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Sam Elliott: Struggling Leyton Orient can take heart from AFC Wimbledon

I REMEMBER where I was and, specifically, my very teenage reaction to what I thought was about to happen. Growing your own football club wasn’t exactly in fashion 15 years ago.

“Start a new supporters’ team?” I said. “You want me to give up my Saturdays to watch you and Jonesy prance around a park pitch?” or words to that effect.

Wrong end of the stick grasped, little did I know that the adventure of a lifetime was about to begin as AFC Wimbledon came into life.

Adventure

Every story is different. Leyton Orient’s situation isn’t as terminal as what us Wimbledon fans were faced with back in 2002, but they have one thing we didn’t back then – conclusive proof that starting again, taking your destiny into your own hands and giving a middle-finger salute to those who have damaged your club actually works. It can be wonderful.

Wonderful and weird. The Combined Counties League let us in when the Ryman League said no. The long road back started at clubs like Viking Greenford, Withdean 2000 and AFC Wallingford.

Bales of hay literally acting as a press box at Sandhurst Town on the new Dons’ first ever league game, we knew we were on a journey. We didn’t know where it would take us, but high on life and yelling ‘freedom!’ there’s nothing else that set of supporters would rather be doing.

For a group of fans who were used to the Premier League, it was of course a culture shock. But not once as the club climbed the Non-League ladder did we think this wasn’t for us.

Of course, success helped. So did support, from the vast majority of Wimbledon FC fans – even if some didn’t see Non-League football as what they wanted to spending the weekend watching – and from the wider public.

AFC Wimbledon may have walked out at Bolton’s Macron Stadium yesterday ahead in the standings of the club who stole their Football League place and their identity a decade and a half ago, but of course there’s other sides to the coin.

AFC Telford United have gone again, but they have had to relinquish supporter control with the club growing stagnant. FC United of Manchester have experienced in-fighting, and although their remit was not purely to scale the leagues, they have reached a plateau at National League North level it seems despite the building of a brilliant new home.

If Leyton Orient fans go down the route of starting their own from scratch, what will be important? Three things. Unity, positive PR and, vitally, their own ground sooner rather than later.

Harmony

You can’t start a new club – or re-start one – if total harmony doesn’t exist. Nobody is foolish enough to think disagreements don’t and won’t happen, but any split in a supporter base in the phoenix club environment is instantly recognisable as fans demand their voices are heard. It’s the beginning of the end.

It’s either total togetherness, or don’t bother at all. But Orient fans, don’t let pitfalls put you off. I’ve seen for myself what fun you can have building your own, and the friends you make along the way. It’s the best thing us Wimbledon fans ever did.

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