Issue The ghosts of the Wimbledon past

As told by Jason Mckeown

Relegation is bad enough, but allowing those ageing, clog wearing, whippet racing, Rugby League watching simpletons Bradford to stay up is truly disgusting.” The now-defunct Wimbledon website BigTissue.com, May 14 2000

These words, relayed via David Pendleton in the City Gent back in August 2000 as part of a look back at the emotions Bradford City and Wimbledon supporters went through in the 1999-2000 battle to stay in the Premier League, have always stuck in my mind as an insight into the hatred Dons fans felt towards us when we stayed up at their expense.

Meanwhile as Valley Parade literally rocked up and down during the closing minutes of the Bantams’ 1-0 victory over Liverpool that confirmed our survival, the Sky TV cameras cut to a banner in the Kop that displayed the message “Bye Bye Wombles”.

For a short time at least, Bradford City and Wimbledon were bitter rivals.

Such is the competitive nature of football that, from time-to-time, an opposition club previously off the radar suddenly becomes an enemy in a promotion or relegation battle; with their results mattering greatly. That Wimbledon team had two weeks earlier self-destructed in front of our eyes, going down to a 3-0 defeat with John Hartson stupidly sent off. Away fans had reason to be aggrieved by questionable refereeing that day, and that ill feeling showcased by BigTissue.com was carried on for a few years later when City were relegated to a Division One that Wimbledon were unable to earn promotion from.

Indeed fast forward to February 2003, where BfB writer Roland Harris managed to upset numerous supporters for airing views on the protest movement in operation against moving the club to Milton Keynes. With Dons fans boycotting matches and ultimately forming AFC Wimbledon, opposition supporters were urged not to travel to Selhurst Park when their team were away to Wimbledon. Roland argued why he would be going to watch the Bantams draw 2-2, because he went to away games to watch City not the opposition.

A strong backlash towards this site from both Wimbledon and City fans followed, a moment editor Michael Wood still refers to as “one of our biggest fall outs.”

By the time City were next due to play Wimbledon away, they had moved to Milton Keynes and a season later they became the MK Dons. Meanwhile the real Wimbledon were embarking on a fast-paced journey back into the Football League. The ‘rivalry’ consigned to the past as fans around the world including City deeply admired what Wimbledon fans were doing; but when a year ago I wrote an article for TwoHundredPercent about City’s 10-year decline, a couple of Wimbledon fans posted reader comments expressing no sympathy for our suffering. Understandable, because what they had gone through was far worse; but also a sign that past clashes were not forgotten.

The point of recalling these incidents is not to stoke up ill-feeling between two sets of supporters properly meeting this Saturday for the first time at Valley Parade since a 3-3 draw in October 2001. But the fact there is a ‘history’ between the two clubs is worth recalling in order to provide Wimbledon supporters with the respect they deserve.

Respect for what they have achieved since reforming at the bottom is widespread and well documented of course. There is huge inspiration to be taken from the way they sought to preserve the heart and soul of their football club, when disgraceful actions were undertaken by people who were supposed to share their best interests. The meteoric rise is arguably the football success story of the past decade, and like everyone else one hopes the day is coming when they overtake the Buckinghamshire club who stole their identity.

Yet there’s only so much patting on the back before we cross over into patronising. And though we can buy their fans a drink before kick off, and smile warmly for them as their players walk out into a stadium which had so much significance in their demise 11 years ago, the fact is they are now a rival in our division and deserve to be treated as such.

For if there is a lesson to be learned from reading opposition fans write your achievements off as “whippet racing, Rugby League watching simpletons” it is the dangers of underestimating the club you are facing.

When Wimbledon came to Valley Parade towards the end of that Premier League relegation battle, Hartson was infamously said to have sought advice from Dons hero Vinnie Jones that intimidating City’s “hard man” (Stuart McCall) in the tunnel before kick off would cause the Bantams to crumble. He tried, he failed.

As events turned against them on the field the players reacted dismally, displaying a childish “it’s not fair” attitude reflected in the BigTissue.com. It was clear that the pain of relegation weighted heavily, but the fact little old City had stayed up at their expense was considered something of an injustice.

The modern day Wimbledon don’t deserve to be treated as beneath us, as much as they shouldn’t be treated as beneath Macclesfield, Plymouth or any other League Two side. Their merited position was always among the 92, and now they truly are here on merit. A club to be inspired by, but now also one to fear.

The heroics of Wimbledon fans will never be forgotten but are now a thing of the past, for they are back where they belong. “Who are ya? Who are ya?”