Heightened security measures will be in place at AFC Wimbledon’s Kingsmeadow stadium on Tuesday night for the highly charged first home match against MK Dons, the club that took away the old Wimbledon to Milton Keynes 15 years ago.
The progress of the supporter-owned AFC Wimbledon since their resurrection then, beginning in English football’s ninth tier, has been so remarkable they start the match above MK Dons in League One, as they have been for much of this season.
However, bitterness within Wimbledon’s support still runs so deep at the perceived theft of their club to Milton Keynes, which was infamously sanctioned by a Football Association-appointed panel, there are fears of ugly scenes at the normally amiable south London ground. Wimbledon’s chief executive, Erik Samuelson, issued an extended statement on Sunday, headlined “Safety is paramount”, explaining unprecedented ticketing arrangements designed to guard against the potential for emotions to spill over into trouble.
Only 650 tickets have been made available to MK Dons fans, who have to travel in designated coaches to the ground, so their entry can be managed by stewards and police. MK Dons directors who choose to attend the match will not be entertained by the AFC Wimbledon directors but will watch the game with their supporters, as the Wimbledon board members did at the league fixture in Milton Keynes in December, which MK Dons won 1-0.
A Metropolitan police spokeswoman said the Tuesday’s match has been classed as category B – medium risk – giving no further detail except: “An appropriate policing plan for the game is in place and we are liaising with representatives of both clubs.”
Worries about the reaction of Wimbledon supporters to seeing the club they have always reviled and dubbed “franchise” playing at their own home ground have been increased by the hostility levelled at Karl Robinson, the former MK Dons manager, when his Charlton Athletic team played a 1-1 draw at Kingsmeadow last month. An abusive banner was unfurled, which has led to supporters having to register flags and banners in advance of Tuesday night’s game, and Robinson was abused at the end of the match by a volunteer groundsman who has since left the club.
Samuelson condemned the incident as “completely unacceptable” and said of the banner: “We work hard to create a friendly, family atmosphere at the club and this totally undermines that work. The people who did this have damaged our hard-won reputation among our own fans as well as football fans everywhere. We will do our utmost to prevent a repetition.”
AFC Wimbledon’s rise has won their supporters widespread admiration since they entered the newly formed club in the Combined Counties League in 2002, having campaigned vehemently against the then owners’ proposed move to Milton Keynes. Fans adopted as a badge of honour the famously sniffy judgment of two members on the three-person FA panel, that to start their own club, rather than be part of the Milton Keynes move, would not be “in the wider interests of football”.
Formed and still owned as a mutual and democratic supporters trust, AFC Wimbledon won promotion back to the Football League in 2011 and the manager, Neal Ardley, took his team up again in May with a 2-0 victory against Plymouth Argyle in the League Two play-off final at Wembley.
In October Wimbledon moved above MK Dons, who have struggled since their relegation from the Championship last season under Robinson. Wimbledon, having agreed in principle to sell Kingsmeadow to Chelsea, have advanced plans to build and open a stadium back near their old home at Plough Lane in Merton for the start of the 2019-20 season.
Samuelson told the Guardian he did not want to dwell on the strong feelings still harboured by many supporters against MK Dons, saying: “Everybody in football knows the story; there is no need for me to repeat it. We want to get the game played safely, hopefully to win it, and move closer to our 52-point target for survival in League One.”
Pete Winkelman, the former music industry entrepreneur who engineered the transfer of the old Wimbledon to Milton Keynes and is still the club’s owner and chairman, declined to comment on the game.
A statement by MK Dons explaining the all-ticket arrangements, and advising the game will be beamed live to the Milton Keynes stadium, said the measures were necessary because “the interests and safety of supporters attending the game [are] of paramount importance”.
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