AFC Wimbledon set for tonight’s Plough Lane return

AFC Wimbledon will return to Plough Lane tonight almost 30 years after the last game at their spiritual home.

The third-tier English Football League team will open the new stadium with a match against Doncaster Rovers some 10,776 days after Wimbledon played Crystal Palace at the old Plough Lane stadium in a top-tier First Division match on May 4, 1991.

AFC Wimbledon – which was formed after the old Wimbledon FC club relocated to Milton Keynes – will unveil the new £30m, 9,000-seat stadium after playing the first few games of the 2020-21 season at QPR’s Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium.

With no fans allowed in the stadium due to COVID-19 restrictions, chief executive Joe Palmer has appealed to fans not to congregate outside during the course of the match, claiming breaches could lead to the south London club losing its safety certificate.

He said: “Naturally, all of us have dreamt about this moment and seeing our new home packed to capacity was an integral part of what we imagined. We know you want to be there. We all feel the same way, but it is imperative that fans respect not just the Covid-19 protocols set by the government, but the need for the club to show its council and community that it can host matches responsibly.

“So much has gone into making this dream a reality and we’ve all given everything to get here. Please, let’s not trip up at the finishing line. We will be confirming a project to help bring that first event into your homes, so please, stay at home and enjoy the moment with your friends and family.”

Wimbledon FC played at the old Plough Lane stadium from 1912 but, with the venue deemed unsuitable for redevelopment in the wake of the Taylor Report, the club moved out in 1991. A planned temporary switch to Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park proved long-term with the club unable to secure an alternative nearby site for a new stadium.

Ultimately the club relocated to a new stadium 70 miles away in Milton Keynes in 2003, and rebranded as Milton Keynes Dons a year later. AFC Wimbledon was founded in 2002 to retain football in the area, and the club played its games at the 4,800-capacity Kingsmeadow (Cherry Red Records Stadium) as it moved its way up the league pyramid.

After reaching the Football League in 2011, Wimbledon submitted a planning application to Merton Council in 2014 for a new home ground on the site of the old greyhound stadium on Plough Lane. Permission was granted and work commenced the following year.

The club, which is majority-owned by its fans through the Dons Trust (DT), identified an £11m shortfall in financing last year, and turned to alternative methods to plug the gap. A crowdfunding initiative, launched in conjunction with Seedrs, raised over £2.4m, while the fan-organised Plough Lane Bond raised over £5m within the first six weeks of launch.

The financial requirements were finally met this year through local businessman Nick Robertson’s acquisition of a 10-per-cent stake in the club, and the securing of a £4m loan facility.

The new stadium was designed by KSS Group with Buckingham Group as constructors. It can be expanded to 20,000 by filling in all four corners to create a continuous bowl.

Images: Robin Bedford (Twitter)