Plough Lane revisited: AFC Wimbledon

ANYONE who remembers the old home of Wimbledon FC in the days when Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise and their pals upset the establishment will recall it wasn’t a stadium to savour. It may have been a much-loved home for the Dons’ fans, but visiting supporters would never count it among their favourite days out.

The story of Wimbledon’s demise and relocation has been told enough, and their rise from the ashes, one of the first so-called “phoenix clubs” was a heart-warming example of how football’s audience can change things if the spirit is willing. That journey, which began with AFC Wimbledon’s reinvention in 2002, has now turned full circle as the club returned to a new stadium in Plough Lane in November 2020.

The stadium is functional, neat and business-like and serves its purpose well. Although there is limited elevation, the sight lines are good and overall, it’s a comfortable, extremely sensible place to watch football. The neighbourhood has also changed a lot since the days when the Dons first entered the Football League in 1977, but the ugly electricity sub-station still looms in the background.

What is noticeable is the affection the fans have for the club, but that’s probably because they have all been on a journey together. In some ways, AFC Wimbledon have been an inspiration to other clubs that have found themselves compromised or no longer financially viable. Being back at Plough Lane has been a dream come true for the faithful, and rightly so.There’s a strong community spirit at the club, evidenced by its willingness to support causes like Rainbow Laces and the club CEO, Joe Palmer, leading a sleep-out to raise money for London’s homeless.

On the pitch, they have struggled at times and before meeting Fleetwood Town on a bitterly cold late November afternoon, they had won just twice in League One at home. They were still in the FA Cup and due to meet Cheltenham at Plough Lane on December 4. 

The game with lowly Fleetwood was entertaining, despite the icy weather and biting wind. The “Cod Army” had just parted company with manager Simon Grayson and had appointed Stephen Crainey on an interim basis. In the first half, Fleetwood were the better side and looked to have taken the lead when Callum Morton shot high into the net at the second attempt, but for some reason the goal was ruled out.

Eventually, they did go ahead, in the 35th minute, thanks to a slip-up by Ben Heneghan, who allowed Ged Garner to race clear and shot low past Nik Tzanev. Eight minutes into the second half, AFC Wimbledon equalised as Moroccan midfielder Ayoub Assal finished from 10 yards. The home side took the lead with 11 minutes to go through Luke McCormick, but in the 85th minute, Callum Johnson headed Fleetwood’s point-saving goal. There was plenty of action throughout for the 7,400 crowd, an excellent turnout considering the conditions, but yet another draw for the Dons was understandably frustrating.

AFC Wimbledon’s new home will serve them well but how high they can climb in the footballing pyramid depends on finance. In today’s landscape, the sort of fairy tale that was created by the club’s ancestors just doesn’t seem possible, but how often have Wimbledon been written off in their history?

Non-leaguers in waiting?

NOBODY will thank you for saying it, but there a number of current Football League clubs that are really non-league clubs just visiting. Likewise, there is a growing band of non-leaguers that may eventually go back to the League – someday.

Today, scrambling near the bottom of the table are Yeovil Town and York City. While York have had a chequered recent history, they certainly look like a non-league club in many ways – although if they move to a new ground, that could make for a more sustainable Football League outfit.

Yeovil Town, however, are a local institution that you thought would make a long-term career out of the Football League. For years, they were one of those clubs you felt were too big and too clever to be outside the 92 for ever. Football students will tell you that, as a non-league club, Yeovil had that famous Sunderland FA Cup giant-killing in their back pocket to underline their credentials. They also had a big catchment area, so if they did get up, they would enjoy good gates – that was the theory.

But Yeovil seem to be on a downward spiral at present. They finished bottom of League One last season and they’re one off the foot of League Two – they are in the drop zone. And they have just sacked manager Paul Sturrock. This is Yeovil’s 13th League campaign, but they have suffered two relegations since arriving in the Championship in 2013-14. What has gone wrong?

Their chairman, John Fry, told the BBC a few weeks ago that climbing into the Championship cost the club dearly. It’s a message to clubs that find themselves promoted out of their depth. Defeat follows defeat and it becomes habit-forming. Yeovil, to quote Fry, have to turn it around or they will be going into the National League. After years trying to move up from non-league that would be heartbreaking for Glovers’ fans.

Dagenham & Redbridge have been written off a few times in their relatively short Football League career. When they won promotion from the Conference, in 2007, not many people felt they would last a second campaign, but they also enjoyed a year in League One.  With London over-clubbed, Dagenham are too close for comfort to West Ham and Leyton Orient and their attendances barely get to 2,000 (current av. 1,800).

Barnet have had something of a yo-yo existence with the Football League – promotion in 2015 was their third to the League. Their old ground, Underhill, was always a hindrance for them, but the Hive has given them a new lease of life. They are now averaging 2,300 at their new ground.

Barnet’s Hertfordshire cousins, Stevenage, may have Teddy Sheringham as they boss, but the former England man is having a tough debut year in charge at the Lamex Stadium. It has always been a question of how long Stevenage can sustain League football on the gates they have, but this is a club that just 20 years ago was playing local derbies with the likes of Hitchin and St.Albans.

Morecambe, when they won promotion to the Football League, were scarcely well supported. Crowds at their functional stadium are just 1,600 at the moment, that’s non-league level and a thousand below their 2008 level.  Having visited Crawley recently, I felt the club was also very much in a non-league mode, the main difference being the enhanced security requirements.

AFC Wimbledon, for all the emotion surrounding their history and divorce from the MK Dons, are a club that was playing at a very low non-league level just a few years ago. They are getting 4,000 through the gate and they have big ambitions of a new ground, boosted by their links with Chelsea. You have to assume they will continue to survive in the Football League.

I am not so sure about Accrington Stanley, although we all love that name. Having visited them recently, I sensed that they are really in a non-league club punching above their weight. Good for them, but with gates of 1,500 it is really unsustainable.

In League One, there’s a couple of clubs who you feel may find their wings start to drip a little as they fly higher. Fleetwood Town, with an excellent ground and set-up, and Burton Albion, may fall into this category. I hope not, because I have visited both and got a good feeling from my trip.

Conversely, there are some National League clubs that are just biding their time to get back: Cheltenham, Grimsby, Wrexham, Lincoln City and Tranmere will all be hoping that their exile from the Football League is temporary.

Of course, the rise of the minnows is nothing but a tribute to the clubs that manage to outreach their potential. We are seeing a lot of this at the moment, and it is good for the game, but there’s also a message for those that live beyond their means, either by design or by accident. Caution should be the watchword.

I fear for Yeovil and in the longer-term, Dagenham, Morecambe and Accrington. But the National League, despite its trapdoor effect, does provide a way back, too. The boundaries between League Two and National League seem to be blurring at a rapid pace.

  10 years ago 20 years ago 30 years ago
Accrington Stanley Conference National -1st Northern Premier League Premier – 7th NW Counties Division One – 11th
Barnet League Two – 18th League Three – 9th Alliance Premier – 14th
Burton Albion Conference National  – 9th Southern League Premier – 16th Northern Premier League – 5th
Crawley Town Conference National – 12th Southern League Premier – 9th Southern League Premier –  6th
Dagenham & Redbridge Conference National – 10th Conference – 22nd n/a
Fleetwood Northern Premier League One – 2nd Northern Premier League One – 20th NW Counties League One – 5th
Morecambe Conference National – 5th Conference – 9th Northern Premier League – 3rd
Stevenage Conference National  – 6th Conference – 1st Isthmian Division 2 North – 1st
Wimbledon Isthmian Premier – 4th n/a n/a
Yeovil Town League One- 15th Isthmian Premier – 4th Isthmian Premier – 2nd