AFC Wimbledon on brink of history in League Two play-off final

By Rob StevensBBC Sport
Adebayo Azeez celebrates Wimbledon's play-off victory with two of the club's supporters
Manager Neal Ardley says Monday's play-off final will be "the biggest occasion" in AFC Wimbledon's history
League Two play-off final: AFC Wimbledon v Plymouth Argyle
Date: Monday, 30 May Venue: Wembley Kick-off: 15:00 BST
Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio London and BBC Radio Devon; live text commentary on BBC Sport website

AFC Wimbledon have enjoyed a remarkable rise since the phoenix club was formed in 2002, and could reach the third tier for their first time in their 14-year history on Monday.

The Dons began life in the Combined Counties League and won five promotions in nine years to reach the Football League in 2011.

Having reached the League Two play-off final, the supporter-owned club are now one victory away from promotion to League One.

"It could only be likened, in my eyes, to raising a child," striker Lyle Taylor, 26, told BBC Sport.

"You spend years and a lot of money bringing that child up and for that child to then achieve something successful, you are happy as a parent.

"There are not many clubs in professional football that are younger than me. To be part of it is something special."

An extraordinary journey

AFC Wimbledon fans
AFC Wimbledon began life in step five in the non-league pyramid, English football's ninth tier

The Dons were formed after an independent Football Association-appointed commission gave permission to the old Wimbledon FC, then playing at Selhurst Park, to move to Milton Keynes.

The controversial decision, which eventually allowed the ailing Dons to be rebranded as Milton Keynes Dons, left fans of Wimbledon needing to start again.

They had two aims; to get back to the Football League and return to their spiritual home of Merton, which Wimbledon FC were forced to leave in 1991.

After holding open trials on Wimbledon Common back in 2002, AFC Wimbledon attracted 2,449 fans to their opening league game.

On Monday, more than 20,000 Dons fans are expected at Wembley to watch the south-west London club face Plymouth Argyle.

"It is one of the times you step back and look at the scenery," Dons chief executive Erik Samuelson told BBC Radio London. "It is extraordinary to think what this journey has been.

"One of the strange things is that out of such an appallingly bad decision, made in such a chicken-hearted way, something terrific has come out of it."

The 'privileged ones'

AFC Wimbledon striker Lyle Taylor
Striker Lyle Taylor is AFC Wimbledon's top scorer this season with 22 goals

Each player AFC Wimbledon recruit is versed in the history of the club, and the struggle the fans have gone through to re-establish their position in the English football's pyramid.

"It is the fans' club, not ours," former player and first-team coach Simon Bassey said.

"We try to explain it to the players. We have got a great set of lads this year and the connection between the crowd and the players is great."

The current squad have a close bond with the supporters, evident in a pitch invasion following the completion of their play-off semi-final victory at Accrington which the players gleefully took part in.

"This club wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the passion and determination of the fans - and a certain core of individuals," centre-back Paul Robinson, 34, added.

"You have to recognise the importance of the fans and what it has taken to get here.

"We are the privileged ones as we get to wear the shirt and perform for them. To achieve something with this club would be awesome."

'Wimbledon and Wembley has a ring to it'

Eric Young, Lawrie Sanchez, Dave Beasant and Terry Phelan celebrate Wimbledon FC's FA Cup win in 1988
AFC Wimbledon see their club as a continuation of the old Wimbledon FC, who beat Liverpool to win the FA Cup at Wembley in 1988

With their Conference play-off final in 2011 being held at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, Monday's play-off final against Plymouth will be AFC Wimbledon's first competitive game at Wembley.

For many of the club's supporters, the trip to the national stadium will bring back great memories - not from an 8-1 friendly victory over Corinthian Casuals in 2008 but the original Wimbledon FC's 1988 FA Cup final win over Liverpool.

"Wimbledon and Wembley has a lovely ring to it and we know why," Dons boss Neal Ardley said.

However, Ardley does not believe this match is the biggest match in the club's 12-year history - citing promotion to the Football League in 2011 and preserving their League Two status with victory against Fleetwood on the final day in 2013.

"But it is the biggest occasion in the club's history," the 43-year-old said.

"It is a most unique club and a wonderful feeling for me and this group of players to take these fans to Wembley; fans who 14 years ago were dealt the biggest kick you could possibly imagine and rolled their sleeves up and said 'no, it's not happening'."

An unwanted rivalry

AFC Wimbledon fans
AFC Wimbledon fans have made three competitive trips to Stadium MK, the home of MK Dons

Promotion would put AFC Wimbledon in the same division as MK Dons, who were relegated from the Championship in April.

AFC have previously played MK Dons three times, all at Stadium MK; in the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, but they could meet on a level playing field for the first time in the league.

"I always dreamt of the day we climb above them," said Ivor Heller, who was one of AFC Wimbledon's founder members and is now the club's commercial director.

"That is something that I think will be justice. They will never get what we have got because they didn't do it right in the first place."

After their first meeting in December 2012, MK Dons boss Karl Robinson spoke of wanting a "healthy rivalry" between the two clubs, but it is not reciprocated from south-west London.

"I can't ignore it. It has a certain fascination for the media but it is no incentive," Samuelson added.

"Really, they shouldn't be part of Monday. This is about us, what we have done, the ethos of us and the new stadium we are hoping to build.

"They don't deserve any part of this."

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