The Greatest League in the World?

This season’s Conference play off final perfectly epitomises English football.

A passion and intensity that belies the level it is being played at in relation to its wealthier bedfellows – and with global appeal. Well, the Americans would certainly love the eccentricities of our game that are so typically English.

Luton versus Wimbledon was an FA Cup semi final tie in 1988.

Back then a modicum of common sense was just as regular a feature of the game as the occasional rumble of trouble on the terraces. The two teams made the short journey to the neutral territory of White Hart Lane and battled it out for a place at Wembley.

The Crazy Gang won through, in a sparsely populated stadium that echoed to the cheers of The Dons’ band of happy-go-lucky followers who would have to fork out about £12 for a ticket to watch their side in the most famous football match in the world.

The ensuing 23 years has been hard on both Wimbledon and Luton. The Hatters fall from grace as an established top flight club to near extinction and non-league ignominy would be spectacular in itself, but their opponents’ journey from that wet North London semi final Saturday to this week’s final via Dublin and Milton Keynes easily trumps it.

‘Tales From Kingsmeadow’ sounds like either a cosy novel to snuggle down reading with a glass of merlot, or a spinoff of Midsommer Murders. In fact it’s a true story of how football survived and came back from the dead stronger than ever.

AFC Wimbledon rose from the ashes of the English league’s one (and we’re promised, only) case of football franchising. The ‘old’ Wimbledon were relocated to Milton Keynes and, under the guidance of Music Mogul Peter Winkleman, became the MK Dons, fulfilling his dream of delivering league football to the land of the concrete cow.

Wombles fans were left to start again, at the very bottom. In 2002 AFC Wimbledon was born out of a simple newspaper article requesting players to attend trials at a local park and asking for volunteers to help build a new club with whatever skills they could bring to the table. The new team started life in the Combined Counties League. Not so much the foot of the league pyramid, more like being buried six feet beneath it.

Less than a decade later The Dons are rewriting a bit of their own history in a climb through the leagues that easily matches their upwardly mobile antics in the 1980s.

It’s a story all the more remarkable when you survey the landscape of a game that has changed in so many ways since 1988. Yet, thankfully, it’s tales like the one from Kingsmeadow, the modern stadium where Wimbledon now play their games, that haven’t changed one bit.

The romance is still there, you just have to dig a little deeper to find it.

The common sense on the other hand seems to have deserted us. Supporters of two teams that skim the outskirts of Greater London will have to make the long journey from Surrey and Bedfordshire to Manchester City’s Eastlands Stadium and pay around £50 for a ticket. You would have thought that a White Hart Lane rematch wouldn’t have been beyond the capabilities of the administrative powers of The Football League.

Two hundred miles and an eyebrow raising ticket price are small hurdles for these fans to tackle though and it’s likely that the crowd for this non-league encounter will be bigger than the 1988 match.

The top flight is, just as it’s always been, the place to be. But from the Football Conference right up to The Championship there sits the solid, rugged, sometimes ugly but ultimately perfect bone structure that supports the botoxed, surgically enhanced orange complexion of the Premier League.

The fact that the term ‘non league’ is rarely applied to the Conference these days speaks volumes. It’s no consolation to the likes of Stockport County and Lincoln City, but it’s likely that one of the main reasons those clubs were so distraught at dropping out of League Two is the growing reputation in strength of football’s fifth tier.

The same could be said of the other end of the league ladder. The fight to join the elite has become so fierce that the perceived quality of the Championship almost blurs the lines with much of the lower reaches of its Premier counterpart.

All this is true, except when it comes to the crucial factor: money. The financial sacrifice of dropping out of the league and the prize at stake in the Championship play off final (which increases every ten minutes from £80m to £110m throughout the final commentary) are, literally, the bottom line.

From a neutral perspective, who in their right minds would swap a 2011-2012 season in the Championship with the likes of West Ham, Leeds, Southampton, Portsmouth, Brighton and Forest with another predictable battle for fifth place in the Premier League?

Experts elsewhere in Europe frown upon our over-populated game and would, in a heartbeat, dissolve Rochdale, Bury and Oldham into Manchester United Reserves. The notion that over 4,000 fans would turn up to watch two teams at the seventh level of the game – as was the case at FC Halifax v FC United of Manchester earlier this season – doesn’t impress the administrators of the game in France, Italy, Spain or Germany. They feel it is a reason why our game is spreading itself so thinly financially and struggling to compete on a national level.

But as the likes of Halifax, Chester, Boston and Telford dust themselves down and begin to climb the steepest summit in the game, it makes you realise just how healthy the English game really is.

As for the Premier League being the greatest/richest/most exciting in the game, I’ll pass on that if you don’t mind, there’s far more going on below it to distract me from such trivial matters.

The Author

Merv Payne

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