- 10 Nov 10
The true and amazing story of the little Wimbledon club that could. Plus, Paula Meehan’s requiem for Jean McConville.
It could be the greatest football story ever told – the rise and rise of AFC Wimbledon.
Association Football Club Wimbledon sits two points clear in the Blue Square Premier Division of the Conference, one promotion away from Football League status.
I first encountered AFC in 2003. Across in London covering the Saville hearings, I was persuaded by Michael Fisher of RTÉ – born in Wimbledon – to take the train to Kingsmeadow for a game in the Combined Counties Second Division, the eighth tier of English football. The previous season, the FA, in one of the most disgraceful decisions in its cynical history, had given Wimbledon FC the go-ahead to decamp 56 miles north to Milton Keynes. This followed a club decision not to be lured to Dublin by the eloquent pleading of ex-Millwall mid-field dynamo Eamon Dunphy.
The club’s ground, Plough Lane, was flogged off to property developers. The supporters’ response was unprecedented, defiant, most of all daring.
Trials for a new team were held on Wimbledon Common. Two hundred hopefuls turned up. Forty were picked. They found headquarters in a room above a pub and, endorsed by Dons legends John Fashanu and Lawrie Sanchez, were accepted into the CC second tier.
AFC were promoted to the Counties’ first division, then the Isthmian League second division, then first division, then premier division, then the Conference South Championship, and last season, to non-league football’s top tier, the Conference National. Along the way they recorded the longest unbeaten run in English football history – 78 games between February 2003 and December 2004.
The Real Dons now run 20 teams, including boys’ and girls’ sides from Under 19 to Under Sevens. The women’s first team detached themselves from Wimbledon FC in 2003 to join AFC.
And then there’s the Irish connection to which I was alerted by a steward who was also the all-England Irish dancing champion.
The Dons are one of only two clubs (the other is Old Carthusians) to have won both the amateur and professional FA Cups, the professional in 1988, the amateur in 1963 when they defeated Sutton 4-2 at Wembley, all the goals scored by Eddie Reynolds. There’s a picture of him above the bar at Kingsmeadow.
Eddie was from Derry, played for City after leaving the Dons in 1964, before being injured out of the game.
The Plough Lane development is now complete, comprising 398 private houses and 172 housing association apartments. Somebody has made a pretty penny from the old ground. But more importantly, after a vigorous campaign by fans, the estate’s called Reynolds’ Gate.
A tale to warm the heart and soar the soul of anyone who has ever thrilled to the purity of football passion.
What do they of football know who know not AFC?
Ed Moloney’s film Voices From The Grave has pitched the 1972 killing of Jean McConville back into the headlines. Moloney’s witnesses reckon Gerry Adams gave the order to have her disappeared.
I did an interview for the film making points I’ve made here a hundred times. But no more, I think, being weary of talking of “the early days”. After all, these are the early days of later.
I take the opportunity, though, to quote from Paula Meehan’s wonderful collection, Painting Rain, and her poem on Jean McConville’s burial place, ‘Shelling Hill’, where her body had contemptuously been dumped by her killers and where it was eventually, accidentally found. On a family holiday in the area, Ms. Meehan’s children played near the spot.
Come Sunday, before we left, we picked flowers,
Armfuls of meadowsweet, cranesbill, vetch, an array
Of lupin, of the wild dog rose, and walked to where Bláthnat,
Of so we’ve told them, she who was lover of Cú Chulainn, is buried.
Lady-made-of-flowers, surprising us, they called her,
Cross-connecting from what Gaelic they can yet say.
So to the children the last word, her requiem prayer.
Lady made of flowers, bride of the earth, rest in peace.
What more can there be to say?
Meanwhile, the vigilante outfit Republican Action Against Drugs continues to skulk the night-time streets of Derry on the lookout for anybody indulging a spliff so they can maim or murder the miscreant. They are cowards. What all their victims have in common is that they have been unarmed, working-class and Irish.
Still, it’s useful to know what sort of country we’d have if galoots like these ever managed to come within an ass’s roar of power.
In Belfast to speak at an Amnesty-sponsored meeting on the legacy of John Lennon, I found myself unnervingly on stage with Johnnie Rogan, who knows more about Lennon than anybody else on earth, and the musical activist, archivist and encyclopaedist, Stuart Bailie. I managed to bluff my way by diverting discussion into consideration of the contrast between John Lennon being threatened with deportation by the Nixon administration and Bono being welcomed into the White House by George W. Bush.
Afterwards I said a number of nice things about the U2 singer. I want this noted down.
Turned on X Factor for the very first time to discover a contestant screeching in indecipherable, incoherent fashion and dancing like an arthritic giraffe fleeing panic-stricken across cobble-stones. She has no chance, I muttered to the Cork blond.
Turned out she was Ms. Cheryl Cole – a judge!
I’ll be adjudicating the senior nose-flute at next year’s fleadh.