The real Dons are here

Daniel and Tom are two Londoners who are exploring the football grounds of London, on a quest to rediscover the club-supporter relationship that made football great. Dan is a Spurs fan, and Tom a Gooner, but they share a disillusionment with the top flight’s pursuit of greater riches at the expense of the vital connection with the fans and the atmosphere that fans create.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photos by Tom Sparks.

The real Dons are here

The day started at Vauxhall, hours before the 3pm kickoff. Before our trip to Kingsmeadow for AFC Wimbledon vs Newport County AFC, we needed to find a pub with a big screen. The North London Derby was scheduled for a lunch-time start, and if Spurs won then Tom would be shouting me dinner.

With only half an hour between the final whistle of one game and the start of the next, we decided to travel to Arsenal’s spiritual home South London, to watch the game in a Kingston pub, then move on to the live match of our double header.

Guided by Tom’s phone, we headed to the nearest pub that supposedly shows football. From the outside it wasn’t obvious if showed football, and we weren’t encouraged by the prominent advertisements for its brand new Tapas menu.

Tom spied a TV on a wall, and as we opened the door we were greeted by an empty pub and a lady behind the bar sipping from a pint glass through a straw. We asked if they were showing the game, and she replied, “What channel is it on?” “BT,” we responded in unison, and with a shrug of her shoulders she said they did not show their games. On enquiring where we might catch the game locally, she screwed her face up so tight and simply said, “I dunno.” After some prompting the joyous landlady pointed down the road and suggested the Oak’s.

After a short walk, we opened the door of another empty pub, only to find two guys behind the bar, studying an iPhone, and talking quietly to each other. It was clear from the GINORMOUS TV on the wall that they showed football, but most importantly did they show BT? The answer was a kind of yes as they were looking into streaming the game. With only 15 minutes until kick off, and with reassurances that they would be able to show it, we looked at each other, decided to put all our eggs in one basket, and made ourselves comfy on the big leather sofa in front of the TV, which soon sparked to life and out flooded the dulcet tones of Owen Hargreaves and Michael Owen.

90 minutes later, Harry Kane had earned me a Dirty Burger to be redeemed when we returned to Vauxhall!

We decided to take a cab to Kingsmeadow, as time was against us. Two things struck me on getting in. One was the overpowering smell of the air freshener and the second was the fact that every surface was covered in some kind of wipe down, black and red leatherette material, which made me wonder: exactly what kind of Saturday night inspired natural disaster the driver was preparing his cab for?

After a short tour of suburbia, the tell-tale signs of match day became more and more obvious. Small groups of fans in blue and yellow, police huddling on street corners and a flood light towering above a semi-detached house.

Overground, underground.

Overground, underground.

We joined the crowds entering the ground under a metal arch saying KINGSMEADOW, past a group of local youth being spoken to by the police. An older fan walked past and said, “All you can smell is Lynx!”

We made our way to the Chemsflow end, named after a local water treatment and air service company. The Chemsflow is a covered terrace, the whole length of the north end of the ground. The rest of the ground is a mixture of seating and terrace. The south stand was seated, and was plastered in advertising for Korean food.

Although you can get your tickets at the gate, £17 to stand in the Chemsflow end, I have a recurring nightmare of turning up to a match and not getting let in, so we bought our tickets online. A painless experience, they arrived in the post in good time before match day.

The Chemsflow terrace was already very full as the teams came out to chants of “AFC, AFC, AFC!”

The singing and chanting never stopped. Two huge flags hung from the back of the stand, one stating “THE REAL DONS ARE HERE”

There were two main reasons Tom and I were looking forward to coming to see the Dons. One was what the club stands for. Its meteoric rise from its creation in 2002 – including five promotions in nine seasons to League 2 – followed the decision to effectively franchise Wimbledon FC, ripping the heart out of the community and moving them to Milton Keynes to create the MK Dons. A fan-led stance against the death of their club proved to everyone it’s the fans and community that make a club. As a fan of a club that has flirted with moving to a different location, for what can only be financial reasons and nothing else, this is something very close to my heart.

The second reason we were looking forward to coming was to see the two time FIFA strongest player, the only man ever to bench press his own Chairman, and the one who in these parts is simply known as the BEAST! And as the teams were read out this is how he was introduced, and shouts of “BEAST, BEAST” could be heard all around.

The Beast

The visitors, known as the Exiles, are in a state of mixed fortunes, having just lost their manager, former Spurs player Justin Edinburgh, to Gillingham, but still sit in a promotion place. Their Lottery winner chairman has denied reports he is going to stop bankrolling the club, which was seen to be a huge factor in Edinburgh leaving. There was a small contingent of their fans at the opposite end of the ground.

The Dons are six places below Newport in the league but with number 10 Akinfenwa “Beast” up front, it only ever seemed like there was going to be one winner. And 11 minutes in he added to his goal count, opening the scoring with a header from a cross from the right. Newport could not get to grips with him. His sheer size, like something from the grid iron and not a football pitch, paired with his good touches, completely bypass his lack of mobility and make him one of the most fascinating players I have ever seen live.

The rest of the half was dominated by easy chances not taken by either side.

Half time called for a quick trip to the bar, which meant leaving the ground and being reminded by the stewards to make sure you have your ticket so you can get back in. On our way back in, the same group of Lynx-scented youths were being frisked by the stewards.

The second half started with the Dons applying good pressure on the away team. Ten minutes in, Newport’s number three, Feely, brought down Francomb in the box. Instantly, chants of “Off, Off, Off” started, and the referee obliged. Red card and penalty.

There was only one person who was ever going to take it, you were never going to see a re-enactment of the Mirallas/Baines farce that played out at Goodison Park recently. Akinfenwa placed the ball on the spot, turned, walked with a few steps, and with a slow amble made his way back towards the ball, striking it softly and without any real venom, making it very easy for the Newport keeper, Joe Day, to dive to his right and make an easy save. It was still only 1–0.

Even with the one man advantage, the home fans still didn’t feel like their team was going forward enough, but with 15 minutes left, Akinfenwa scored his second and sealed the home victory. A low cross again from the left took a slight deflection and he poked it in for 2–0, to shouts of the BEAST.

The atmosphere at the Kingsmeadow stadium is amazing. I’ve never heard so many different songs or been to a game where the singing did not stop. The icing on the cake and the biggest endorsement I could give AFC Wimbledon is the way the players gave their time after the match to pose for photos with a small group of kids (and two 30 year olds) outside the players and officials’ door. A single club official introduced the players as they exited to the Jnr Dons who were waiting patiently. Without a moment’s hesitation they were more than happy to oblige their fans.

After getting to meet Akinfenwa ourselves and grab a quick picture, we had time for reflection in the very grand sounding President’s Lounge. Just outside the lounge was a cabinet displaying some of the clubs achievements and memorabilia, including a signed photo of Vinnie Jones, his FA Cup winner’s medal and a piece of the road sign of Plough Lane, Wimbledon’s spiritual home.

To outsiders like us, it is clear this club is very proud of where it’s from. It’s firmly rooted in its local community, and there’s fine atmosphere and constant singing.

Football has a lot to learn from the Dons. They are the poster boys for what football is all about.

You can read more on Dan and Tom’s blog, Two Men in Search of the Beautiful Game. You can also follow them on Twitter.

Plough Lane