AFC Wimbledon fans have seen their fair share of miracles over the past 18 years. From non-league beginnings in 2002 to their current-day League One status, Wombles have witnessed a whopping six promotions.
But perhaps the Dons’ greatest achievement will be realised this evening. A new ground at Plough Lane, a stone’s throw from the old Wimbledon’s home for almost 80 years, will host its first official game - a visit from Doncaster Rovers in League One at 7.45pm. As excitement builds, those associated with the club are still pinching themselves at their latest accomplishment.
“If you’d have said to me that within 20 years of starting out, we’d be in League One and playing in a brand new stadium at Plough Lane, I’d have said you’d lost the plot,” Ivor Heller, AFC Wimbledon’s commercial director, tells FFT ahead of the clash. “When we started back in 2002, people said we were mad – but look what we’ve achieved.”
The old Plough Lane hosted its final fixture in May 1991, against Crystal Palace, before the club embarked on a decade-long groundshare with their opponents that day. Fans still cherish memories of the old stadium.
“Plough Lane was a tip, but it was our tip,” says Brian Sullivan, a Dons fan since 1982. “The atmosphere there was just incredible. It was only tiny and they used to pack around 18,000 in for a big match, with 80 per cent of that standing. You were so close to the pitch too."
The standing capacity may have added to the ambience, but that would also prove its downfall. Following Hillsborough, top-flight clubs were required to upgrade to all-seater stadia by 1994. Sadly for fans, the 15,876-capacity Plough Lane was deemed unworthy of modernisation. When the club later moved to Milton Keynes and became MK Dons, the new AFC Wimbledon set up base at Kingsmeadow in Kingston upon Thames.
“That became a real home away from home for us,” explains Sullivan. “But we’ve always wanted to go back to Plough Lane. We would have settled for anywhere in [the borough of] Merton or Wimbledon, so it’s a massive bonus to go back to more or less the exact same spot as the old ground.”
"We made Kingsmeadow ours," adds Heller. "Although we knew deep down that it could never be permanent as the clue was in the name. That ground is in Kingston and we’re called Wimbeldon. Kingsmeadow was a wonderful temporary home but it ended up strangling us a little bit. The opportunities to raise revenues from that ground were very limited. The one thing we have done with the new ground is to make sure we can raise funds through banquets and functions."
The latest miracle would not have been possible without the extraordinary fundraising efforts of fans.
“They raised around £8 million for the new stadium, via crowdfunding and bonds,” explains Heller. “They made this dream a reality. Of course, the board has worked hard to deliver the vision but the fans made it possible."
Devastatingly, though, supporters will not be in attendance when Doncaster visit for the stadium’s curtain-raiser tonight – a consequence of a coronavirus pandemic which shows no signs of ending any time soon.
“It’s heartbreaking,” laments Heller. “People have put blood, sweat and tears into the club, and they can’t be there. The ground won’t truly be open until everyone is in there together. We’ll have two occasions. The one when we play there for the first time and the one when the fans come back."
The 9,000-capacity venue can be extended to more than double that figure when the club sees fit. For a side used to playing in front of a packed house of 4,000, Plough Lane 2.0 represents an exciting new chapter in AFC Wimbledon's history.
“We’ve built a spectacular facility that can help this club going forward,” says Heller, who believes the sky’s the limit in the new stadium. “Anything is possible – I genuinely believe that. This is 100% the start of a new chapter. I believe that we can reach the Championship and, quite frankly, once we get there, who knows? There are investors out there that may want to get involved. Nothing would surprise me with this football club."
The journey may be far from over, but there really is no place like home.
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