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AFC Wimbledon showing what can be achieved with fan power

The Boxing Day fixture between AFC Wimbledon and Oxford United might seem fairly insignificant to fans of teams in the Premier League, Championship and League One.

But the game is representative of the changing face of football.

Next year AFC Wimbledon celebrate their 10th anniversary.

Imagine living in Wimbledon and being told that you will need to travel to Milton Keynes for ‘home’ games. Naturally, Wimbledon fans were not happy.

So, in 2002, the supporters got together and formed their own club. To jump from the Combined Counties League to League Two in less than 10 years is impressive.

It also shows the power of fans. Perhaps only one more target matters to AFC Wimbledon fans – to play in the same league as MK Dons and to finish above them in the table.

Realistic goal

That might happen for a few years given that the League One side are currently challenging for promotion, but it is a realistic goal for fans of the new Wimbledon side.

It’s a similar story with AFC Wimbledon’s League Two rivals Aldershot Town – 2012 will see the 20 year anniversary of the Shots’ restarted life after their former club, Aldershot, went out of existence.

Like AFC Wimbledon, Aldershot progressed through the non-league ranks before winning promotion to the Football League in 2008.

Manchester United even have their own semi-pro version, FC United of Manchester, started in 2005 by Reds fans who were unhappy with how the club they supported was being run.

Rumours that the initials of the club started by Man United fans represent a not too thinly veiled one-finger salute to United’s owners have never been officially confirmed but are widely believed to be accurate.

Chance to upstage the Glazers

Now playing in the Northern Premier League, FC United reached the second round proper of the FA Cup last season, falling just short of what all fans hoped would be a chance to upstage the Glazers.

Crawley Town are perhaps the best example of why many football fans believe is something of a mismatch between the standard of League Two compared to its feeder league, the Blue Square Bet Premier.

Crawley, a ‘non-league’ side last season, have flourished in their first season in the Football League and are favourites not just to win promotion again but to be promoted as League Two champions this season.

The expectation these days is that if you can get out of the Conference Premier, the likelihood is you will stay up. And, as clubs like Mansfield Town and Stockport County have found, the likelihood of bouncing straight back into the Football League after relegation is fairly limited.

Never before has there been a better opportunity for a non-league club to earn Football League status. Fleetwood Town, currently level on points with Wrexham at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier, could be the next non-league outfit to secure a place in the top four divisions for the first time. And Southport are currently sitting in one of the four play-off positions.

Former non-league sides

League Two features a host of former non-league sides including Crawley, Cheltenham, Burton, Morecambe, Accrington, Macclesfield, Aldershot, Barnet, Hereford and Dagenham & Redbridge – not forgetting Oxford and Torquay, who have managed to bounce back following relegation.

Relegation out of the Football League no longer includes the stigma it used to, but it is still a shock to fans of established clubs like Stockport to accept that they will be a non-league side.

The investment in the Premier League and the influx of foreign players has had a knock-on effect down into the non-league game – and there are some decent players in the Blue Square Bet North and South too.

For some, the opportunity to earn a full time living and top it up by playing part-time football is a preference over full-time football.

Down in the Blue Square Bet Premier, former League clubs Wrexham, Luton Town and York City are among the leading contenders for a return.

Danger of relegation

Further down the pecking order, you’ll find fellow ex League sides Cambridge United, Darlington, Grimsby, Lincoln and Newport County.

And as if to emphasise the standard of the Blue Square Bet Premier compared to League Two, Stockport County are facing the very real danger of relegation.

It’s a sign of the times that with the right backing – from fans and investors – non-league sides can flourish.

And, while Stockport fans tuck into their Christmas turkey with furrowed brows, the future looks bright for Crawley Town and AFC Wimbledon supporters.

By Mark Roach

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