The Dons and Sutton United aren’t strangers to each other by any means.
However, this weekend’s game is the first time the South London rivals have butted heads in the league since our reformation!
With this in mind, we’ve brought together two men who were instrumental towards making the events of 10th July 2002 a reality as our former chairman Kris Stewart and Sutton’s chairman Bruce Elliott tell all about the night that went down in history.
From estimating crowd numbers, to letting off balloons prior to kick-off this interview will take many of our supporters on a trip down memory lane and in turn provides the perfect preview for what awaits tomorrow at Plough Lane as the two sides meet once more.
You can read the full transcript of the interview below, whist it is also available to watch on our Official YouTube Channel.
ORGANISING THE GAME
KS: The night itself was a bit of a blur at times. In the lead up to the game we were wondering how big it would be and as time went on we got more and more confident that it would be something fairly big. But even at five o’clock in the afternoon no one could have predicted that four-and-a-half thousand would turn up!
BE: Ivor (Heller) reckoned there would be roughly a thousand. He then revised the estimate to a couple of thousand a bit nearer to the game. It wasn’t only about the first game for AFC Wimbledon, it was also about franchising football clubs – people were voting by turning up to the game and making their views clear.
KS: There was a great build-up to it. On the night itself we had a lot of friends here, I have a friend who’s a Stockport fan that came along, there were fans who came to the game because they wanted to be part of something. They wanted to make their feelings known on the decision that was made.
BE: The other thing I recall is the referee having to put the kick-off time back twice. The match was meant to kick-off at 7:30pm – it was moved back to 7:45pm but then it was shunted back even further to 8:00pm to prevent any sort of riot.
KS: I was on the pitch at the time I was told that the kick-off would be moved back. I happened to be doing an interview with Radio London, so I ended up announcing that live on air.
BE: Ivor had it in his mind that the best place for the first game would be here at Sutton. I bought into that because I thought about how nice it would be for us to host the club’s first game after reforming and because it would mean we would have a bit of that history too. A few phone calls were made and a few meetings were held and it all fell into place.
I had to explain to our groundsman that this match was going to be something special and he was absolutely good as gold as he was a football man himself. An awful lot of people moved heaven and earth in order to make it a reality. It was a total collaboration between the two clubs. Marc (Jones) produced the programme and that gave us one less thing to worry about!
KS: Our fans were everywhere. I can pinpoint some spots on the terraces where good friends of mine stood.
BE: There was no segregation. It was a friendly with a capital F. We were so proud to host the first game for the club. I remember the balloons going up before kick-off.
KS: There was a lot of interviews with radio stations. There were cameras and reporters everywhere. We held a press conference where Joe Sheerin had to model a shirt that was about ten times too big for him. Sports Interactive still remain as our sponsor today, it’s incredible.
BE: I remember we held the press conference in the vice president’s room here. It was absolutely packed. There were film crews, reporters – you were there, Ivor was there, Terry Eames and Joe Sheerin. With the best planning in the world we could never envisage what it was going to be like. I liken it to when we played Arsenal here a few years ago in the FA Cup. In the blink of an eye it was over before we knew it.
BE: You’ve not mentioned the lad who scored twice for us in the game. After that he ended up going to you or you nicked him! I can’t remember how it happened.
KS: Kevin Cooper, he ended up scoring a few for us! That night obviously convinced him that there was something exciting going on and he wanted to be part of it.
SATURDAY’S LEAGUE MEETING
BE: I always remember to this day that you never bought me a drink that night! You can rectify it on Saturday. We’re looking forward to the game because it’s the first league match between the two clubs in the 20 years since 2002. We’d always managed to avoid each other up to now. It’ll be quite an occasion.
KS: What happened in 2002 was a terrible thing. But what has happened since has given people like myself the opportunity to experience our rise through the leagues again. What we haven’t had in the last 20 years is a proper local rival. I think Sutton are the closest too that and I think Saturday will be the closest we’ve had to a proper league derby.
BE: It will almost certainly be a sell-out. We’ve sold out our allocation and could have sold more. There’s certainly plenty of interest in the game. If it didn’t attract a full turnout from both sides there would be something wrong.
KS: We always speak about how incredible what we’ve done is. But when I remember speaking to you back then, you never had any thoughts of potentially becoming a league club. It wasn’t part of your masterplan.
BE: It’s been well documented that we had the 3G pitch. In our heart of hearts did we ever expect to be a Football League club? No. We knew that if there was ever a possibility that we would have to rip the pitch up and that’s exactly what we did. But our ambitions were always to reach the top level of non-league football and we did that. We wouldn’t swap it for the world.
The return game at Gander Green Lane on New Years’ Day will also be a special occasion whatever happens on the pitch. It’s often about a lot more than the result. The connection between the clubs goes back as far as the 1963 Amateur Cup final.