AFC Wimbledon weaves a football fairy tale

“Football is a game where adults can sing together and cry together, a rectangle upon which we can see in manageable scale all that is good and terrible about people, all the injustice and folly and joy of human life. And when that rectangle was taken away from Wimbledon, they built it again. That resilience represents the very best of us, and I am so excited to be part of the team working to share that story.”

-John Green, author of the novels, “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns,” and “Looking for Alaska,” explaining the reasons why he is preparing a film for 20th Century Fox on the incredible journey of the football team that has captivated the imagination of football fans in Britain. 

I lived in Wimbledon for over two decades, and part of the wonder of Wimbledon is not only its village cafes and greens, the parks and the tennis courts but the implausible story of how its lowly-regarded football team baptized as the “Crazy Gang” rose in the span of a decade from being 1977 neophyte members of the professional football league to become the 1988 FA Cup winners against the mighty Liverpool – then perennial champions. 

Community exercises People Power to create its own team

But in football, as in life, there are ups and downs – and the team first lost its spiritual home in Plough Lane in 1991. They then looked for a permanent pitch for a decade until it suffered its first relegation. The unthinkable then happened! The people of Wimbledon, who for over a hundred years treasured their team, lost their football team through a decision made by both club owner and the Football Association to transfer the “franchise” to Milton Keynes, more than fifty miles away and some 90 minutes drive from home. Wimbledon lost its football team. 

On a few occasions, I had the opportunity to bring my son Renzo to watch the Dons play in the stadium and it was time well spent with other families who enjoyed watching the fortunes of the team as well as the opportunity to watch top flight football played by the teams of that period such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham, joined later by teams like Manchester City and Chelsea. 

If the area’s only professional football team was to abandon the community or if it was “ripped away” from our midst, then there could only be one response: put up the people’s team, an amateur team owned and run by supporters, a move that ran counter to the trend in British football – its commercialization. We, the fans, decided that it was an opportunity to build something different from the ashes of the old. It was an exercise of people’s power, in footballing terms.

The try-outs for the team began at the Wimbledon Common in the summer of 2002 with novices and middle-aged men who played part-time aspiring to belong to a “resurrected club” to compete in the lowliest of the English football pyramid, in the ninth tier occupied by the Combined Counties League. 

AFC Wimbledon weaves its magic once again

Then, in the span of another decade, Wimbledon once again wove its magic and the newly-minted AFC Wimbledon Dons earned 5 championships and were promoted 5 times to enter the fourth tier of the game in League Two. At one time, in fact, the Dons strung together a run of 78 unbeaten matches in the years 2003 and 2004 – a feat rarely accomplished in the sport. 

The play-off finals between the Dons and Luton Town in 2011 provided another classic match as the game was decided in extra time on a penalty shoot-out, and the drama that accompanied the final kick taken by team captain Danny Kedwell to break the tie was worthy of a Hollywood film. It was the stuff of dreams. 

In fact, John Green voted by Time magazine as one of the year’s most influential authors, had secured the rights to write the script and put the Wimbledon story on film. That penalty kick was initially selected as the film’s finale. 

Winning promotion to League One

However, as fate would have it, Wimbledon had other plans. On May 30, 2016, Wimbledon made it to the League Two play-off finals against a strong Plymouth Argyle side that finished several rungs higher. Held in the hollowed grounds of Wembley with a crowd of nearly 60,000-strong and watched on TV by millions, the Dons held their nerve to eke out a 2-0 victory in the last 14 minutes of the game to win promotion to League One. 

To add a touch of drama, it was only after the entrance of man-mountain Adebayo Akinfenwa, nicknamed by his fans as “The Beast” as he was considered “the strongest football player in the world” that a goal was scored.  The 34-year old substitute striker playing his last game for Wimbledon turned the game around, so to speak, and to add an unforgettable touch scored a penalty with his last kick on his last game for the Dons. 

After 14 long years, the Dons broke into League One – the third tier of English Football in the same division as their nemesis the Milton Keynes Dons whom they will have to play in the coming season for a touch of sports irony. 

“The Greatest Underdog Sports Story You’ve Never Heard of” turned into film

In further explaining reasons to make a film about the Dons, John Green remarked that this “community-owned protest movement turned sporting triumph” was a story worth sharing and in the process inspire young people not to fear doing “awesome deeds”.  

Particularly, in a country experiencing a resurgence of the sport with the emergence of the national team affectionately called the Azkals that has now beaten higher-ranked football teams such as North Korea at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium – the exploits of underdog sporting heroes can encourage and spur them to greater efforts. 

Together with the recent feat of Leicester City who had to overcome 5,000 to 1 odds to be crowned champions of the country’s first tier football – the English Premiership League, the lesson can be drawn for all athletes to see that there is life for the underdogs.  Moments such as these give hope to those who in the past have always been also-rans or almost last. 

Indeed, the experiences of teams such as the Azkals, Leicester City and AFC Wimbledon provide inspiration for young people who dream of achieving victory in the field of sports. The AFC Wimbledon story has thus become a parable for the underdogs of all kinds. In the words of the author John Green, the Wimbledon story is “the greatest underdog sports story you’ve never heard of.” I am certain that it will not be the last. – Rappler.com

Ed Garcia played varsity football in his youth as well as other competitive team sports, and helped edit the sports page of his campus paper. He worked at Amnesty International and International Alert for over twenty years, and during this time lived in Wimbledon where he played sports with his sons, “just for fun.”  He taught political science at UP and the Ateneo. He was one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, and now works with scholar-athletes at FEU.