Tuesday 3 November 2020 7:08 am

Pride tinged with sadness for devoted AFC Wimbledon fans locked out of Plough Lane homecoming party

This isn’t how AFC Wimbledon’s long-awaited first match back at Plough Lane was meant to be.

The return of football to this corner of Merton on Tuesday evening, when Doncaster Rovers visit the Dons in League One, should have been a huge party for supporters.

Instead, the only fans present will be the cardboard cut-outs filling out empty stands while stadiums remain closed to public.

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“It’s the first league fixture but it’s not really going to be the first home game until we’re all in there together,” says lifelong Wimbledon supporter Lee Willett. 

The scenario is particularly cruel given that both club and stadium are fan owned, and the many setbacks Wimbledon’s devoted following have overcome to reach this point.

Having shot up through the leagues to the old Division One in fairytale fashion, the old Wimbledon were then turfed out of the old Plough Lane in 1991.

The Dons continued to punch above their weight, albeit as tenants of Crystal Palace, only for fans to see the club ripped away to Milton Keynes and rebranded. 

AFC Wimbledon: a tale of defiance

So began a patient but determined effort to create a phoenix club that achieved six promotions in 13 years to reach the third tier, where they remain.

With AFC Wimbledon now established yet exiled in nearby Kingston, fans focused their efforts on taking the club home.

And despite an £11m shortfall in funding that required supporters to stump up £5.4m in a bond scheme or risk outside owners swooping, their dream is now a reality. Well, almost.

AFC Wimbledon face Doncaster in the first match at their new home
AFC Wimbledon face Doncaster in the first match at their new home

That journey is why, for Willett, the overwhelming emotion will be one of satisfaction.

“People said ‘you can’t start a football club in six weeks’. Well, we can,” he says.

“People said ‘you can’t get back into the league with a fan-owned club’. Well, we can. People said ‘you can’t get above the team that stole your league place’. Well, we can. And people said ‘you can’t build a fan-owned football ground in the middle of London’. We can. 

“When there was a financial problem and it looked as if we might have to sell out to outside owners, and people said ‘can the fans help?’. Well, yeah we can. Let’s have a whip-round. Here’s five and a half million quid.

“We’ve got a long established track record of doing what people said we can’t. So, for me, yes it is the end of a long road but I always believed that we could.”

Inside the new £32m Plough Lane

The gleaming new Plough Lane is just 200 hundred yards from its predecessor, which is now flats. 

Capacity is a modest 9,300 initially, but the venue has been designed to be easily expanded to up to 20,000. 

It has eight corporate boxes and two lounges, plus an events space for conferences and weddings that accommodates 500-700 guests. 

The stadium cost £32m, some of which came from the sale of their Kingston ground to Chelsea, who use it for their women’s team.

AFC Wimbledon also raised some money via crowdfunding platform Seedrs, as well as the remarkably well-supported Plough Lane Bond.

It will be late this season and possibly not until next, however, when fans finally get through the turnstiles. 

“As Dons we’ve got to just suck it up. This is just one more hurdle that’s been thrown in front of us and we’ll get through it,” says Willett.

“We’re quite a close-knit bunch. So we’re all there for each other and we’ll get through it. When that day comes, we’ll be there together and it’ll be even sweeter because of it.”

Fans urged to stay away

Fresh lockdown measures in Britain have made the prospect of crowds attending live sport yet more distant. 

That, in turn, has only made the threat to football clubs of AFC Wimbledon’s size, who rely heavily on matchday income, more grave.

Yet if any club can rely on a handout from supporters to stay alive, it is surely this one.

“We’ve come so far now,” says Willett. “If the club was to struggle financially and say to the fans we need a little bit to tide us over, I’m sure the fans would step forward once again.”

AFC Wimbledon chief executive Joe Palmer warned fans last week not to gather at Plough Lane on Tuesday night, however great the temptation.

Doing so would risk the club losing its safety certificate for the stadium, undoing all the painstaking work achieved so far, he said

To create a flavour of home support, the club has asked fans to donate scarves and banners to be draped around the ground.

Besides that, they have little choice but to stay tuned to the club’s digital output and dream of the day when they fill out those stands.

“I’m looking forward to the pre-match celebration on YouTube and to watching a game back at Plough Lane,” says Willett. 

“I’m 52 and my first game was in the mid-70s when I went with my dad and grandad. To be watching for that long and spend 29 years watching them away from home is quite something.

“So there will be a huge sense of pride watching us. There’ll be a tiny sense of sadness that we’re not there. 

“But ultimately, we’re Wimbledon; we’ll be back as a fanbase and prove to all those who said it couldn’t be done, well, yes it can.”

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