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AFC Wimbledon return to spiritual Plough Lane home after 29-year wait

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ven when they were watching their team in the ninth tier of English football, AFC Wimbledon fans never stopped dreaming about returning to Plough Lane.

Supporters could have easily given up hope back then in 2002, as it had already been 11 years since the club had last played there after former owner Sam Hammam infamously sold the stadium.

Fans had lost not only their home, but their team after the club’s relocation to Milton Keynes was confirmed. That sparked the birth of AFC Wimbledon and the journey back to Plough Lane, which ends on Tuesday night as the stadium opens for the visit of Doncaster.

“There were obviously big obstacles, but we’d sing about it, we’d talk about it,” says Xavier Wiggins, one of the co-creators of the Plough Lane Bond which raised more than £5million to help fund the return. 

“For me, we haven’t had a home game for 29 years. But we all believed the return to Plough Lane would happen one day because that’s just what Wimbledon do. We smash obstacles in front of us.”

Singing about returning to Plough Lane is one thing, but acting on it is another. Right from the start, Wimbledon were serious about their plans to come home.

Erik Samuelson can remember those days and he served as finance director and a board member of the Dons Trust, the fan group which owns the club, from its inception in 2002.

“When we started, we created various groups,” says Samuelson, who became chief executive in 2007 before retiring in 2019. “One of the groups was called, excitingly, the Stadium Working Group.

“I was looking at a report yesterday that it wrote in 2003, describing the various possible sites in Merton that we could go to. And it concluded even then that Plough Lane was the obvious place to go, the most desirable place to go. So, from the very beginning, people were looking at how to make it happen.”

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The way it was: Wimbledon players and supporters loved the old Plough Lane, while the opposition couldn’t wait to get out

/ Getty Images )

It was some seven years after that report, though, before a turning point in the Dons’ return happened as they gained cross-party support from Merton council. 

The council’s leader, Stephen Alambritis, particularly backed the move and there was now genuine hope it could happen.

“When you have got that behind you, it takes away so many difficulties and creates so many opportunities,” adds Samuelson. “They opened the door and then kept it open for that period. Without that, I just don’t think it could have happened.”

There have been more turning points, or “critical moments” as Samuelson calls them, since then. 

Chelsea buying Kingsmeadow – the Dons bought the leasehold on the ground in 2003 after being tenants there in the first year of their existence – was vital to raise funds.

But when the club was faced with an £11m shortfall last year to complete the return to Plough Lane, it was the fans — just like they did in 2002 — who stepped in.

Crowdfunding, debentures and the Plough Lane Bond somehow kept the dream alive as supporters dug deep.

“We just do this again and again as Wimbledon,” says Wiggins. “It is going to be quite weird when we get there, because we’ve done it all.”

And that, for Wimbledon fans, is perhaps the one piece of sadness about Tuesday night.

The pandemic means they cannot be there for their homecoming and, instead, fans will be tuning into a live broadcast on the club’s YouTube channel from 6pm, with former players Terry Gibson and John Scales part of the coverage.

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The new Plough Lane stadium was built at a cost of £30m and can seat 9,300, when fans are permitted to return

/ AFC Wimbledon )

“That’s the tragedy of all this,” says Scales. “It is probably the greatest story of a club being reborn and coming back to their spiritual home – but the irony is that the fans are locked out.”

When supporters do finally return, it will have been worth the wait and they will find their new 9,300-seat home, which cost more than £30m, is a far cry from the old Plough Lane.

“You had the tiny cramped tunnel, the manager’s office off it, somewhere where the boots were and two dodgy dressing rooms — and that was about it,” adds Scales. 

“We knew we had the upper hand on the opposition, as they didn’t particularly like coming to Plough Lane! The fact they hated it made us love it even more.”

Plough Lane history

1912 – Wimbledon play first match at Plough Lane, in front of a stand holding 500 people. 1984 – The ground is sold for a reported £3m to Rudgwick Limited, which is controlled by the then owner, Sam Hammam.

1991 – Dons play final game at Plough Lane and become tenants at Crystal Palace after the Taylor Report, which came in the wake of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, said top-flight sides should play in all-seat stadia. 

1998 – Hammam sells Plough Lane to Safeway for a reported £8m. 

2002 – Safeway fail to get planning permission and Plough Lane is demolished. The team’s move to Milton Keynes is confirmed and AFC Wimbledon are formed. 

2010 – Stephen Alambritis elected leader of Merton council and vows to help Dons return. 2014 – AFC Wimbledon submit a planning application for new community stadium at Plough Lane. 

2015 – Merton council approves club’s plans to build a new stadium in the borough. 

2018 – Construction work begins at new Plough Lane. 

2019 – Fears for project grow due to an £11m shortfall. Fans raise more than £7m. 

2020 – Construction delayed due to Covid-19, so AFC Wimbledon begin season at QPR.

Fans loved it, too, but the hope is this new ground can be just as special once supporters get the chance to visit.

“We have got a proper modern stadium in a perfect amphitheatre because of the flats around it and the great big wall at one end,” says Wiggins. “I’ve jokingly said it is like being in a suburb of Buenos Aires, it has that natural arena.”

The weather may not match up to Argentina, but Dons fans are close to their day in the sun. They just have to wait a little longer to finish the latest chapter on this remarkable journey.

“We never left, even if we were located somewhere else,” says Samuelson. “This reminds us there are things to celebrate in the world, despite living through a pandemic.”


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