.

"He said it was a bit of a blessing because of their part-time status and they wouldn't have been prepared.

"But we've come this far in seven years and it may take us another five to go this next step, but I won't be disappointed if it takes longer."

The club's resurrection has certainly been stunning and was retold on the stage at a Wimbledon theatre in 2004.

"Ours really is a great story," laughed Heller, "and if we get to the Football League, believe me, they'll turn it into a film."

Maybe the Crazy Gang is turning into the Culture Club.



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see also
AFC Wimbledon wrap up promotion
25 Apr 09 |  Non League
Ups and downs
25 Apr 09 |  Football
Gayle relishes AFC Wimbledon role
11 Sep 08 |  Non League
Cup magic back in Wimbledon
07 Nov 08 |  FA Cup
Wimbledon to change name
21 Jun 04 |  Milton Keynes
AFC Wimbledon enjoy title glory
09 Apr 05 |  Non League
AFC Wimbledon bid for new home
26 Mar 03 |  Football
New Dons go non-league
25 Jun 02 |  Wimbledon


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