AFC Wimbledon’s men’s team are close to a return to the borough after almost 30 years away.
It was May 1991 when The Dons were forced to move home, ground-sharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in the wake of tougher legislation for safe stadiums. That legislation – the Taylor Report – helped make grounds safer and usher in a new era for football in which families and female supporters were able to attend safely.
Recently, permission was granted for Wimbledon to build a new ground, almost on the site of the old Plough Lane, and once again return to the borough from which they take their famous name. With AFC Wimbledon Ladies still playing in Carshalton, it means that the area will finally have one of its teams back.
It is not just local news though; Wimbledon returning to Plough Lane rounds off a story that has national importance and is likely to make many fans, young and old, a little nostalgic for days gone by. The rise of the Crazy Gang, the name given to Wimbledon’s players in the eighties, is the stuff of legends. Emerging from the non-league scene, they climbed all the way to England’s top flight, a story which won them many friends. However, they won few friends on the field with their tactical approach and aggressive style, but it did bring rewards. Names such as John Fashanu, later a TV presenter on the Gladiators show, and Vinnie Jones the Hollywood star rose to the nation’s attention whilst wearing the blue and yellow of Wimbledon, and in 1988 they sprung one of the biggest shocks of modern-day football.
Liverpool are currently the reigning Premier League champions, as well as having recently won the Champions League. In Bwin’s ‘Premier League Goals’ feature, Liverpool were noted as one of the highest scorers, which led in no small part to their emphatic title win. Back in the eighties, they were even more of a powerhouse, winning seven titles in 11 years. In 1988, they seemed set to complete a memorable double, with only plucky minnows Wimbledon standing in their way in the FA Cup Final. Had the Reds won that final, they would have also secured a historic double. Instead, Lawrie Sanchez scored a deft header in the first half, Dave Beasant became the first keeper to save a penalty in a Wembley final and the Reds were beaten. The result made headline news and endeared the Dons to every non-Liverpool fan in the country.
Sadly, the Plough Lane departure happened within three years, and in 2002, even worse was to come for our local side. Forced to play out of the borough, they were the subject of a controversial takeover of sorts, with music mogul Pete Winkelman snatching the club away from London and moving them to Milton Keynes. He renamed them MK Dons and essentially killed football in the borough, seemingly for good.
The people of Wimbledon rallied, with a meeting taking place in the borough’s Fox and Grapes pub, to formulate the formation of a new team. Trials took place on Wimbledon Common, where 230 players turned up to try out for the new non-league teams. On July 10, 2002, the new club played their first friendly. Within nine seasons, the Wombles have risen from the depths of despair through to the Football League, just as the Crazy Gang had almost three decades prior. In 2016, they won promotion to League One, the third tier of the English game and were briefly in the division above MK Dons, the team that took their identity. The trophies the club won as Wimbledon were returned to the borough, but one thing was not: the actual club.
Since 2002, AFC Wimbledon have played their fixtures at Kingsmeadow, sharing with Kingstonian and later taking over the ground. The club that bears our famous borough’s name, that carries the flag for a working-class game in an area known for a world-class tennis tournament, has been unable to finally return home and complete a journey they started in 2002. Within weeks, that will no longer be the case.
Plough Lane is almost complete; the doors are almost open and ready to welcome supporters. Finally, when the Wombles walk out for a home game in their home borough, many football fans will have a nostalgic tear in their eye for the completion of a story against adversity, a battle against the odds and a good old happy ending many thought impossible.