Sunderland-born AFC Wimbledon chief executive Erik Samuelson reflects on his Roker Park and Wembley memories
AFC Wimbledon’s rise through the league pyramid has been meteoric and they meet Sunderland AFC on Saturday as League One equals.
Having progressed through the non-league pyramid, having been formed from the ashes of Wimbledon, the phoenix club is an incredible success story.
And one of the key men at the heart of that story is chief executive Erik Samuelson, who hails from Sunderland.
The former Fulwell Junior School pupil - who attended the school between 1956 and 59 and played junior football for Fulwell West End - played a key role in helping resurrect a football team in Wimbledon following the decision of a three-man FA commission to allow the old Wimbledon FC to relocate to Milton Keynes, renaming as MK Dons.
AFC Wimbledon relaunched in the Combined Counties League and are now into their third season in League One.
On Saturday they face Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, a proud moment for Sunderland-born Samuelson - who spent the first 19 years of his life in the city - and everyone connected with their incredible rise.
Reflecting on his childhood, Samuelson said: “Many people’s most vivid football memories are from their earliest years and I am no different, I spent most of my childhood playing football in the side street alongside my parents’ corner shop, close enough to Roker Park to hear the roars when Sunderland scored.
“The first game I ever went to was on Boxing Day 1955 when I wasn’t really old enough to register the extent of the humiliation of a 6-1 home defeat against Newcastle United.
“From then on, whenever possible, I supported the team from the Fulwell End terrace, behind the goal in the best atmosphere to watch a game.
“I think everyone recognises that Sunderland are a very big club but you may not know about the six top-flight championships and the two FA Cup wins. One of these FA Cups was won while a second-tier club, beating the then all-conquering Leeds United who two years later reached the European Cup final.
“I was there at Wembley in 1973 to see that victory as well as witnessing (with apologies to Dave Beasant) Jim Montgomery registering the finest-ever Wembley save,” added Erik, in his programme column for the league game back in August.
One of his ambitions has been to face Sunderland in a competitive game at the Stadium of Light, adding that he wished ‘Sunderland’s phenomenally loyal fans every success this season’.
Doug Yarrow, friend and former classmate of Erik’s, said: “Erik was a key man - perhaps THE key man - in resurrecting a football team in Wimbledon after the MK Dons fiasco, for example how in setting up AFC without any players he arranged trials for anyone who wished to turn up on Wimbledon Common.
“Their subsequent rise has been meteoric, Erik has overseen all of this.”
The classmates, including Keith Sugden and Graeme Kent, enjoyed a reunion at the reverse fixture earlier in the season, pictured with Sunderland executive director Charlie Methven.
Erik added: “One of the great things about football is the friendships we form from it, and in this case the friendships that have been revitalised.”
AFC Wimbledon head to Wearside battling for League One survival, they prop up the table with 23 points from 29 games, eight points from safety.
Jack Ross will be looking to heap more misery on Wally Downes’ side but the fact both teams find themselves in the same division is remarkable in itself, having leapfrogged MK Dons who are now battling for promotion in League Two.
Their home ground of The Cherry Red Records Stadium, or Kingsmeadow, was a new one for Sunderland fans back in August, a Lee Cattermole brace inspiring a fine comeback in a 2-1 win.
The Dons are now looking to move to a new 11,000 seater stadium in Plough Lane. And Samuelson has been a major part of their incredible success story.
Naturally Wimbledon is now his ‘first’ team but Sunderland will always hold a special place in his heart, ahead of the Stadium of Light clash.