The ghosts of the Wimbledon past

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?”

Exciting times ahead, but perhaps we want more

Welshman John Hartson likes a good rant. When his Wimbledon team conceded a goal at Valley Parade in 2000 he ranted his way to a red card after reportedly nearly ranting his way to one in the tunnel before this game. Something in the last eleven years has convinced the good people at ITV that he should be given the microphone in support of the England vs Wales game in the week and so his rants moved into my front room.

Moving aside from the curiousness of his statements on the English having an Italian manager Hartson declared himself excited by the young Welsh team which claimed a gallant defeat at Wembley casting a critical eye on Fabio Capello’s England who had ended the game as victors, a draw off winning the group and qualifying for the European Championships.

Hartson’s excitement is justified – Wales look like they might have a team capable of undoing the wrongs committed against the country by John Toshack and getting back to the Mark Hughes side of 2004 where they nearly qualified for a major competition – but as a practical concern it misses the rather obvious point that what he is getting excited about has become tedious for the team he criticises.

No matter what one thinks of England’s performance there has become a kind of metronomic precision to the national team’s progression to World Cup’s and European Championships. Since the early 1980s England have missed three summers of what will be sixteen times of asking. While Hartson may be excited about the chance to be a part of one of those tournaments the reality of football is that England will be.

Which is because – as has been proved over the last two games, and the previous World Cup qualifying under Fabio Capello – England are good at winning games and getting results to get to the sort of tournaments which their group opposition aspire to.

Being good at getting results is not always something to get excited about but the last minute conversion of Jack Compton’s cross by Ross Hannah at Morecambe last week has pulses racing. City’s game plan seemed to have been blown away in the blustery coastal winds but Phil Parkinson’s new team showed a character to keep going and a resolve to nick a goal which turned a defeat into a good result.

Again a reality of football is that at all levels an away draw is always a good result and if a team wins home matches, draws away amassing two points a game then it will probably end up promoted. Parkinson is looking to build on that result with his first home game.

Parkinson inherited a City team which seemed to be growing in belief. The 4-2 win over Barnet showed what could happen if the young team got the ball down and passed it. In the league, since Peter Jackson left, City have a home win and an away draw.

Another former England manager – Sir Bobby Robson – said that a team needed a player who scored one in two and another who scored one in three and then it would do well. Up front James Hanson has three in six games and he may be partnered with Ross Hannah who has two in six. Mark Stewart would be unlucky to step down after some very good performances but Hannah has knocked firmly on the door. Nakhi Wells is back from international duty while Nialle Rodney is injured.

The midfield two of Richie Jones and Michael Flynn is growing in effectiveness. It is curious that Welshman Flynn – obviously a player capable enough to be in the side – was being cast aside by Jackson with no more explanation than the idea that the manager “didn’t fancy him” as if that were a reason to lose a good and useful player. Chris Mitchell will hope that his last league performance at Valley Parade has not been forgotten and Jack Compton will hope his pinpoint cross to Hannah wins him a place in the side but Kyel Reid and – especially – Jamie Devitt will be hoping to get places on the wing.

Matt Duke will keep goal behind an increasingly settled back four of Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Guy Branston and Robbie Threlfall.

The Bantams face a Bristol Rovers team who are sitting in mid-table as they recover from relegation and are smarting from a 4-1 defeat by City’s opposition next week Crawley Town. Rovers have not won since the 16th of August and when a team is not winning then there is always a worry. As City found before Jackson’s surprise exit losing can be softened by an exciting, young team.

How long exciting losing under Jackson could have been tolerated we will never know, but perhaps John Hartson will tell us.

Comments off. Michael Wood is on holiday.

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