Wimbledon, then, are going home. Almost a quarter of a century after the old Wimbledon Football Club bade farewell to Plough Lane at the end of the 1990/91 season, on Thursday night planning permission was unanimously granted for a new stadium to be built on the site of the Wimbledon greyhound stadium, a short walk from the site of the old ground. It’s a significant victory for the club, which has played out the last thirteen years of its history in nearby Norbiton, but it’s a victory that comes at a cost, and that cost is a home for Kingstonian Football Club, the former owners of the Kingsmeadow stadium that the two clubs both called home for more than a decade.
This story begins in essence in 2002, when Kingstonian, who’d been the owners of the ground since its construction in 1989, collapsed into administration. The club and the ground were both sold to two businessmen, Rajesh Khosla and his son Anup, but the Khoslas had no interest in Kingstonian Football Club – they were only really interested in the value of the land upon which Kingsmeadow stood. The newly-formed AFC Wimbledon played their first season as tenants at Kingsmeadow, but after one season Wimbledon undertook to purchase the leasehold on the stadium, which was completed the following year. As a part of the deal, Kingstonian would remain at Kingsmeadow as tenants, paying a lower rent than they had previously been paying and with a pre-season friendly to be played every season with Kingstonian as the “home” club, to offset as much as possible of the cost of that rent.
Whilst Kingstonian remained a non-league club, continuing to ply their trade in the Ryman League – they’ve been members of its Premier Division for all bar three of the last fifteen years – Wimbledon embarked on their much publicised rise through the non-league game. For the Dons, there were two matters than ran through the club’s DNA. The first was to win back the place in the Football League that was taken away by the Football Association’s independent commission in 2002. The second was to return to the London Borough of Merton. The first of these was achieved in May 2011 at the City of Manchester Stadium with a penalty shoot-out win against Luton Town. And with promotion to the Football League came requirements for ground improvements that caused something of a schism with Kingstonian supporters. Football League seating capacity requirements necessitated Wimbledon to build a seated stand at the Kingston Road End of the ground, which had been the traditional “home” end terrace for Kingstonian supporters.
The real problems began for Kingstonian at the end of last year, when it was confirmed that Wimbledon had agreed terms with Chelsea, who had been looking for a home for their youth and women’s teams, to buy the Kingsmeadow site. The problem – for Kingstonian, at least – was that Chelsea didn’t want the club there as tenants. The good news for both Wimbledon and Chelsea – which was bewildering news for Kingstonian supporters – was that the directors of Kingstonian FC issued a statement saying that, “After much long and careful thought Ks Board have come to the conclusion that the best long-term interests of our club would be served by us taking this opportunity to leave Kingsmeadow, at the appropriate time, and finding a stadium better suited to our needs, income and level of support.”
No particular workings for this conclusion was ever confirmed by the club, but the site believed to have been identified by the club is strongly believed to be at South Chessington, in Surrey. Or, to put it another way, in order to facilitate WImbledon moving back to their home borough in London, it is apparently necessary for Kingstonian to leave their town, if not quite their London Borough. In 2008, however, as part of a deal transferring ownership of some land around the perimeter of the Kingsmeadow site, Kingstonian were given a new twenty-five year tenancy at the ground that they used to own. With this apparent security of tenure in place, the question of why Kingstonian’s owners would suddenly decide that Kingsmeadow is no longer suitable for the club and that it must leave is not one that is easy to answer.
It is understood that the position regarding the matter of the club’s ongoing tenancy is more complex than at first presumed. It is, for example, known that there is a “break clause” in this agreement. By September, however, this seemed to be answered once and for all, when a joint statement issued by both Wimbledon and Kingstonian confirmed the latter’s desire to leave Kingsmeadow by 2017. The club is to compensated for this, but the exact amount of this compensation isn’t known and is certainly unlikely to be anywhere near enough to re-home Kingstonian permanently in a brand new stadium of its own, as supporters would surely want, as only this would give the club a future in which money wasn’t being frittered away on rent and/or building costs.
As things stand, all we know about Chelsea’s position over it all is that they do not wish to purchase Kingsmeadow with Kingstonian there as a sitting tenant. Relations between these two clubs have traditionally been okay, so it surely has be to be worth taking the chance of speaking to them to see if they would be open to the idea of the club staying there, but this doesn’t seem to be on the agenda of those running the club at the moment, regardless of what the supporters want, as has been seen from their previous statements on the matter. Those who run the club want out, but they don’t seem to be particularly forthcoming on where it will be headed next.
There is an athletics ground close to the site of the Kingsmeadow site which could – as has been seen at Enfield Town and Chelmsford City – be converted into a perfectly serviceable football stadium, and it’s possible that the pay-off from Wimbledon plus some extra funds, which could possibly be made available through grants, could bring that up to scratch. It is understood, however, that this is not a viable option, although the reasons for this have never been fully explained (there is an argument which states that the athletics club would require primacy over use of the facility, but Kingstonian don’t have primacy at Kingsmeadow, so how that would necessarily impact on Kingstonian’s ability to use that site is unclear.)
As things stand, however, it seems most likely that one of two options will play out for Kingstonian. The first is a new ground somewhere within in the vicinity of Kingston but nowhere near the town itself – Chessington, as mentioned above, seems to be the favourite – or ground-sharing, leading a nomadic existence until the money that the club might make from this ground sale is used up. The worrying precedent here is the case of Wealdstone FC, who sold their Lower Mead ground to property developers in 1991, received only a fraction of the full sale price themselves and ended up leading a nomadic existence until they were able to purchase the existing ground of Ruislip Manor in 2008.
A petition organised by supporters urging the local council to “ensure that the sale of the freehold of Kingsmeadow stadium ensure that both the covenant on the land is upheld and the future of Kingstonian is protected” and to “ensure that Kingstonian are not left homeless and futureless by the sale of Kingsmeadow” raised enough signatures to be put before them for debate. In an age of considerable austerity at local government level, however, it’s difficult to know what the local council would be able to do if the directors of the club itself are so intent on leaving Kingsmeadow. The directors, however, do not seem to speak for the overwhelming majority of supporters in this case, and this distinction is an important one, and is one that supporters of AFC Wimbledon, of all clubs, should surely understand.
This situation was, perhaps, always the endgame with regard to Kingstonian and Kingsmeadow. Ever since the separation of the club from the ground itself in 2002, it has been known that there would be a point at which this moment would come. This has been postponed by AFC Wimbledon becoming its owners but, with it being known that a return to the London Borough of Merton was a core part of the ethos of this club and that this would surely not go ahead without the eventual sale of Kingsmeadow to somebody, what is unfolding now was never anything more than a postponement.
Some might argue that Wimbledon should, perhaps, be held to a higher moral standard than others. Some might argue that Kingstonian have only been able to continue for as long as they have as a result of their munificence. Some might well wonder whether those that run Kingstonian FC have just spent the last thirteen years keeping their fingers crossed that Wimbledon would somehow forget about their aspirations of moving back to Merton and consider that perhaps they should have acted somewhat more decisively before now. Ultimately, though, the stark fact remains. Wimbledon supporters will get their home in Merton. Chelsea supporters will get a base for their academy and women’s teams. Kingstonian supporters will be left wondering where their club will end up playing and, ultimately, whether they will be left with any club at all.
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