You know feelings are pretty intense when one club won't even refer to another as a "rival." Or when some supporters refuse to even attend a game, partly out of not wishing to legitimize the existence of the other team, partly because it's too hurtful to even watch that other club play.
"It's like visiting the scene of a crime," said Ivor Heller, one of the founding members of AFC Wimbledon.
AFC Wimbledon was destined to play Milton Keynes Dons some day, at which point a decade of anger, recrimination and a profound sense of injustice was going to come to the fore. It happened Sunday in the FA Cup.
MK Dons won, 2-1, to advance to the next round. This was expected. MK Dons stands third in England's third-tier League One, while AFC Wimbledon is one spot above the relegation zone a division below.
But the tale runs much deeper. To understand it, you need to go back to the leafy southwest London neighborhood of Wimbledon, home to the All-England Tennis Club and, until 1991, a ramshackle stadium called Plough Lane. That's where—for lack of a better term—the "original" Wimbledon played, Wimbledon Football Club.
For most of its history, it played in regional semiprofessional leagues, but in 1976-77 it won promotion to the fourth tier of England's soccer pyramid, igniting an improbable rise that, by 1986, saw the club in the top flight and, two years later, upsetting then-mighty Liverpool to win the FA Cup.
Wimbledon FC acquired a kind of romantic dimension as the ultimate overachieving underdog, battling away with a physical, old-school direct style and a colorful group of players known as the Crazy Gang. The problem was that the club had risen too quickly and its fan base failed to keep pace, especially in a market like London, with its 14 professional clubs. In addition, Wimbledon FC's owner opted not to redevelop Plough Lane, forcing the club to share a stadium with Crystal Palace some six miles away. This only depressed attendance further and, without a ground to call its own, Wimbledon FC began losing money and, in 2000, was relegated from the Premier League.
Shortly thereafter, the club's owners were approached by a man named Pete Winkelman, a recording industry executive-turned-real estate magnate. Milton Keynes, a town of some 190,000 inhabitants 45 miles outside of London, didn't have a professional club, largely because it was a so-called new town, an ambitious urban development created out of English countryside by the British government in the 1960s. Winkelman persuaded the owners to sell him the club on the condition that he could move it to Milton Keynes, where it would have a sizable instant fan base and would no longer need to compete for attention with giant London clubs like Tottenham, Arsenal or Chelsea. On May 28, 2002, an independent commission appointed by England's Football Association approved the proposal. This happened even though the FA itself and the Football League, which oversees the three English divisions below the Premier League, had opposed it, as did a vast majority of supporters of all stripes.
Franchise relocation may be an accepted—if painful—part of the U.S. sports landscape. After all, without promotion and relegation, relocation is the only way besides expansion onto the big-time sports map. But in soccer, it's pretty much anathema. No club of Wimbledon FC's size and historical relevance has ever moved in this way or this far away.
It was decided that the club would physically move two years later, in 2004-05. But even as all this was happening, supporters hit back in the most inspirational way. They formed a new club: AFC Wimbledon. Suddenly, there were two Wimbledons. One was owned by Winkleman, already cast as a cartoonish villain intent on "stealing" a club. The other was owned and operated by supporters. No prizes for guessing who enjoyed more sympathy from neutrals.
The new team held open tryouts on Wimbledon Common and two weeks later, 4,657 showed up for a friendly match against another amateur team. This was substantially more than the other Wimbledon's average attendance of 2,787, eight divisions higher. Thus began a meteoric rise that mirrored that of the old Wimbledon FC. With five promotions in nine seasons, the club returned to the professional game in League Two, the fourth tier of the English pyramid.
Meanwhile, in the summer of 2004, to coincide with the move, Winkelman changed his club's colors and crest, as well as its name. Thus was born Milton Keynes Dons. That alone led to more acrimony. "Dons" was FC Wimbledon's longtime nickname. Not only had they lost their team, an interloper was also now appropriating their name.
Fast forward to the present. The hope is that Sunday's meeting might help bring some sense of normality and end the resentment. Wimbledon fans have their own club now and it's not far off from where they left their previous one. Even Winkelman—while underscoring that if he had not moved the club, it might have gone bankrupt—appeared somewhat repentant.
"I did a deal that was wrong and the owners [of Wimbledon at the time] were wrong [in agreeing to it]," he said in the Guardian. "I'm not proud of the way football came to Milton Keynes."
In 2007, under pressure from the Football Supporters Federation—the umbrella organization of soccer fans in England—who refused to recognize MK Dons supporters, Winkelman handed back old Wimbledon FC memorabilia and trademarks, including the replica of the 1988 FA Cup.
The only point of contention left is the name: Dons. The pro-Wimbledon camp views the idea of Milton Keynes's abandoning its name as the final step toward closure, hoping to shear the last tie binding MK Dons to Wimbledon FC.
"That would do it for me," says Heller.
But having been pariahs in the English game for nearly a decade, MK Dons supporters might feel differently. "We're Keeping the Dons: Just Get Over It" read one banner Sunday.
The sense of injustice lingers on. But as AFC Wimbledon continues to grow, the pain diminishes. You can forgive, but it's important that the English game doesn't forget and that it never allows this to happen again to another set of fans, ones who might not have the resources to relaunch and rise again the way Wimbledon did.
—Gabriele Marcotti is the world soccer columnist for the Times of London and a regular broadcaster for the BBC.