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?

Calling in on…..Fleetwood Town

FleetwoodWhen I read in the media that Fleetwood Town’s manager, Graham Alexander, was disappointed with finishing 13th in the club’s debut Football League season, it suggested that the so-called “Cod Army” harbours relatively lofty ambitions.

Alexander has spent the summer strengthening his squad, bringing in a handful of new faces, including Stevenage’s Mark Roberts, centre-back Ryan Cresswell from Southend, Chester’s Anton Sarcevic and full-back Stephen Jordan from Dunfermline.

Raising the roof

Fleetwood, as a club, look anything but Football League new boys. Other clubs who have suddenly found themselves in the League look like non-league outfits who haven’t adjusted to the “bigger time”. Not Fleetwood. Their new stand, topped with a sweeping curved roof, looks like it has been borrowed from a much bigger stage. Just what the neighbours in their nut-brown houses and red-brick back-to-backs feel about this somewhat futuristic new arrival is hard to tell, but one has defiantly named his house “Turf Moor” to leave nobody guessing where his allegiances lie.

Fleetwood are one of the few clubs that doesn’t have a railway station nearby. Visiting fans have an arduous journey to Highbury Stadium (yes!), travelling via Preston and Blackpool and a 40 minute tram ride along the coast and past the famed Fisherman’s Friend factory. It’s a journey that tests the resolve of any away following and also makes Fleetwood one of the least accessible clubs around.

On the opening day of 2013-14, Fleetwood hosted another club more frequently linked with the non-league world, Dagenham & Redbridge, who only just avoided the drop back into the Conference, at the expense of Barnet. Around 40 of the Daggers’ faithful, along with a drum, made the journey up from East London. They contributed to the attendance of 2,511, lower than Fleetwood’s average of 2,855, but significantly higher than the 2,019 that saw the fixture last season. Perhaps a railway station would make a difference.

Quick start to the season

Fleetwood 2It didn’t take long for Fleetwood to repay some of the optimism around Highbury, Mark Roberts, the newly-installed skipper, heading home after little more than five minutes. Cue the Captain Pugwash theme tune in celebration. Before the 10-minute mark, Fleetwood scored again, Jeff Hughes, totally unmarked, picking his spot from 18 yards. Sloppy defending by the home side allowed Rhys Murphy the chance to pull a goal back, something of a relief for the visiting fans, who must have feared a drubbing after Fleetwood’s early two-goal burst. Fleetwood sealed the points, however, when Ryan Cresswell, a classically-built English centre-half, scored a big defender’s goal at the far post. Final score 3-1.

Naturally enough, the Fleetwood fans will hope that this win, against a team that might have a long-hard August, let alone winter, will herald the start of a promotion challenge. Certainly players like Hughes, David Ball, Junior Brown and Cresswell caught the eye. It’s early days, but this is a club that has become accustomed to success in recent years, so they will be looking for quick results. As they say, “In Cod we trust”.

The teams at Highbury were as follows:

Fleetwood: Davies, Roberts, Hogan, Creswell, Jordan, Schumacher (Murdoch), Hughes, Brown (Evans), Crowther, Sarcevic, Ball (Matt)
Dagenham & Redbridge: Lewington, Ilesanmi, Doe, Saah, Hoyte, Bingham, Ogogo, Howell, Elito (Reed), Murphy (Woodall), Scott (Obafami)