Football: AFC Wimbledon return to Plough Lane

AFC Wimbledon played their first game at their new Plough Lane stadium on November 4, 29 years after Wimbledon FC played their last game at the site.

There may have been no fans present for their 2-2 draw with Doncaster Rovers, but Tuesday night was the climax of an 18-year journey for fans of the Dons.

Commercial Director Ivor Heller, who was part of the board when the phoenix club formed in 2002, said that there was always a desire to return the club to its rightful home.

“From the very start, we talked about it. There was just an irresistible pull, there is something in the Wimbledon DNA,” Heller said. 

The end of Wimbledon FC

When Wimbledon FC played their last game at Plough Lane on May 4 1991, a 3-0 defeat to future landlords Crystal Palace, no one could have foreseen the route Wimbledon would have to take to get back there.

Wimbledon were forced to leave Plough Lane as a result of the 1989 Taylor Report following the Hillsborough disaster, which recommended that top-flight sides should play in all-seater stadiums. 

The Dons had no money to redevelop Plough Lane and could not secure help from Merton Council so became tenants at Selhurst Park, in what was supposed to be a temporary move.

In the end, Wimbledon shared a ground with Palace for 11 years.

The club were sold, to Norwegian businessmen Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten in 1997 who sold Plough Lane to Safeway supermarkets.

Then followed one of English football’s most infamous moments. On August 2 2001, newly appointed Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel announced that the club intended to relocate to Milton Keynes, much to the fury of supporters.

Despite this anger and refusal from the Football League to allow the team to relocate, Wimbledon appealed and a three-man independent commission ruled two to one in favour of allowing the Dons to relocate. 

 Rebirth as AFC Wimbledon 

Faced with the prospect of having no club to support, Wimbledon fans took initiative and formed AFC Wimbledon in 2002.

In the same year, the Plough Lane stands were demolished and their chances of ever playing there looked slim.

The Dons instead took up residence at Kingsmeadow, sharing with Kingstonian, until 2017.

Wimbledon were able to purchase Kingsmeadow in 2003 from property developer Rajesh Khosla after Kingstonian went into administration. 

AFC Wimbledon went on a fairy tale run after forming. Between 2003 and 2011 the Dons achieved five promotions eventually working their way back to the Football League and in doing so becoming the first team formed in the 21st century to play in the Football League.

Returning home

AFC Wimbledon had always planned to return to their home in Merton.

Graham Stacy, a board member of the Dons Trust which owns the club, told the BBC: “We could have reformed anywhere. But we have always represented Wimbledon, so playing there is everything.” 

They announced their intention to move back to Plough Lane in August 2012, but they were not able to submit their plans to the council till 2013.

The original Plough Lane site had been flattened and turned into a housing estate in 2005 so, AFC Wimbledon planned to redevelop the Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium.

Planning permission was granted, in 2015, but plans were halted a year later when then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson called for a review into the plans.

Any worries Wimbledon had were put to rest in 2016 when newly elected Mayor Sadiq Khan moved the plans back to Merton Council and, the Dons were granted final approval, in 2017.

Fans of the club raised over £5.4m by establishing the Plough Lane Bond and this allowed the club to continue with the plans.

Delayed return

The club had to ground share for one final time with Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road for the beginning of the 2020-21 season, but now finally AFC Wimbledon have a place to call their own.

 The host of 9years podcast Rory Deacons, a podcast about AFC Wimbledon, was delighted that the Dons finally have a home.

“When you see plans for a ground, you can never quite grasp it until you see it. To now see a ground in blue and yellow colours and Dons on the seats is really really exciting,” he said.

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