Wimbledon: A Long Way Home
Plough Lane, the home of Wimbledon Football Club, belonged very much to football’s bygone age. The club had been voted into the Football League in 1978, but despite the fact that they were a First Division club eight years later, it hadn’t changed very much by the end of the following decade, either. This was a time when promotion into the top division wasn’t the cash bonanza that it is today. Wimbledon had spent much of their time in the Football League fighting uphill financial battles, and although plans to build a new 20,000-capacity stadium in the London Borough of Merton were approved by the local council in 1988, the club did not follow this up and the stadium was never built.
On the 7th May 1991, Crystal Palace visited Plough Lane and won by three goals to nil. The club had announced that they would be leaving for Selhurst Park for the start of the following season, and at the end of the match supporters streamed onto the pitch to say goodbye to a ground which had been Wimbledon’s home for the previous 79 years. It was never sold to supporters as a permanent departure from the ground, or from their home London borough, for anything but a temporary period of time.
Plough Lane didn’t quite die with the club’s departure. Both Wimbledon and Crystal Palace used it for reserve team fixtures until 1998, when owner Sam Hammam sold it to the Safeway supermarket chain. Against the wishes of local residents, they battled for four years to get a supermarket built on the site, but when their planning application was rejected, the site was demolished and sold to David Wilson Homes in November 2002. Three years later, they got planning permission to build houses on the site.
By then, though, Plough Lane was starting to feel like a distant memory. The story of Wimbledon FC throughout the 1990s, meanwhile, would go on to become one of the most infamous in the entire history of the game in this country. The team defied gravity to stay in the Premier League, but away from the pitch this was a lengthy period of protest and broken promises. The proposal to move to Dublin may have eventually been torpedoed, but this entire saga was a canary in the coalmine for the club’s supporters. An owner planning to move their club to a foreign country – even one countenancing the idea – couldn’t be trusted, but protest was all they could do.
So Milton Keynes arrived on the table, and with Hammam having divested himself of his interest in the club to Norwegian speculators as Premier League football approached its first serious investment bubble. The Norwegians in turn appointed Charles Koppel as chairman, and in 2001 he announced the club’s intention to move the club to Buckinghamshire. Against such a backdrop, and with an independent commission appointed by the FA finding in favour of the move – a decision which should continue to shame all concerned to this day – by May 2002 there was no alternative but to form a new football club for Wimbledon.
From 2002 until 2020, then, “home” was a ground-share with non-league Kingstonian. It was as good as they could have hoped for at the time, but it wasn’t ideal. Kingstonian had been plunged into financial chaos by their previous owners, and the ground was bought from the administrators. It was always known that the new landlords’ aim was to move back to Wimbledon and that Kingstonian would eventually be rendered homeless when Wimbledon sold the ground to Chelsea for use by their women’s team, but this would almost certainly have happened much sooner, had the ground been sold to just about anyone else, all those years earlier.
On the pitch, though, would come a story of rebirth. It took Wimbledon just nine years through the Combined Counties League, the Isthmian League and the Football Conference before they were promoted into the Football League in 2011 when, on a balmy May afternoon in Manchester, they beat Luton Town in the Conference play-off final after a goalless draw. And once back in the Football League, the ascent continued. After four seasons during which they hadn’t finished above fifteenth in League Two, a seventh place finish saw them through to the play-offs, where Accrington Stanley – another “club who wouldn’t die” – and Plymouth Argyle were beaten to claim a place in League One.
So, to 2020, then. Wimbledon travelled to Milton Keynes last weekend for a League One match, and it says something for the incredible progress that they’ve made that coming away from it with a one-all draw might be considered a slightly disappointing result. Fans of the football franchise had been implicitly promised a rapid ascent to the rarefied air of the Premier League, but this hasn’t happened. Milton Keynes is the home town to what would be just another lower division football club, were it not for the pariah status that they retain, almost two decades after their move. By the end of last weekend, Wimbledon were in eleventh place, while Milton Keynes sit in nineteenth. It’s difficult not to smile at the poetic justice of it all.
As though to balance out the universe, though, this poetic justice has been mirrored of the first match to be played there tonight against Doncaster Rovers having to be played behind closed doors. Everybody understands the reason why this is the way that it is, but there may even be something poignant about the teams emerging onto the pitch in front of empty stands at the new home of a club that would not even exist were it not for the determination of those who have fought tooth and nail for it for so long.
Wimbledon are not alone in this most idiosyncratic of longings. York Street had been the home of Boston United for 87 years at the end of last season. They have been lodging at nearby Gainsborough Trinity while the finishing touches are put their new stadium. The current period of stasis and uncertainty has put a lot of matters into perspective, but for the football supporter looking to return home, to say that now is not the best time for it would be understating the matter, somewhat.
It would be completely understandable if this evening’s match was a bittersweet moment for Wimbledon supporters. All that work, standing by a club that the FA’s independent commission described as “not in the wider interests of football.” But the empty seats at Plough Lane this evening will tell more than one story. One the one hand, they signify a disaster that few of us would have foreseen just twelve months ago. On the other, though, they are empty spaces ready to by filled by supporters who have been waiting almost three decades to really, truly get home. It’s an incredible achievement, and no more than those who will fill those seats deserve.