The Times article in full.
March 13 2017, 12:01am,
Security risk high for best of enemies
Amit Katwala says even the scoreboard is a combustible topic for MK Dons’ first trip to AFC Wimbledon
It was love at first sight. Dom Damesick went to his first Wimbledon game on his seventh birthday — a freezing 0-0 draw with Derby County at Selhurst Park in January 1998 — in the Premier League glory days of Robbie Earle and Neil Sullivan.
“My dad still describes it now as one of the worst games of football he’s ever seen,” he says. “But apparently I got home and I was telling my mum how great it was and asking when could I go again. It all seemed like such a good idea at the time, but unfortunately it turned out rather strangely . . .”
It’s been 15 years since Wimbledon FC were controversially given permission to move to Milton Keynes, but tensions are still running high as the teams prepare for tomorrow night, when MK Dons will visit AFC Wimbledon for the first time.
Damesick is one of a handful — he estimates there are no more than 150 — of original Wimbledon FC supporters who now follow MK Dons. “I’m not really looking forward to the game,” he says. “There’s so much animosity and vitriol around it.”
AFC Wimbledon supporters feel that MK Dons are an aberration — a club that should not exist. “I won’t attend a match against them at any venue because it legitimises them,” Rob Aitkenhead, part of the team at the AFC Wimbledon fanzine Wombles Underground Press, said. “The mere prospect turns my stomach.”
One of the Milton Keynes fans we spoke to, who did not wish to be named for fear of retribution, believes the club have been unfairly treated by the media in comparison with AFC Wimbledon, and points to the thousands of pounds of damage caused to the toilets by Wimbledon fans when they visited stadium:mk for the first time in 2012, which he feels was underreported.
MK Dons fans argue that by setting up AFC Wimbledon when they did — two years before the move to Milton Keynes materialised — those supporters effectively abandoned their club and made it inevitable. “I didn’t feel comfortable going off to support a different team while the one I followed still played at the stadium where I’d been going to watch them for five years, and were still the same club to me,” says Damesick.
Representatives of both clubs have been understandably cagey about speaking to the media, but Erik Samuelson, the AFC Wimbledon chief executive, did answer questions about the game in front of about 45 supporters at a fan’s forum at Kingsmeadow last week. He said he was anxious to preserve the club’s good reputation within the game, but admitted he had concerns. “It’s difficult to know exactly how individuals are going to react and I think a lot of people coming to the game won’t know how they’re going to react until they get here,” he said. “Some people are staying away because of that uncertainty.”
Hosting opponents who you think shouldn’t exist presents a unique logistical challenge. The club spent hours, for example, debating what to put on the scoreboard — there’s a furious campaign among AFC Wimbledon fans who want Milton Keynes to drop the “Dons” part of their name. In the end, they settled for “Wimbledon vs MK” — the least inflammatory option for both sides. The programme will not feature the MK Dons badge, nor will their name be on the front cover. There will be one page devoted to coverage of the away team, instead of the usual seven or eight.
Security will be tight. The setting of the 4,850-capacity Cherry Red Records Stadium is challenging — there’s not much space around the ground to keep opposing fans separate, and it’s in a residential area and on a busy main road near Norbiton in southwest London. The fans are very close to the pitch.
The game has been designated a Category C game, which signifies potential for high public disorder. It is the highest-risk game left in London this season. There’s been talk on social media of “bricking the coaches,” and MK Dons players will walk across the pitch to get to the dressing rooms instead of entering the stadium via the home end as normal.
There will be 100 stewards around the ground, plus a similar number of police officers in the vicinity including mounted police. Some officers will be equipped with body cameras, while sniffer dogs at both entrances will check for pyrotechnics.
MK Dons have bragging rights over AFC Wimbledon so far, winning three of their four meetings.
Dec 2, 2012: MK Dons 2 AFC Wimbledon 1 (FA Cup second round)
Jon Otsemobor struck an injury-time winner in the first meeting
Aug 12, 2014: MK Dons 3 AFC Wimbledon 1 (League Cup)
Karl Robinson’s side went 3-0 up before Matt Tubbs’s late penalty
Oct 7, 2014: MK Dons 2 AFC Wimbledon 3 (Johnstones Paint Trophy)
Adebayo Akinfenwa scores winner
Dec 10, 2016: MK Dons 1 AFC Wimbledon 0 (League One)
First league meeting decided by Dean Bowditch’s penalty
It is a “bubble” match, which means that away fans will not be allowed to travel to the ground independently — they will only be given their match ticket as they leave an official supporters’ coach.
They will be searched for alcohol, inflammatory banners (a “We are the Dons” banner that appears at MK Dons games is a particular sore point), Wimbledon FC shirts and pyrotechnics as they board the coaches, which will pick fans up in Milton Keynes, Aylesbury and at two unspecified locations within the M25. The game will also be beamed back live to Milton Keynes, which is another potential contributing factor to lower-than-expected away ticket sales.
That reduces some of the risk — as of last Wednesday, MK Dons had sold fewer than 300 tickets from their reduced allocation of 650.
“It will be incredibly intense,” said Samuelson. “This is not a rivalry. It’s not a derby game, it’s not even Celtic v Rangers because Celtic need Rangers to exist to hate, and most of our fans would rather they didn’t exist.”
It has taken 15 years, but with AFC Wimbledon back in the Football League, above MK Dons in the table, and with a new stadium at Plough Lane finally agreed, maybe this game can represent the final piece of catharsis for the fans who feel their club was stolen from them.