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SPORTS

AFC Wimbledon Survival Continues Success Story
Wimbledon's soccer fans are elated. They didn't win the league, they just didn't fall out of it ...and they're celebrating like they won the Cup. Erstwhile Womble Gary Jordan explains.
May 16, 2013

"It only took nine years" was the now infamous chant that was born May 21, 2011 at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. The reason? That was how long it took AFC Wimbledon to rise up from the lower leagues of the English non-league football pyramid system to take back their rightful place in the professional Football League. And so it was a great relief to their loyal fanbase, that as the recent soccer season reached its climax, they survived an almighty battle not to be relegated back into the non-league system.

The club was born again in 2002 after the Football Association (FA) allowed the original Wimbledon Dons owners to up sticks, Baltimore Colts-style, and replant the well established roots of over one hundred years miles up the motorway to Milton Keynes. A new Wimbledon AFC took their place in Surrey (at the Cherry Red Records Stadium, Kingston upon Thames, near Wimbledon), beginning five tiers of competition lower. But having climbed back to relevance, back onto TV screens, back to the national recognition of 'league' play (the top four tiers of competition), this year they had to survive a last day full of nerves to hold onto the league place they'd fought so hard to regain. Followers of the team, which has the backing of many others around the country who were also opposed to the FA decision, breathed a collective sigh of relief when the final whistle blew, preserving a 2-1 scoreline in favour of the new Dons, in a game they simply had to win.


AFC Wimbledon fans celebrate Photo: Matthew Black
The concept of relegation, and of course promotion, is something that fans of professional sports teams in the USA are not familiar with. In a game where money leads the way in terms of making it easier to climb up through the leagues - whether by automatic promotion or via the playoffs - dropping down a league or in this instance dropping out of it completely puts a heavy strain all involved on a day-to-day basis. There are casualties along the way in terms of management and coaching staff, and AFC Wimbledon suffered exactly this during the early part of the season. After a string of poor results the axe fell on Terry Brown, the mastermind who took the Dons back to the Promised Land with three promotions in just four years.

His replacement, Neil Ardley, is a former Wimbledon player with lots of coaching experience at a higher level. Admitting that he would play a brand of football that would ensure survival, he did just enough to back that up. He can now look forward to a summer in which he can put his own style of football in place, hopefully without flirting with the lower end of the league table.

How different would the four major sports in the States be with a promotion/relegation system in place? Of course itís hard to tell because there would not be enough pro teams around to fill the spots left behind by those that had to drop out. The Toronto Argonauts to replace the Kansas City Chiefs? The Norfolk Tides and Memphis Redbirds to duke it out to replace the Houston Astros?

One thing is for sure, coaching and general managers would be walking on a finer tightrope than they are already. With so much money involved, dropping down a division would have serious consequences. With a lack of sponsorship revenue, it becomes harder to attract big name players to the roster, which in turn makes it harder for an immediate return to the higher division. A knock-on effect would be a potential lack of spectators. The failure of a team is often represented by the lowering of the attendance figures - people donít like to watch a losing team.

Fans of teams would be more on edge and demand more from their team if the specter of a relegation to a lower division or league was hanging over them. The race for last place in this year's NBA Eastern Conference would have been different if the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats were facing the trap door of dropping out of the league. Would the Minnesota Twins have played harder if staying above .400 last year meant survival in the MLB? Similarly the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers would maybe have pushed harder if forty points was a safety mark in this yearís NHL.

In the UK, soccer fans support their team with a passion that is perhaps a little different to those in the USA. Iím not suggesting that American fans are less fanatical about their chosen team, but the roots of a team are maybe a little deeper. That is why when the FA let Wimbledon be "franchised" away against all protests, it was big news in the football world, not just the team's surrounding community. The movement around the nation of American teams seems to be accepted, except by those they have left behind.

That is why the story and survival success of AFC Wimbledon this year was so important. Not just to the average crowd of 4,060 in attendance (86% of capacity) during the season, but to those that have followed their glorious rise over the last decade.

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