This story is over 5 years old.


We Spoke To AFC Wimbledon Fans About The Ethics of Playing MK Dons

Ahead of Wimbledon’s first ever home fixture against MK Dons, we spoke to fans about the ethics and mores of watching a club that many refuse to acknowledge as a legitimate entity.
PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

There are many AFC Wimbledon fans for whom a match against MK Dons cannot be called a 'derby', at least not in the traditional sense. While fixtures between the two clubs are as hotly contested as any grudge match or inter-city rivalry, there is an existential element to their enmity which makes it difficult for Wimbledon supporters to acknowledge in the first place. When, in May 2002, the old Wimbledon Football Club were given permission to relocate to Milton Keynes, there were many who felt they had sacrificed all claim to the footballing heritage of south-west London, and so a phoenix club was born with the distinctive 'AFC' prefix. Nonetheless, the old club – soon to be rebranded – appropriated the trophies, league position and 'Dons' nickname of its spiritual predecessor. Though the trophies were handed over to the London Borough of Merton by Pete Winkleman in 2007, Wimbledon fans bitterly resent MK Dons for retaining both their name and historical league position to this day.


READ MORE: Passion, Progression and the Future of Fan Ownership – Now Is the Time For AFC Wimbledon

With so ugly and contentious a history between the two clubs, it's little wonder that there are Wimbledon fans who refuse to engage with MK Dons whatsoever. The anger over what most would describe as the franchising of the old Wimbledon is still all-encompassing, and for the first four fixtures between the two clubs – all held in Milton Keynes – there was an informal boycott observed by many, with fans citing contentions over MK Dons' name and league position as two of the main reasons for staying away. Still, at present, there would be few Wimbledon supporters who would trade their league position for that of their opponents. At the time of writing, AFC Wimbledon are 13th in League One after a solid first season in the third tier, while MK Dons are down in 16th after a campaign dogged by relegation fears.

For AFC Wimbledon to be in League One just under 15 years after their formation is little short of a sporting marvel. For them to be looking down on MK Dons in the table makes their meteoric rise seem even more phenomenal, and for fans of the south-west London club their success is an affirmation that they – in stark contrast to their rivals in Milton Keynes – have gone about things the right way. When the old Wimbledon was uprooted back in the early noughties, the argument for moving away was largely based on the premise that the local area could not sustain a football club financially. That premise has been proved emphatically false, with a club formed and owned by fans now outperforming the one they were compelled to replace.


READ MORE: How a YouTube Star Helped Save AFC Wimbledon

While clambering above MK Dons in the league may be a source of major satisfaction to Wimbledon fans, the ethics of an encounter with their Buckinghamshire foes are still potentially complicated. According to the most uncompromising amongst the AFC Wimbledon fanbase, MK Dons are not a legitimate entity and, as such, watching them at all is a concession of sorts. What's more, last Tuesday, Wimbledon hosted MK Dons for the first time in their short history. This raised the essential question: if there are many Wimbledon fans who would rule out going to Milton Keynes on a matter of principle, do the same rules apply to a landmark home game?

In the hope of answering this question, or at least having it answered for us, VICE Sports rocked up at Kingsmeadow on Tuesday evening ahead of a fixture which was already dominating the headlines. It was immediately apparent that few fans would be sitting the match out this time around, with hundreds turning up early to navigate the heightened security on the gate. The game was officially designated as a bubble match and an increased security presence had been widely reported, while the Wimbledon hierarchy had made clear that safety and good behaviour would be of the utmost importance. Considering that Wimbledon are widely perceived as one of the most welcoming clubs in London, this was testament to the strength of emotion associated with the game.


Talking to Wimbledon fans in the hours before kick-off, the general consensus seems to be that attending a home game against MK Dons is a distasteful necessity. While there is a common sentiment that supporters would rather not have to watch the Milton Keynes side – or even admit to their existence, for that matter – neither are they going to stay away from their home ground owing to the presence of a rival team. As is usually the case in football, tribalism and collective pride ultimately trump the convoluted dictates of conscience. It helps that, as a league match, none of the matchday revenue goes to the MK Dons hierarchy, with the thought of actually financing their adversaries another sticking point when it comes to away days.

READ MORE: British Football's Newest Rivalry

Though the issue of money is nowhere near as problematic in the context of a home game, there is also a notable tone of defiance amongst some of the Wimbledon fans we speak to. While they have full agency over whether or not to boycott away matches, missing one of their own home games out of scruple would be to defer to MK Dons in a whole new way. In the words of one fan: "I think [attending the game] is reaffirming the message that this is our local club. That was the most important thing, that was the thing that people were most outraged about when the club moved – the distance involved, and how [the club] had been completely divorced from its roots – so I think coming and supporting the team at home makes sense."


Clearly there is an element of symbolism to a home game against MK Dons which resonates powerfully with Wimbledon supporters, especially given the possibility that they might end up above their opponents come May. "To finish above MK would be a massive achievement," another fan tells us, eyes wild with excitement. "It would be almost like a middle finger up to them, really… look where we started, and look where we are now." Whatever the ethics and mores of their rivalry, the fact is that Wimbledon fans are not going to let their counterparts ignore their success over the past few seasons. Hosting MK Dons in south-west London can be seen as a blow to the narrative on which they were founded, and there was no way that the home supporters were going to miss the moment that blow was struck.

Despite the contention that a match against MK Dons cannot, in fact, be called a derby, there is the same sense of tension before kick-off which one expects from such a fixture. As one supporter tells us: "I'm a fan of Arsenal as well, and this reminds me of the North London derby… I'm dreading this game, simply because if we lose, it's going to feel fucking terrible." With the club operating on the fan ownership model, it should come as little surprise that the Wimbledon hierarchy understand the symbolism of the game as well as anyone – the official club programme for the match makes no mention of MK Dons on the cover, while the scoreboard refers to the visitors simply as 'MK'. The players, too, seem to appreciate the gravity of the occasion, feeding off the heated atmosphere and thrashing out a hard-fought win over their opponents.

Judging by the sense of elation after the match, AFC Wimbledon beating MK Dons means more than a simple three points. While there are some who will refuse to acknowledge it, the tumultuous mutual history of the two clubs is an inherent part of Wimbledon's identity, informing how the fans perceive themselves and helping to define what their club represents. Encounters with MK Dons are never going to be easy, and there will always be questions, contention and controversy as to how to interact with their bitter nemeses. When it comes to meaningful home victories, however, Wimbledon fans can't help but enjoy themselves.

Words: @W_F_Magee / Videos: @Jim_Weeks