By Caroline Cook
Saturday 30 September. Kingsmeadow Stadium. The home of the Dons. As part of our 25th anniversary celebrations I chose the one and only AFC Wimbledon to spend my experience “day with a member”. I couldn’t have been made more welcome.
I was greeted by Pietro Palladino, the Commercial Executive for the Club. He gave me a quick guided tour of the hospitality facilities.
We then met the irrepressible Ivor Heller, one of the Club’s founder and Commercial Director. He introduced me to a group of fans over for the match from Bilbao, the Continental Dons. They were a fabulous group of 13 who had flown to London to watch the match. Ivor had engaged with them via social media, they had designed their own ‘ConDon’ team shirts and scarfs, and presented Ivor with a fetching Basque beret and Athletico Bilbao pennant. We made our way to the stands, bathed in sunshine, and heard from Ivor the history of the Club. From the early days in the Southern League via FA Cup glory at Wembley, to the reformation of the Club in 2002 on Wimbledon Common. Their history with Merton is key and strongly felt.
Some fascinating facts. Did you know that the club sponsor, Football Manager, is the longest running sponsorship deal in football? In 2003 AFC Wimbledon bought Kingsmeadow from Kingstonians when they were promoted to the Rymans South league. They hold the record of 78 senior matches unbeaten. When they gained promotion to the National Conference League, the celebrations in The Dog and Fox pub in Wimbledon Village gave the pub their best ever nights takings! Then just 9 years after reforming AFC Wimbledon made it back into the Football League. This has given them opportunities they never thought possible back in 2002, like facing Liverpool again in the FA Cup, and going back to Wembley for the play-offs to win promotion to League One.
Along with the ConDons, I was given a tour of the ground, viewed the trophy cabinet which included a FA Cup winners medal donated to the Club by Vinnie Jones. Ivor and I then went on to meet the team in the Club shop. What struck me as we toured the ground was the sense of family and community. Ivor welcomed everyone, from stewards, volunteers, families, staff and of course team players. He knew their stories, and made each and every one feel valued.
I was then introduced to the Club manager, Neal Ardley. As a former Wimbledon player himself, he appreciates the history of the club and its importance as part of the local community. He generously gave me his time to talk about pre-match build up, and the opportunities that young people can be given at the club. It turned out that the ‘Man of the Match’, Will Nightingale began his football career as a youth player, and has been at the Club since the age of 9.
Match day hospitality was a busy affair with around 100 guests enjoying a three course lunch. Ivor interviewed one of the Dons back room staff who was a former Rochdale player – the opponents that day – followed by Neal Ardley who gave a team run-down. The ConDons were introduced to the guests. On my table there were more international guests who were over from the States. They were the parents of best selling author, and avid Wimbledon fan, John Green. The underdog story of the Dons is truly international, and the script of their rise from the ashes has been made into a script by John Green himself. We enjoyed speculating who would play Erik Samuelson and Ivor in the movie!
Then to the match. There was nervous anticipation around the ground, as a win was needed by the team. This made its way onto the pitch, and whilst the Dons gave a solid performance, the final shot was frustratingly off target. As Will Nightingale said in the after match presentation, it’s those fine margins that make the difference.
At the presentation the match day mascots – two local school boys – were given their moment on stage; the ConDons were back again to be welcomed by the home supporters.
Despite the goalless draw, the day had been fantastic. The hospitality shown to me by Ivor, Pietro and the Club couldn’t have been more welcoming. It is a family friendly club, which is keen to be part of the local community, and one that is looking forward to returning home to Plough Lane. We look forward to welcoming them back.
Talking to Erik Samuelson after the game he was explaining how difficult it is to get money for the trust, and they’re looking forward to being back in Merton. The Dons Trust is committed to strengthening the voice of supporters in the decision-making processes at the football club, and strengthening the links between the club and the community of Wimbledonand the surrounding areas.
To find out how you can get involved in the Dons Trust please visit their website and show your support!
Will I be back? Definitely. #COYD