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On being a good sport

"Aaaaare you Braintree in disguise?! Are you Braintree in disguise?" Even in the rarefied world of non-League football, this is an odd thing to hear another human being say - let alone to hear several hundred people sing in full-throated unison. But such enthusiastic localism is something I've heard a lot of as an AFC Wimbledon fan - in this case, as a sarcastic reference to one of our less impressive opponents from Essex

This past week I made my regular trip to glamorous Norbiton to watch my team play FC United of Manchester in a pre-season showpiece called the Supporters Direct Cup, for a trophy engraved with the words "Football without fans is nothing". AFC Wimbledon and their Mancunian comrades
are both fan-owned co-operatives, in defiance of the hyper-capitalist imperatives that stole their old clubs from under their noses.

For Wimbledon fans, this meant that their club was uprooted from SW19 and moved to Milton Keynes in 2003 to become the "franchise club" MK Dons. For FC United fans, the straw that broke the camel's back was the Glazer family's £790m takeover of Manchester United in 2005. But the "rebel club" is a response to a much wider malaise, an embourgeoisement that continues to alienate so many fans of top-flight football.

Walking to the ground, I got chatting to Neil, a lifelong Manchester United fan who has made the switch to FC United. "We get a better atmosphere with 2,000 fans at FC than they get with 72,000 at Old Trafford - though that probably says as much about Old Trafford as it does about us: it's all tourists and casual, rich fans. Premiership football is just prohibitively expensive for me now, though in an ideal world I'd like to take James to both," he says, gesturing at his six-year-old, who is bouncing along Kingston Road in a Manchester United replica shirt. "But you like going to FC games, don't you, James?" He does.

Hit the Manchester United homepage, and you learn that this is "the world's most popular team": layered over Mercator's projection are prominent links to the Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Chinese-language versions of the site. But there is another, countervailing force in English football. Now Liverpool fans are plotting an ambitious, £250m bid to buy the club outright from the owners, who, they worry, will “do a Glazers" and land the club in multimillion-pound debt.

Back in south-west London, AFC are winning a light-hearted contest 2-0, and the 1,776 fans present all look tremendously happy. Yet the football Establishment told both sets of fans that their efforts would be in vain. "It won't last till Christmas," reads one FC United fan's T-shirt, with the club's three titles listed underneath. The FA commission that broke every precedent in football to green-light Wimbledon's move to Milton Keynes infamously told the fans that "resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, 'Wimbledon Town'
is . . . not in the wider interests of football".

In seven seasons, AFC Wimbledon have been promoted four times. On 8 August they kick off their first season in the Conference Premier in front of a predicted crowd of 4,600. You can try telling us on Saturday that this incredible adventure is not in the wider interests of football, but you probably won't be able to make yourself heard above the din.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads