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Tuesday 9th July 2019 ko 19.45

Pre-Season Friendly

AFC WIMBLEDON 2 (Ruscrow 70p Folivi 90p)

BRISTOL CITY 3 (Webster 31 Diedhiou 47 52)

Att c1,500

Entry £10

If you’re fortunate to have Terry “The Badge” Hall as a friend, you’ll be well used to seeing two things on his Facebook page. One is his badge stall outside Kingsmeadow for ever single home game his beloved AFC Wimbledon plays, and just beforehand the inevitable gargantuan all-day breakfast at “Fat Boys” just round the corner from Jack Goodchild Way. I’d first been to Kingsmeadow years ago, in 2002 during the Real Dons first season for a Combined Counties League game versus AFC Wallingford. That season the Dons were destined to finish the league third, behind Wallingford, and can you guess who were league champions?

The answer is Withdean 2000 who were destined to fold rather abruptly in 2004 when the money ran out. They’d been exiled at Worthing since 1999 when Brighton and Hove Albion moved into their Withdean Stadium home as means of ending their exile in Gillingham.

But I’d seen Kingsmeadow then for the tenants in a groundshare. The Kingsmeadow site is owned by Kingston Council and the lease back then was owned by Kingstonian FC who’d built the ground in 1989 as a purpose-built replacement for their former ground, Richmond Road that they’d vacated a year earlier. They’d flown high as a club, and reached the Conference (National) but were in steep decline after severely overspending chasing success. They’d been taken over by a property developer Rajesh Khosla who’d bought the club from the administrators, and was clever enough to make sure his purchase in 2002 included the lease on Kingsmeadow.

The obvious move from a purely business perspective was for Khosla to sell the lease to someone looking to redevelop the site for housing although I do wonder how likely the council were to allow houses to be built on a site they’d earmarked for Kingstonian?

The solution to their problems in the short term was AFC Wimbledon. The club was born out of the FA’s decision in 2001 to allow the old Wimbledon to move to Milton Keynes (the club moved 2 years later). A part phoenix/ part protest club formed in 2002 after trials on Wimbledon Common and the new club attracted the vast majority (but not all) of the fans that had followed the old Wimbledon. With a place in the Step 5 Combined Counties assured the club needed use of a stadium that was capable of holding an average 3,000 support.

In that sense Kingsmeadow made perfect sense, and the the stadium being only a few hundred yards from Wimbledon’s spiritual home in the London Borough of Merton was a real bonus. And a fan-owned club with the support AFC Wimbledon attracts was able to generate the finance to pay Khosla the £2.4 million to buy the lease from his family although he did remain owner of the “K’s for some time afterwards.

In essence AFC Wimbledon and Kingstonian swapped places with the Dons as landlords and the K’s as tenants. Their rent was set at a below-market £10,000 a year, with the proviso of Kingstonian hosting AFC Wimbledon each year in a pre-season friendly the aim clearly being for the game to play the K’s rent in one annual hit.

And to some extent the ruse worked. Kingstonian got used to playing many of their home games on Sundays and while there was some discomfiture in 2012 at Wimbledon building a seated stand on the Kingston Road End, the home of Kingstonian’s more vocal fans, at least those fans still had a both a club and a home. But there was a fly in the ointment.

It was just about predictable that AFC Wimbledon would regain the league position that they’d argue was stolen when the old Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes. But back in 2002 few would have thought that could be achieved in just 9 years, and there was a further promotion to League 1 in 2016. It rather amplified the fact that Kingsmeadow isn’t in Merton, and the stadium still looks what it was designed to do and that’s house an ambitious Isthmian League club. Kingsmeadow even it’s expanded form is way too small to host Championship football. If the club continues to progress something would have to give.

The Dons had always been completely open as to their plans. They have always wanted to return to Merton, and when the opportunity came to redevelop the former Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium they grasped it. The Dog Track was virtually next door to the old Wimbledon FC’s Plough Lane so was perfect for the Dons’ needs with the space for a 9,000 capacity stadium, but the problem was how to finance it. Crowdfunding helped but a difficult decision had to be made.

The decision was taken to sell their lease on Kingsmeadow, and a buyer was quickly found. Chelsea FC were looking for a site to host all non-first XI games (mainly youth and women) and bought the lease in 2015 but there was a real sting in the tail for Kingstonian. Chelsea were not prepared to have anything other than sole possession of the ground so Kingstonian were forced to leave the ground that had been built for them at the end of the 2016/17 season moving firstly to Leatherhead FC and since last season at Corinthian Casuals. AFC Wimbledon will move out when their new stadium is complete, probably for the start of the 2019/20 season.

So Robyn and I arrived at a ground very much in transition. As perhaps you’d expect there is now no reference to Kingstonian; the club whose ground this was built for are long gone, and of the three clubs who’ve called Kingsmeadow home it’s unquestionably they who’ve come out the stadium’s history the worst. The question I would ask though, is what would have happened if AFC Wimbledon hadn’t been there to buy the lease from the Khoslas? I suspect Fat Boys would have seen their customer base switch from football fans to tenants of a block of flats.

But if you’re a Dons fan this season is all about anticipation. I’m sure their fans have grown to love Kingsmeadow but the sense of looking forward to a return to Plough Lane is clear everywhere you look.

From Robyn’s point of view it was interesting to see Bristol City too. With the benefit of a little hindsight they were in transition too, but in a different way. Here it was on the playing side. Goalkeeping legend Frank Fielding had been released, and is now at Millwall. Adam Webster scored with a thumping header but was destined to be sold for £20M to Brighton and stalwarts Marlon Pack and Jamie Paterson, both veterans of City’s League 1 championship season played here but were destined to leave before the transfer window shut. In the meantime everyone thought want-away winger Callum O’Dowda would be playing his last game for the club, but both Leeds United and Fulham looked at O’Dowda, thought they could do better, and now both club and player are wondering what to do next.

As you’d expect City won, but as befits a Wimbledon side managed by legend Wally Downes, they made them fight for it with two late penalties, the first scored by Mike Roscow who’d made the step up from Welsh Premier outfit Cardiff Metropolitan University – If you click the link, you’ll see he had the goal scoring touch even when I saw him!

It was in truth an evening out that was far more about history and football politics. We left afterwards not so much talking about the games but asking ourselves.

What if Wimbledon hadn’t moved to Milton Keynes?

What if Kingstonian hadn’t overspent?

If Chelsea hadn’t wanted a second stadium would Kingstonian had stayed, and how would have AFC Wimbledon financed the new Plough Lane?

Because whatever you viewpoint on all of this, the set of circumstances that got the 3 clubs where they are now are without precedent. I do wonder whether anything similar will ever happen again?

Dedicated to Terry and Tav. The best adverts for AFC Wimbledon I can think of.