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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 April, 2004, 20:50 GMT 21:50 UK
Dons' darkest day
By Dan Warren

Few supporters of AFC Wimbledon will shed a tear at relegation to Division Two of the club they used to support.

Dave Beasant's penalty save was part of the greatest day in Wimbledon's history
Dave Beasant's penalty save was part of the greatest day in Wimbledon's history
Yet all football fans should feel a pang of sorrow at the seemingly unarrestable decline of the Dons.

Relegation appears to have completed the tale of Wimbledon's rise and fall - ending one of the last great romantic stories in football.

The club's success in the 1980s was straight from the pages of Roy of the Rovers.

And it will not happen again.

The Wimbledon who rose to become one of the most feared teams in the country were a rag-tag bunch of misfits, miscreants and - famously - one former hod carrier in the shape of a certain Vinnie Jones.

The self-styled 'Crazy Gang' may not have played the prettiest football, but their remarkable team spirit unsettled even the most prestigious opposition.

Not least on the occasion in 1988 when Lawrie Sanchez's header and Dave Beasant's penalty save won them the FA Cup against the mighty Liverpool.

English teams were banned from Europe back then, but heaven knows what our continental cousins would have made of the Dons.

Yet the seeds of their decline were sown in the same year as their greatest triumph.

1889: Club formed
1963: Won Amateur Cup
1964: Club turns professional
1977: Elected to league
1983: Division Four title
1984: Promotion to Div Two
1986: Promotion to Div One
1988: FA Cup winners
1991: Move to Selhurst Park
2000: Relegated to Div One
2003: Move to Milton Keynes
2004: Relegated to Div Two

Plans for a 20,000 all-seater stadium just down the road from Plough Lane were approved by Merton Council.

But no work was forthcoming, and following change of political control of the council the site was eventually turned into a public park.

And as Plough Lane could not be converted to an all-seater venue - as demanded of top-division teams in the Taylor Report - the Dons had to move, becoming tenants at Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park.

Seasons passed and various plans for stadia came and went - but nothing ever got off the drawing board.

Not that it seemed to affect the team.

The Dons were consistent performers in the newly-formed Premiership, finishing a best-ever sixth in 1994.

But ever-more outlandish plans - for a move to Cardiff, then Dublin - illustrated the club's increasing desperation.

And when club chairman Sam Hammam sold his shareholding to a pair of Norwegian businessmen in 1997, then one year later sold Plough Lane to supermarket chain Safeway, the Dons started to run out of luck.

Fans have deserted Wimbledon in droves this season
Fans have deserted Wimbledon in droves this season
Relegation from the top division - a prediction made pretty much every season since the mid-1980s - finally happened in 2000.

And in 2001, chairman Charles Koppel first announced his intention to relocate to Milton Keynes.

Dons fans were furious and the closer the move came, the fewer fans turned up to watch, and in 2002 switched their allegiance en masse to the newly-formed amateur side AFC Wimbledon.

The professional club's move in September 2003 slightly improved their dire fan numbers but on the field, this season has been a nothing short of a disaster.

Bereft of a single point in 2004 before Saturday's surprise win at Wigan, relegation has been inevitable for weeks, if not months.

And will there be another Crazy Gang in the future?

Well if AFC Wimbledon keep getting promoted, and Wimbledon FC keep getting relegated, they will be in the same division in three years.

That would be a remarkable story, another chapter in the fascinating tale of Wimbledon.

But even fans wearing the rosiest of tinted spectacles know this relegation proves the days of the little teams trading blows with the big boys are well and truly over.

Wimbledon 1-2 Sunderland
06 Apr 04  |  English Div 1

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