An Unwanted Rivalry

wimbledonDec. 2 marks round 2 of the oldest club cup in the world the English FA Cup. Now round 2 doesn’t usually draw too much attention outside of England as most of the big names don’t enter the tournament until later. In England though, this Sunday will be a special one if only for one game on the schedule: MK Dons vs. AFC Wimbledon.

Huh?

Well, there’s a history in this game that is ten years in the making and the neutrals are probably looking forward to this more than some in the two clubs are. Ten years ago, the financially struggling Wimbledon was given permission to move 60 km away to Milton Keynes. I know here in North America we’re thinking: yeah? so? Teams move all the time, the NFL Raiders moved and moved back. Last season the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes (formerly Winnipeg Jets) played the Winnipeg Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) and the new Jets also played the Calgary Flames (formerly Atlanta Flames – which should tell you all you need to know about hockey in Atlanta). In baseball, three of the five teams in California have histories on the east coast (A’s from Philly, Dodgers and Giants from New York). Again, the structures of the leagues is so different that it alters how teams can exist and move within the league structures. We take it as a fact of life that you can lose your team at the whim of some rich guy; in England, the Wimbledon move was almost unprecedented and was seen as a move toward the American franchise system.

When Wimbledon left to become MK Dons, from the ashes rose a new club basically centered around the old fan base, but with more of a stake in the team so the would never lose the team again: AFC Wimbledon was founded. Despite the fears of franchising, the opposite has proved true with the foundation of a number of community-owned teams in reaction to ownership struggles (AFC Liverpool and FC United of Manchester). The AFC Wimbledon team started way down in the 9th tier of English football, but over the last decade has worked itself up to League 2, achieving promotion about every two seasons along the way. MK Dons sits in League 1, and so the inevitable was approaching, everyone knew at some point old and new would have to meet. Sure enough, the draw for the FA Cup put the two teams together should they survive their round 1 matches. Obligingly, Wimbledon beat York in extra time, and MK Dons easily saw off Cambridge in a replay. With news that the meeting was set, the media has gone nuts playing up the rivals.

While MK Dons looks at it as a way to close the past, AFC Wimbledon have struggled with how to approach this game. The scars are still very fresh for many of the fans and executives. The fanzine of AFC Wimbledon refuses to acknowledge the existence of MK Dons and never reports on them. Many fans of AFC have declared that they will not go to the match, because they refuse to give a shilling to “that club” – again avoiding the name. Even the AFC Wimbledon Chief Executive has said, “It is, as I have said in many, many press interviews, a game that was always going to happen someday. Personally, I wish it had happened after I relinquished this role, but so be it.” The AFC board have also refused any traditionally hospitality at Stadium MK, and will instead sit with the away supporters.

One side anticipates the match, the other approaches with anything ranging from trepidation to outright hostility. Nor do these teams meet on even terms, Wimbledon is a League below MK Dons, and almost two considering the current placing of AFC near the bottom of League 2 and MK Dons near the top of League 1. MK Dons have home field advantage, you could argue that AFC Wimbledon has something to prove. I expect MK Dons to win, but everyone loves an underdog, especially a wronged one.

I’m interested in rivalries, but what if the two teams don’t want to be rivals yet are thrust into the role through circumstance? There is no getting out of it in this situation, whatever happens on Sunday will be seen through that lens. There is clearly animosity between the two, but is this some match up that AFCW or MKD will ever look forward to? The role of history in the creation of rivalries is so important and the history of these two is poisoned.

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