The club may only be 18 years old, but AFC Wimbledon are no strangers to adversity.
Having been founded in 2002 by supporters as a protest against the original Wimbledon’s uprooting to Milton Keynes, the Dons have risen through the divisions, winning six promotions in 13 years to reach League One.
While there has been much to celebrate over the years on the pitch, the club have continued to endure some hardships off it. The majority of that has centred around finding somewhere to call home.
Although the long-term ground-sharing arrangement at Kingsmeadow, where AFC Wimbledon have played since their rebirth, has served a purpose, it is now finally almost time to go back to their spiritual home.
After many years of speculation, hope and wranglings with Merton Council, supporters got what they had always wanted in 2015: permission to build a new stadium on the site of the original Wimbledon’s original home of Plough Lane.
One final hurdle
The last five years have seen a succession of positive steps taken towards that common goal: planning permission granted, clearance of the site and, finally, the beginning of construction.
But now, with steel structures erected and just months remaining until the planned opening of their new £30m, 9,000-seat stadium, there is another hurdle to overcome.
Rising costs have left the fan-owned club with an £11m gap in their funding which urgently needs to be plugged.
Unlike many Football League clubs, AFC Wimbledon have no wealthy owner to turn to. There is no billionaire backer to fund the phoenix club’s dream of playing a first true home game for 29 years.
And while outside investors may be interested in buying in, that would mean letting them into the boardroom and diluting supporter control.
So, having already cobbled together £2.4m through a previous crowdfunding initiative last year, the Dons are taking another innovative approach to their financial problems.
Better return than the bank
The Dons Trust, which owns the club, has launched The Plough Lane Bond in the hope of raising £5m towards the construction of their stadium.
Fans of the club, well-wishers or dispassionate investors are being asked to loan upwards of £1,000 over five, 10 or 20 years – a period over which, uniquely, you can set your own interest percentage, from zero to four per cent.
“It’s a great opportunity to invest in something that not only gives you a better return than you could get at the bank, but allows you to be part of one of the best football narratives and also to do something for the community,” AFC Wimbledon chief executive Joe Palmer tells City A.M.
Club chiefs are finalising a development finance package with a more traditional lender, but the more the bond raises the less they will have to lean on other means.
Wimbledon have managed to negotiate some leeway with the deadline, which was originally this Friday – and Palmer stresses it is not yet a case of desperate times calling for desperate measures – but the fact the building contract needs to be completed this month shows that the bond is no gimmick.
“It’s desperate in that we’ve already started the build and if we want to maintain that build schedule – to be in time for the 2020-21 season – then we need to get that in place as quickly as possible to ensure we don’t incur any delays,” he says.
“It’s great that the guys [The Dons Trust] got together and helped bring it to fruition as quickly as we did, because we needed to. Obviously the more they raise, the easier it is for us with the rest of the debt package.”
From the outside, a shortfall of £11m in the final year of such a long process might appear alarming. Palmer says that costs have risen due to issues with planning, groundwork and the price of steel but that the plan was always to borrow £7m to £7.5m.
“When you see those numbers, you go ‘Woah, how did this happen?’ but it’s a very logical process that we’ve gone through,” he adds. “Yes, the costs have increased, but tell me a stadium which hasn’t? That’s normal.”
At the time of writing, more than £3m of the £5m target had been raised, with many people connected to the club, as well as fans, joining forces to help out. It was kitman Robin Bedford’s money which tipped the bond past £2m last week, while the players in the club’s academy have joined forces to contribute as well.
Despite the lure of a four per cent return, the average interest rate of those who have loaned money so far is below two per cent, over an average term of eight years, which shows that the majority appear to be in it altruistic reasons, not financial ones.
“It really will be the fans’ stadium,” Palmer says. “They’re proving that now by putting the money in. It shows the desire of this club and where it wants to go. It reformed, then wanted to get back into the league, and now it wants to be back in Wimbledon. This is the final hurdle of that story.”
AFC Wimbledon, who sit 20th in League One and host Ipswich on Tuesday night, stand out amid the current backdrop of financial struggles in the Football League.
While this season Bury have been expelled from the league, Bolton have failed to fulfil fixtures and Macclesfield have been deducted points for failing to pay players, the Dons hope their way of relying on their fans can gain traction.
“Because of that model we have that extra pressure to be self-sustainable, which we are,” says Palmer. “And the fans are always there with us – they don’t allow us to make decisions that would put the club in jeopardy. We don’t want to do that.
“It’s about trying to see how far a fan-owned club which is sustainable can go. As long as the fans have that appetite we’ll continue on that path.”