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Moving Plough Lane return shows anything is possible for AFC Wimbledon

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stoppage-time equaliser spoiled the dream ending for AFC Wimbledon on their return to Plough Lane, but Tuesday night was just the start.

After 29 years away, 10,776 days of waiting, and 18 years after Wimbledon were controversially relocated to Milton Keynes, the Dons are back at their spiritual home.

There have been many occasions since the shutters were pulled down on football in March which merited a crowd – Liverpool’s first title in 30 years, Leeds’s return to the Premier League and, in London, Brentford bidding farewell to Griffin Park, to name a few.

All were inhibited by the absence of an adoring mass, but few felt quite as deserving of an audience as Tuesday night, as the phoenix club built and owned by its fans returned to Plough Lane for the first time since 1991.

There should have been more than 9,000 supporters there to watch the players march out to Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town.

Instead, in attendance were a handful of directors and chairman, all of whom had been at the heart of the return, something that was near the top of the priority list when the club was born in 2002.

“It is beyond belief,” Ivor Heller, a director and one of the founders of the club, told Standard Sport on what was an emotional night.

“I saw some friends of mine, from when this project started, walking down the Haydons Road, which is what we always sing about, and that gave me a tear in my eye — it was the first of many.”

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The club have waited 29 years to return to their spiritual home in Merton

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“It is sad,” said Sarah Emsley, a lifelong Wimbledon fan who was among the few supporters drinking in one of the new home pubs, The Corner Pin, which had cancelled bookings after talks with the club and police in order to keep people away.

“We’ve waited so long to come home and it is just unfortunate that this has happened when it is a great thing for our club, a big landmark. It just overshadows it a bit.”

Rob Ridley, the landlord of the pub, recently became a Dons Trust member and shareholder, despite being a Chelsea supporter.

He said: “Once all this Covid is dealt with, it will be nice to have an injection to the local business, once the dog track shut down we lost a lot of revenue, so it will be nice to have that back.”

There will be one hell of a party in The Corner Pin and beyond when fans are allowed to return, that is for sure.

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James Coppinger spoiled the party with a late equaliser for Doncaster Rovers in League One

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Wimbledon manager Glyn Hodges said: “They say miracles don’t happen twice, being back at Plough Lane shows they can.”

Once fans are back and the return is complete, the thoughts of those at the club will immediately turn to what is next.

Back in their home borough of Merton, pressing ahead with their remarkable community work – through the Dons Local Action Group – is key, and even that will eventually, they hope, help matters on the pitch.

“We talk about being a community club, we really are a community club,” said Heller.

“We’ve got volunteers collecting food across the borough, we’re feeding a huge amount of people and it is ongoing and not going away, and it is getting bigger. 

“There is no other club anywhere that has done anything like this. We’ve now got a flagship for the community.

“What we can do here is limitless, because we get behind people then they will get behind us.

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The absence of fans was keenly felt, but the Dons have big plans for the future

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“What’s next is without a shadow of a doubt we’ll find our way to the Championship at some stage. We may go up, we may go down, but we will establish ourselves eventually and then who knows?

“In 1977, we got elected into the League, and I said in 10 seasons we’d be in the First Division and win the FA Cup and we did it.

“Not only that, we managed to do the double over Manchester United, ended Liverpool’s run at Anfield, beat Tottenham at Tottenham and Chelsea at Chelsea.”

The ambitions are lofty, but they always have been at AFC Wimbledon. 

Few who were stood conducting trials for the phoenix club on Wimbledon Common 18 years ago would have actually backed a return to Plough Lane, so who knows what will come next?


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