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Saturday 15th January 2022 ko 15:00

EFL League 1



Att 7,128 (317 away)

Entry £26

Programme £3

On one hand you could see this as a means to an end. I needed to tick off AFC Wimbledon’s new ground for my 91st of the current EFL/Premier League grounds, and Robyn for a few less than that. Completionism isn’t really my thing, it tends to happen by accident! The “92” comes close to being an exception, partly because its completion was what started me groundhopping- I finished at Doncaster Rovers’ old home Belle Vue in 2006, and partly because I’m no fan of hard and fast rules!

The case of AFC Wimbledon is of course far more than just an exercise in groundhopping. The old Wimbledon left Plough Lane in 1991 to allow them to continue playing top flight football at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park. Both the Dons and Palace used the ground for reserve games until 1998 but Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam sold the ground to Safeway (now part of Morrison’s) who in turn sold the ground to David Wilson Homes in November 2002 when their plans to build a supermarket on the site were thwarted. Finally, in 2008 a development of 570 flats was built on the site.

Wimbledon’s 2003 move to Milton Keynes to become the MK Dons will, I suspect will be seen by most as a mistake by the Football Association that will never be repeated, and nearly 20 years later I still have no idea why the club playing in Bletchley feels the need to use the suffix “Dons” when they relinquished any claim to the old Wimbledon club’s history in August 2007?

The history of AFC Wimbledon from the player trials on Wimbledon Common 29th June 2002 to League 1 is one of those stories that Hollywood would probably reject as being improbable. I remember seeing them play AFC Wallingford in the Combined Counties League during that first season as part of a crowd of over 3,000. The “Real Dons” stint at Step 5 certainly was a financial windfall for the other clubs!

But AFC Wimbledon were always crystal clear as to what their long term aim was and that was to return to the London borough of Merton. The history of AFC Wimbledon and Kingsmeadow I covered in detail in the “Can Of Worms” article. For those who feel the club kicked out Kingstonian from their home I’d comment that the Khosla family would have evicted them far sooner, and that it was Chelsea FC who bought the lease who insisted on vacant possession, leaving Kingsmeadow’s original tenant with nowhere to play.

But for a fan-led club to build an EFL-compliant ground in London was never going to be easy, and the club were a little fortunate that Wimbledon Stadium was there, and derelict just 200 yards along Plough Lane from where the old football ground sat. It had hosted both greyhound racing and speedway, but had been closed since 2017 but the club had been proposing to redevelop the site for 4 years previously.

The plans showed a 20,000 capacity stadium developed in partnership with Merton Council and Galliard Homes, who would build 600 residential properties and community facilities. The difficulty was even with Galliard’s input the funding for the full stadium plans would be impossible. 

Inevitably the plans were scaled back, it took £2million crowdfunding, a £5million bond issue and further investment by ASOS owner Nick Robertson ( who became a minority shareholder) to build the 9,215 capacity stadium you see now. And it isn’t quite what I expected!

I took the Thameslink service from Wimbledon Station to Haydon’s Road rail station mainly because the walk north to the new ground takes you past the site of the old. The sculpture there is described as a sound wave from the afternoon Wimbledon won the FA Cup in 1988, but of course that was at Wembley, not Plough Lane. Nevertheless do look out for the  references to old Wimbledon legends namely (Eddie) Reynolds Gate, and the blocks (Dave) Bassett, (Allen) Batsford, (Alan) Cork, Lawrie (Sanchez), (Stanley) Reed and (Harry) Stannard. 

I expected the new Plough Lane to be comparable to York Community Stadium and the similarities are there, in both cases the ancillary development does obscure the view of the ground. But once you work your way past that you’ll see this is a completely different development. The only part of the original 20,000 capacity stadium plan that so far has been built is the main, west stand consisting 4,267 seats including 2 tiers of hospitality. 

On the other 3 sides the stands are all of the demountable “Stadium Solutions” type found at the likes of Salford City. Like there the idea is that in time, and when necessary these stands can be replaced by larger and permanent structures. The south stand features rail seats, anticipating legislation allowing for safe standing. That probably makes it all sound temporary and it just might be but if those bigger stands don’t get built there is a silver lining to it. 

It’s that the stadium’s footprint is still there for 20,000 and that includes the turnstiles. The 3 stands don’t take up anywhere near that room so there’s room for “Street Food” vendors and inflatable goals for younger spectators to practice their skills. It was good also to see a nod back to the Wimbledon Dons Speedway team at the back of the south stand- a good friend of mine was at their final meeting here. 

But a club isn’t about the fixtures and fittings its about camaraderie and identity and both of those were in abundance here. Both Robyn and I found a lovely buzz about the place, and sitting with Terry Hall of “Terry’s Badges” fame was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. It felt that after nearly 20 years the circle of watching a protest club playing in a borrowed ground had been completed with Wimbledon, or its descendent, returning home to Merton, and so close to the site of the old ground. 

The game was a real “six-pointer” with Wimbledon occupying one spot above the League 1 relegation zone, and visitors Morecambe the spot below. The draw while reasonably entertaining probably suited no one- Wimbledon need a goalscorer along the lines of the vistors’ Cole Stockton and the Dons defence kept him well muzzled. It was very much a case of the two teams cancelling each other out. That of course is football. 

We took our time walking back to Haydon’s Road Station; that will need expanding if Plough Lane is enlarged, and headed north. Half the fun of riding the tube trains after a game is seeing the fans mingle, but there was something additionally satisfying about seeing the culmination of what started with a fans protest back in 2002.