With the FA Cup final coming up, Wimbledon’s storied Plough Lane past is once again being written. However, a new chapter of this famous club’s history is also about to be penned with it becoming the first football team from outside London to win top-tier status for 55 years.
Wimbledon’s Plough Lane is a place steeped in history. It played host to the world famous FA Cup Final when Liverpool beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-2 in 1954 amid scenes of jubilation and celebration from fans, players, and officials alike. The stadium has gone through many changes over the years but despite this it remains arguably one of England’s most iconic sporting venues ever built
AFC Wimbledon is a football club that has been around for over 100 years. It was founded in 1912 and played its home games at Plough Lane, which was known as the “Cathedral of Football”. Today, AFC Wimbledon plays their home games at Kingsmeadow Stadium. With the new chapter being written, AFC Wimbledon’s storied past will be remembered forever.
Wimbledon’s home from 1912 until 1991 was the historic Plough Lane.
AFC Wimbledon like a good yarn, and its illustrious past is littered with them. Another came on Saturday, when Ollie Palmer scored the first FA Cup goal in front of Plough Lane supporters in almost 30 years.
Palmer, who was born in 1992, the year after Wimbledon moved from their old Plough Lane home, was a lifelong Wimbledon supporter who attended games at Selhurst Park as a youngster. When the Football Association approved the club’s transfer to Milton Keynes in 2002, he, like many others, ceased supporting them.
There was a feeling of work done in more ways than one when he smoothly went around the Guiseley keeper to slip the ball home and put his team through to the FA Cup second round with a 1-0 win on Saturday.
The 4,973 home supporters loved the game, as did those who watched it from the apartments overlooking the new Plough Lane stadium, which was built as part of the agreement that brought AFC Wimbledon ‘home.’
Lawrie Sanchez’s first-half header at Wembley in 1988, when Bobby Gould’s ‘Crazy Gang’ upset Liverpool to win the FA Cup, will be remembered for a long time. But it puts them one step closer to upsetting English football in the tournament that helped shape their entire identity, with a second-round home fixture against Gillingham or Cheltenham on the horizon.
It would be foolish to rule anything out when it comes to Wimbledon. If their illustrious past at Plough Lane teaches us anything, it’s that nothing is impossible for them.
“People often wonder, ‘When did the Wimbledon narrative truly begin?’” asks Ivor Heller, AFC Wimbledon’s business director and a key element in the club’s comeback.
Heller remembers the team’s 1974-75 FA Cup run. Wimbledon then overcame Burnley at Turf Moor in round three of the Southern League, one of the few times a non-league club has beaten a top-flight opponent on their home turf in English football.
They drew in round four against Leeds, who would go on to play in the European Cup final four months later, courtesy to goalkeeper Dickie Guy, who is now the president of AFC Wimbledon, saving a Peter Lorimer penalty. The rematch was seen by 45,071 people at Selhurst Park, with Leeds winning 1-0 thanks to an own goal by Dave Bassett.
In the days when teams had to seek for election to the Football League, that cup run gained Wimbledon national recognition. League members had to vote one of their own out for the applying club to be successful under the system, which was disbanded in 1986. It wasn’t something that happened on a regular basis.
Wimbledon won the Southern League in 1975 and 1976, and both years sought to join the Football League. They were unable to succeed on each time.
However, following a third consecutive Southern League title in 1977, they were elected as Cumbrians Workington were voted out, becoming only the third club to be voted out since the fourth division was established in 1958, thanks to the positive publicity surrounding their FA Cup exploits and their convenient location in south-west London.
What ensued was one of the most amazing climbs in English football history. Wimbledon was promoted to England’s top tier nine years later. They won the FA Cup two years later, in 1988, when they defeated Liverpool at Wembley.
As they progressed through the leagues, the quality of the players seemed to increase. Their stadium, on the other hand, did not.
In August 1990, Plough Lane was photographed at the start of what would be the last season at the old stadium.
“Plough Lane was a wreck of a non-league stadium,” remembers Lawrie Sanchez, who not only scored the FA Cup-winning goal in 1988, but also the winner against Huddersfield two years earlier that propelled Wimbledon to the Premier League.
“I can’t stress the importance of non-league enough. During all of those promotions, hardly little money was spent on the ground “he continues.
“The tunnel was just six feet wide. There were a few of well-known instances in there. The floor was also made of concrete. We were all wearing studs, so you had to be quick. Anyone sprinting through or out of the tunnel would almost certainly land up on their backside.
“In terms of dressing rooms, it was back when there were two replacements, so there was just about enough space if the manager was moved somewhere. They used to hold the replacements out until halftime so the manager and his assistant could discuss.”
What about their guests, assuming that was for the home side?
“They were the worst you’ll ever see,” recalls Dennis Lowndes, a longtime supporter who used to work in the club’s ticketing department before joining the ground crew.
“We did all we could to make them feel uncomfortable, including dumping water on the floor.” That used to make them moan and groan.
“My father worked in the locker rooms. He was a Wolves fan, and when they arrived in 1985, he informed Tommy Docherty that it was the worst Wolves team he had ever seen. ‘How can you play football in a setting like this?’ said Docherty.”
“The larger teams basically wanted to get out with the least amount of damage they could,” Sanchez says plainly.
In contrast to the Wimbledon players.
“We renovated the space we used for meals before games into a players’ bar, and then it evolved into a nightclub in the evening,” Sanchez continues. “A lot of players were kicked out about 2 a.m.”
However, it was not universally welcomed.
In his programme notes for Wimbledon’s first top-flight home game, against Aston Villa on August 26, 1986, manager Dave Bassett slammed Football Association secretary Ted Croker for claiming that Wimbledon’s facilities were “totally incapable” of staging First Division football and that it was “ridiculous” that clubs like Manchester United and Tottenham had to travel there.
Owner Sam Hammam used the match programme a year later to announce his desire to leave Plough Lane, which he described as “a barrier to our ambitious aspirations.”
He went on to say that it was “incapable” of being developed to the needed quality.
Some still believe that assertion was incorrect and that a 20,000-seat stadium could have been constructed on the same location.
Hammam, on the other hand, was not convinced. When the Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster was released in 1990, recommending that teams switch to all-seater stadiums, arrangements to ground-share with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park were set in action.
“Plough Lane was just a rope around the owners’ necks since it was convenient for them to sell the land,” Heller adds.
“There were no genuine disagreements.” Everything was done in such a manner that you didn’t have an opportunity to object.
“There had been a lot of discussion, but no one imagined we would just leave Plough Lane.” But that is precisely what occurred. There was no big celebration. There was no grand declaration that this was the last game ever played at Plough Lane.
“It was the end of the season, and everything had come to a close. It all seemed a little shady.”
Wimbledon supporters have been clamoring for a return to Plough Lane for years.
Wimbledon’s last match at Plough Lane took place on May 4, 1991, against Crystal Palace.
For the following 11 years, Selhurst Park remained the team’s home, but after an FA arbitration tribunal granted the club permission to transfer to Milton Keynes, a new club, AFC Wimbledon, was created, and attendances at the old one plummeted.
In their inaugural season in the Combined Counties League Premier Division – then the ninth division of English football – AFC Wimbledon averaged 3,003 spectators at Kingsmeadow, which is currently home to Chelsea’s women’s club.
Wimbledon, who would later become Milton Keynes Dons, drew 664 fans to Selhurst Park for a League Cup meeting against Rotherham United in the same season.
Wimbledon’s first match at the new Plough Lane was on November 3, 2020, however due to Covid limitations, spectators could only visit in May of this year.
Although the distance between Plough Lane and Kingsmeadow is just six miles, the owners of AFC Wimbledon never intended for it to be their permanent home. They wanted to return to Merton, where they could establish roots.
And they had a guy in Merton Council leader Stephen Alambritis who was just as eager to make it happen as they were.
Alambritis, a Fulham supporter who grew up in the shadow of Craven Cottage, said the sight of spectators flocking to stadiums and the floodlights flashing brightly on gloomy evenings was “wonderful.”
“One of the first things I did as leader was apologise to AFC Wimbledon supporters,” he adds, “since the council did have a role in their collapse.” “We broke an agreement that stipulated this land could only be used for sport, allowing Sam Hammam to sell the old stadium for houses.”
Alambritis met with Heller and Erik Samuelson, the CEO of AFC Wimbledon. Almost quickly, a relationship was created.
“What I received from those two was a tremendous constancy and continuity,” he adds, “that they were the two I was dealing with and the two who would come back.”
“Councils may be sloppy with something like this. I had to declare that these two gentlemen will be the football club’s representatives. They’re sincere, and they’re on top of things. It’s a fantastic tale. Let’s make amends for a mistake we did years ago.”
Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium, 250 yards down Plough Lane from where Wimbledon used to play, was given a sports intensification use restriction by Alambritis. With greyhound racing in decline, Alambritis approached the corporation that had given money to the stadium’s owner and arranged a deal with the council, AFC Wimbledon, and property firm Galliards.
“What do people remember when I make things happen? Things that protrude from the earth “he said “I had a vision that things would happen as a result of my leadership, that people would drive by and remark, ‘There’s a football stadium that wasn’t there before.’”
There were 850 dwelling units, “32 percent of which are cheap,” according to Alambritis, in addition to the stadium, which may be enlarged from its present 9,125 capacity to 20,000 if demand warranted it.
Palmer celebrates his winning goal against Guiseley (second from right).
He didn’t get all he wanted: AFC Wimbledon’s postcode is SW17, which belongs to Wandsworth, and Alambritis’ desire to move it to SW19, which belongs to Merton and is where the previous stadium stood, was denied by the Post Office.
Wimbledon, on the other hand, was back. All they needed was the funds to construct the foundation. The construction work started after a massive revenue-generating exercise was completed, and novelist and enthusiast John Green offered the last push with his own sizable gift. The club returned to Plough Lane on November 3, 2020, for a League One match against Doncaster. Unfortunately, no fans were around to see it.
“In one way, it was fantastic,” Heller explains, “but performing in the middle of nowhere with no fans was soul-destroying.”
“It was a nightmare. You’ve brought a slew of spirits with you. You began to have trouble imagining what it would be like with humans in it.”
Heller achieved his dream at the start of the current League One season, as AFC Wimbledon fought back from a 3-1 deficit to draw 3-3 with Bolton Wanderers on the opening day.
Heller recalls the old stadium’s hot dog and onion scent from his boyhood, when he used to watch football there in the 1970s. If you chance to be standing near enough, the powerful whiff of liniment does not come out of the changing rooms.
It does, however, contain rail seats, as befits a contemporary stadium, and is located right over the River Wandle from the big power pylon that appears in so many photographs of the old pitch. The location is likely no smaller than the previous one, and there is shelter for spectators on all four sides, something that the original Plough Lane lacked.
‘The Dons are back,’ ‘We are the resurrection,’ ‘There is a light that never goes out,’ and ‘Keep the faith’ are among the suitable banners.
And, although certain financial concerns remain, given that a bridging loan was part of the original finance, those in charge of the club are relishing the opportunity to deal with daily football issues, such as a perceived bad style of play on Saturday, rather than existential ones.
Who knows where they’ll end up on their voyage.
“After all we’ve gone through, who are you to tell me what I can and can’t dream?” Who wants to erect a barrier between us and our goals?
“I can assure you that we are beginning from a considerably larger basis than when we first entered the league in 1977.”
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