As we approach Sunday’s second round FA Cup tie, sponsored by Budweiser, we have decided to take the opportunity to celebrate many of the key moments in our long football history. The following article, which is the first of a series of features, picks out five dates on which decisions were made that determined the development of our club. Over the next few days we will be publishing further articles celebrating different aspects of the club. The following are the significant dates which were crucial during our history:
2 November, 1889
In the late 19th century football was taking off all over the country and the village of Wimbledon was no exception. It certainly captured the attention of the Old Central School in Camp Road. John William Selby, the school’s headmaster, was inspired. He wanted to create a team of his own.
The school had a tradition of looking after its local community. It had been set up to help the area’s poor kids in 1758 as the Round School. The legendary anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was among the school’s first trustees. This was a school with morals rooted in its local community.
Working with former pupils, Selby achieved his ambition and on 2 November, Old Centrals, the precursors to today’s AFC Wimbledon, wearing navy blue and white played their first match. George Rayment was the club’s first captain. The match took place on the Common near Robin Hood Road. The opponents were Westminster. And the result? 1-0 to Wimbledon.
1 July, 1911
By the second decade of the 20th century Wimbledon were in turmoil. The area’s main side had struggled to find a ground of its own. A move to senior football meant The Common was no longer suitable as a home venue. The club, who had dropped the Old Centrals suffix in 1905, moved to Pepys Road in 1906, then Grand Drive in Raynes Park, before trying venues at TheChase off Merton Hall Road and Burlington Road in New Malden, and then Malden Sports Ground in 1909. None proved suitable, and a plea to the local council to help them find a ground fell on death ears. The result was almost catastrophic. On 3 September 1910 football was suspended.
It would be a year before Wimbledon once more had a senior club to call its own. The key moment came on 1 July 1911, when the local community came together. Players of the Wimbledon Corporation Employees from the Wimbledon & District League, met with players of Wimbledon St Andrews, of the South Suburban League, and a rump of old Wimbledon players. They voted to join forces. Football had restarted in Wimbledon.
The side was initially called Wimbledon Borough, although that suffix would be dropped within four months.The side was backed by the old Wimbledon chairman, Frank Headicar, and the Council’s crest was adopted as the club’s new badge. Meanwhile, Charles Snook, the club’s secretary, had identified an area of disused swampland which had once been used as a refuse site, and the club moved in for the start of the 1913/14 season. It was at the corner of Haydons Road and Plough Lane and would be the Dons’ home for 79 years.
11 May, 1964
Wimbledon had become one of the dominate forces in amateur football. They had secured the Isthmian League for the third year running, and the year before they had captured the FA Amateur Cup beating Sutton United 4-2 with Eddie Reynolds scoring all four with his head. It was time for Wimbledon to move on and the opportunity was there. Clacton Town had resigned from the Southern League, there was a vacancy and Wimbledon’s board wanted it.
In 1964, Wimbledon was run by its members and the final decision would rest with them. The key vote came on 11 May and over 200 members crammed in to hear a speech from the club’s benefactor and chairman Sydney Black. He made it abundantly clear that if the vote went against him, he would resign. The club’s nine-man management committee had already announced they would go to if the members voted to stay amateur. Even with those threats, for some the move to the semi-professional ranks would betray the club’s amateur legacy.
In the end just 24 voted against and the proposal to turn professional was carried. At the Southern League’s annual meeting on 6 June 1964, Romford proposed and Guildford City seconded Wimbledon for the vacant spot. The motion was passed. The Dons had become professional. Four days later, 15 Wimbledon players signed contracts.
17 June 1977
The Dons had won the Southern League three years in a row, and had seen spectacular success in the FA Cup. In 1975, Wimbledon had become the first non-league side to win at top flight opposition in 55 years – beating Burnley 1-0 at Turf Moor. They had then held the European Cup Finalists, Leeds United, at Elland Road, before losing the replay 1-0 in front of 45,000 fans.
By 1977, Wimbledon could justifiably claim to be the nation’s top non-league side. But these were the days before direct promotion from the non-league ranks to the Football League. To join the elite 92 you needed to persuade the existing League members to vote you in. The Dons had chanced their arm in the re-election wheel of fortune in 1975 and 1976 and had got royally stuffed both times, getting four and three votes respectively. Tactics needed to change.
In 1977 the Dons would be up against Halifax, Southport, Hartlepool and Workington, the sides that had finished in the bottom four of the Football League, and Altrincham from the Northern Premier League. Bernie Coleman called on local businessman Ron Noades to help. Noades took up the challenge and soon became the new chairman. He created a new committee. One of the committee members – a certain Richard Faulkner – later became a Lord and in 2002 would make an emotional speech at the launch of the Dons Trust. The England cricket captain Tony Greig was also recruited, and the “Dons 4 Div 4” campaign was born.
The committee began an extensive lobbying process. However, the strength of the campaign came from the Dons supporters. Noades politicised them, mobilised them and utilised them to their full potential. The fans phoned and wrote to the decision makers. They turned it into a media crusade and gathered support from all corners. Wimbledon’s election to the Football League was becoming a matter of delivering justice.
On 17 June 1977, the Football League’s member clubs gathered for the AGM at the Café Royal in central London. The Wimbledon delegation waited anxiously outside. The Burnley chairman, Bob Lord, made a key speech. He concluded with the words: “Workington have had their chance, they have finished bottom enough times. It’s time to give this lot a go.” Then came the vote. The result: Altrincham 12, Halifax 44, Hartlepool 43, Southport 37, Wimbledon 27, Workington 21. Wimbledon had been elected to the Football League.
30 May 2002
Two days after an FA Panel had voted to allow Wimbledon’s football club league place to be given to the Buckinghamshire town of Milton Keynes, Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association gathered at Wimbledon Community Centre for their Annual General Meeting.
Over 1,000 people crammed in. It was to be a momentous meeting. Emotion was thick in the air. The early speakers wanted to fight the FA’s decision. Then came arguably the most famous speech in Wimbledon’s history. It was from Kris Stewart, the chair of WISA. He stepped down from the stage and made a speech from the floor. He said: “I just want to watch some football.” It captured the imagination.
After Kris’s speech the vote was unanimous; just two days after they had thought it had died, the people of Wimbledon had its football club once more. A day later, a form was submitted to the London FA to register the club. Next to the line ‘year of formation’, the date 1889 was scrawled. Wimbledon applied to join the Isthmian League but narrowly missed out on the 95 per cent vote it needed to get in at such short notice, mustering 88 per cent, but days later the Combined Counties League stepped into the breach. Withdean 2000 put the club forward for election, the motion was seconded by Hartley Wintney, and with just two votes against, Wimbledon were in.