AFC Wimbledon are set to return to Plough Lane in a brand new stadium on Tuesday 3 November, three decades after they were forced to leave the original stadium in 1991.
After being unable to turn the old Plough Lane into an all-seater stadium, required by Government regulations, the club’s supporters have spent 30 long years roving around without a ground to truly call home.
Graham Stacey, a lifelong Wimbledon supporter and now a member of the board of The Dons Trust, the elected leaders who are involved in running the club, believes that the return will be a momentous occasion.
He said: “I think it’s going to be a dream come true, we’ve been working towards this for 18 years and so many people had dreamt about it.
“Plough Lane has had a couple of incarnations in that whole area of Wimbledon where all the history is, this is the latest one but it’s always been our spiritual home.
“It hasn’t been an easy thing, building a stadium, let alone in Wimbledon which isn’t a cheap area. We could have set up in Kingston or wherever after we were pretty much sentenced to death by the FA, but we were always about representing Wimbledon and being Wimbledon’s football club.”
When the original Wimbledon FC’s owners controversially decided to relocate to Milton Keynes, local fans created AFC Wimbledon, a club which has risen meteorically through the football league since its inception in 2002.
Six promotions later and now playing in League 1, the Dons are on the cusp of a return to the area where most of their 20th century history was formed.
The Dons have had to wait frustratingly long for their own stadium, having shared Selhurst Park with Crystal Palace far longer than they’d originally planned from 1991-2003, before going on to play at Kingsmeadow.
Stacey said: “We went to Selhurst Park, then we stayed there and we stayed there. It was awful because we were very much in someone else’s area, their stadium and their blue and red colours.
“I think the deal we had there wasn’t particularly great so it didn’t do us any favours in those terms. It felt a bit soulless to be honest, back then it was always in our minds that we needed to move back to Wimbledon.”
Plans to build Plough Lane gathered momentum in 2015 with Merton Council’s approval and was confirmed at the end of 2017, though the club faced difficulties as recently as December 2019 after an £11 million shortfall.
The Dons at one point considered selling shares to private investors, but a hugely successful bond set up by fans has raised over £5 million since January, ensuring that the club’s supporter-led structure has remained intact.
Stacey believes that the fan base’s commitment in setting up the bond in a matter of weeks was decisive in the stadium’s financing.
He said: “I don’t think we’d be where we are today if that hadn’t happened. Nick Robertson, who’s a local businessman, saw what a fan-owned club could do and I don’t think he would have put his money in if that wasn’t the case.
“So not only did being fan-owned change the game in securing us the £5.4 million, it arguably secured another £2.5 million on our terms from a minority investor.”
The return to Plough Lane sees an opening fixture against Doncaster Rovers and is a landmark moment for the club, although lockdown measures mean that fans will have to wait a while longer before they can experience the atmosphere themselves.
Despite frustration at the current circumstances, Stacey explained the club’s priority is ensuring the safety of fans.
He added: “I’ll probably shed a tear when we are actually let in. Seeing my dad’s face when he gets to walk in for the first time, he’s been a fan for 50 years and he hasn’t seen us truly play at home for 30 of those. There are thousands of people like him.
“Sometimes you have to wait for the best things in life but 30 years is quite an ask. We cannot wait to be there.”
Featured image credit: Kirk Pritchard