Adventures in Football #22: Plough Lane (AFC Wimbledon)
September 4, 2021
AFC WIMBLEDON vs. OXFORD UTD (League 1)
Famous for tennis, Wimbledon common, the Crazy Gang and the Wombles…this is Wimbledon! But it’s not the Wimbledon that you may remember from the 1980s. Lawrie Sanchez and all that. This team was only founded in 2002. If it was a person, it would only have been able to legally drink last year. The original Wimbledon FC, the one who won the FA Cup in 1988 and had that Crazy Gang of Dennis Wise, Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu, ceased to exist when it moved to Milton Keynes in 2004. Milton Keynes just bought themselves a professional football team instead of working up through the pyramid. Something that has caused plenty of resentment towards MK Dons.
It’s left a sour taste in a lot of mouths but from the ashes of the move, condoned by the FA (still hate the FA), has risen a phoenix club. They entered the Combined Counties League in 2002-03 before the old club had even moved to MK. In their second season they clocked 130 points, winning 42 of their 46 games. They got through the Isthmian League, eventually going up to the National League via the play-offs. They won the National League South at the first attempt and were only in the National League Premier for two seasons, again promoted via the play-offs after a penalties win over Luton Town.
Nine seasons as a club and they were already in the football league system, which is a fairly remarkable achievement. They initially struggled in the league before being promoted, again via the play offs, in 2016. They seem to have found their level and are now consistently a bottom 7-8 in League 1. They’ve not been able to repeat their dramatic cup success of 1988, making R5 in 2018-19 before being knocked out by Millwall.
The biggest achievement of AFC Wimbledon, after making it to the football league so swiftly, was returning to their spiritual home on Plough Lane, which they did in 2020. Up until then they’d been playing at Kingsmeadow, some five miles away, ground-sharing with Kingstonian FC*. There hasn’t been a Wimbledon in Plough Lane since 1991 when the Crazy Gang left to ground-share with Crystal Palace and never came back. This is a different ground to the original Plough Lane so if you’re a groundhopper you’ve got to go again. Due to the popularity of ‘doing the 92’ this game is actually sold out.
*If you still want to visit Kingsmeadow, it’s now host to Chelsea Ladies games.
Parking looked to be a major issue here as Plough Lane has none. My initial fix was Sainsbury’s around a mile away, who charge £30 for parking over two hours. Which is better than getting fined £60 for parking illegally. Wimbledon themselves recommend attending games via public transport, which is all well and good if you live in London itself. We ended up using the “JustPark” app and parking on a driveway around 1.4 miles away at a cost of around £12-13. For reference here’s a picture of the side of the car in the parking space. It was quite small.
We headed out at 10am, hoping to beat the serious traffic into London. We stopped at Cherwell Services and were having a pleasant day out until the M25 hit us like a tonne of bricks. Road closures, lorries overtaking lorries and closed junctions have all contributed to miserable motoring experiences over the past few weeks. This was nothing like West Bromwich Interchange but at one point we were driving at 2mph. We parked up and headed to meet Lewis, who had procured tickets for the game. It was a warm day in London but overcast. So, I was wearing a hoodie but aware that I was on the warm side.
After meeting Lewis outside Tooting Broadway tube station we nipped into the local ‘Spoons for a pint. Yes, I know Tim Martin is an arsehole. It happened to be directly across the road from the tube station. Wimbledon/Tooting area is partially gentrified so it’s a mixture of pleasant looking modern coffee houses and the odd really shitty looking mini-cab company that’s been there forever. It was nowhere near as posh as Fulham though.
After a stroll of around a mile we got to the new Plough Lane. It’s a modern looking ground, having only opened last year, and it’s still clean and crisp and new. Everything is spotless. There seemed to queues everywhere and yet they moved quickly. Lewis queued up for a programme and suddenly he had one. I thought he’d be waiting for ten minutes. I was very tempted to duck into the club shop, which is underneath the main (Cappagh) stand, and looks sizeable. The kit this year has Boca Juniors vibes and they’re sponsored by Football Manager.
We progressed through ticket checks without having to scan anything. Maria had a bag checked but was allowed in with a tub of chicken and a shake she bought at a Filipino place, Ligaya Bakery (it means “Happiness”), on the way into Wimbledon. The stewards were chilled out overall and allowed people to enjoy themselves without being overly officious.
At this point I’d like to show you these three images taken inside the ground. I’ll get onto the stands and their names momentarily but look at that skyline. If you’ve played Football Manager recently you will instantly recognise it. The Wimbledon backdrop is definitely one FM have used for their lower league teams. I swear I’ve played games here in FM.
To get to the entrance you need to walk along Plough Lane, unless you’re in the Movers Stand (the stand to our right), which houses the Dons Ultras or the Ry Stand, opposite us. The away fans get into the left sided stand, the Cherry Red Records Stand, by Riverside Road. There is a decent level of organisation here.
Onto the concourse and Lewis decided to get himself a pie. He came back with a chicken balti pie, which he rated a perfect 10/10. It looked fantastic and had the club crest baked into the top of it. When we sat down I didn’t even notice how much legroom there was but it was ample. If anything, the seats had too much legroom. They could have got a few more rows of seating in. I applaud their approach to keeping us comfortable.
One final thing before we get to the actual game; Haydon the Womble. The club’s mascot. He’s the best mascot I’ve ever seen. The costume looks good but it’s more than that. Haydon was out there more than any mascot I’ve seen. Constantly trying to get the crowd fired up. Clearly loving his role. At one point he dragged a bin out and started banging on it to get the crowd to chant along. Underground, overground, wombling free. You fucking hero mate.
The crowd were electric from the start here. I said a lot of nice things about Cheltenham and how they dragged their team back into the game. Wimbledon’s fans were singing way before kick-off. “Show me the way to Plough Lane” was a favourite. “The Boys are Back in Town” blared out over the tannoy system. AFC Wimbledon have never won at Plough Lane with a crowd here. A Wimbledon team hasn’t won here since 1991 when the original Wimbledon FC beat Nottingham Forest 3-1 on 30 March 1991. John Fashanu scored.
It didn’t look like they’d get their win when Oxford played stylish football in the first half and capitalised on a defensive slip to take the lead through tricky forward Mark Sykes. Oxford had missed a few chances and last gasp tackles had denied them other goalscoring opportunities. There was simply something in the air though. You knew Wimbledon were being outclassed but they were driven forward by the fans.
Ten minutes into the second half Jack Rudoni scored to make it 1-1, following a header from a free kick and the stadium was shaking. It was absolutely rocking. The equaliser was made even sweeter by panto villain Ryan Williams (of Australia) losing his player on the goal. It looked as if Wimbledon might have to settle for a point but they kept pressing and after making some clever substitutions Will Nightingale scored a header from a corner. Nightingale is a special player for Wimbledon. He’s been there since he was a child and when Wimbledon were a tiny non-league team back in 2004. You can see how much the team means to him and his celebration here was magical. The energy and passion that I felt inside the stadium was unreal.
Wimbledon weren’t done though and started playing some silky football leading to Jack Rudoni’s second. A sliderule left foot strike into the bottom hand corner after a lovely move down the left. Oxford had 57% possession, having dominated the first half, but Wimbledon were good value for the win and could have scored more. What really hit home with me was the sense of community and togetherness that was present at the club. The executive boxes weren’t filled with people eating prawn sandwiches. I could hear them yelling at the referee!
Before the match started there was a minute’s silence for former youth team player Jack Lonergan. It was impeccably observed. When the game finished 90% of the crowd stayed behind to applaud the team off the pitch. I’ve been to a lot of games this season and that doesn’t happen. As they were leaving the field you could see the players see people they knew in the stands and that eye contact was palpable. Jack Rudoni stopping off to sign autographs for kids and pose for pictures just summed it all up. The team never quit. Their heads never went down. They stayed out there and won the game for the fans, for Jack Lonergan and for Wimbledon.
I can honestly say, hand on heart, this is the best game experience I’ve had at a football match since Bromsgrove Rovers beat Wycombe Wanderers and I got to call Martin O’Neill a wanker. Outstanding work across the board from AFC Wimbledon. From the ground, to the people you’ve got working there, to the creditable football team, to the fans. Sensational experience and I am so happy I was there to live it.
I CAN’T HELP FALLING IN LOVE WITH YOU