LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

AFC Wimbledon

Finally back to Wimbledon for the phoenix Dons

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

On 30 May 2016, in front of 58,000 at Wembley Stadium, manager Neal Ardley led his team to a 2-0 play-off win over Plymouth Argyle. With a goal in the 11th (!) minute of stoppage time from The Beast, aka Adebayo Akinfenwa, fan-founded phoenix club AFC Wimbledon had achieved promotion to League One after a 13-year climb from the Combined Counties League.

And then, nearly five years later, the Wombles ambled across Wimbledon Common back to their old home at Plough Lane, or rather New Plough Lane as fans are calling it. It is, after all, just 250 yards from their former home, this one built from the former Wimbledon greyhound stadium. Talk about phoenix…

Wimbledon FC monument/Matt Walker

Following that memorable promotion, after five others, Ardley’s men duly faced their nemesis, Milton Keynes Dons, in the 2016-17 campaign, a first ever league encounter between the club set up by fans of the original Wimbledon FC and the one created by a relocation of 56 miles north to a much-maligned new town in Buckinghamshire. Ardley had started his career as a teenager at Wimbledon FC, driving the midfield during the most consistent decade in the club’s history, making the semi-finals of the two main cups and occasionally flying high in the Premier League.

Ardley’s move to Watford in 2002 was no coincidence. His time with his boyhood club had not been spent at its historic home of Plough Lane, but groundsharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. With no funds to renovate it to the standard required by the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report, Wimbledon FC, ‘The Dons’, FA Cup winners in 1988, relegated from the Premier League in 2000 after 14 years, were facing ruin.

A business consortium proposed the club’s relocation to Milton Keynes, a move opposed by the FA but controversially allowed by a three-man independent commission. Famously citing it ‘not in the wider interests of football’, it recommended against resurrecting the original club from the ashes.

Kingsmeadow/Jens Raitanen

Justifiably outraged, Dons fans met at the Fox & Grapes pub on Wimbledon Common and decided to create a new club. A month later, back at the common, trials were held to form a squad capable of representing AFC Wimbledon in the Combined Counties League.

Having agreed a groundshare with Kingstonian at Kingsmeadow in Norbiton, with a kit, crest and nickname carried over from Wimbledon FC, AFC kicked off with a pre-season friendly with nearby Sutton United before a bumper turn-out of 4,650.

That seminal season of 2002-03, as ‘Wimbledon’ struggled with pitiful crowds picketed by AFC fans at Selhurst Park, the phoenix club started on an unbeaten run in the lower flights that led, eventually, to the Conference Premier in 2009. A record 4,700 filled Kingsmeadow for the decisive 3-0 win over St Albans.

Meanwhile, ‘Wimbledon’ moved to Milton Keynes to become the MK Dons and, after very difficult beginnings, climbed back up to the third flight.

Plough Lane landmark/Matt Walker

In 2011, in a penalty shoot-out with Luton, AFC achieved a fifth promotion in nine seasons, and this one the most vital – to full Football League status.

Ten years after he had left Wimbledon in 2002, Neil Ardley was back – as manager of an AFC struggling in League Two. Less than two months later, after a decade of fractious debate over the rightful inheritors of Wimbledon FC, AFC and MK were drawn against each other in the FA Cup. With pitch invasions accompanying each goal, MK beat AFC 2-1 thanks to a 92nd-minute tap by Jon Otsemobor, the so-called ‘Heel of God’.

Ardley and his men lived to fight another day, keeping Liverpool to a 2-1 scoreline in the FA Cup in 2015. A year later, a winning run in League Two brought AFC to a promotion play-off semi-final with Accrington Stanley.

Wimbledon FC monument/Matt Walker

In front of a crowd of nearly 4,900 at a modernised Kingsmeadow, Tom Beere scored a 93rd-minute winner for AFC to take a 1-0 aggregate lead to Accrington. Trailing 2-0 in Lancashire, The Dons struck back then took the match to extra-time, a 2-2 draw good enough for that Wembley date with Plymouth Argyle.

Promotion to League One coincided with the club getting the green light to build a new stadium on the site of the former Wimbledon greyhound stadium – right on Plough Lane, by the site of Wimbledon’s original ground, demolished the same year AFC were founded, 2002.

Mediocre league campaigns have since been spiced up with grudge matches against MK Dons, a visit to Wembley to play Spurs in the FA Cup, and the development of the new stadium. In fact, the Wombles have ridden their luck, avoiding relegation on goal difference in 2019 then by three points in 2020, a margin that may not have happened had the season not been curtailed. Soon afterwards, in November 2020, AFC Wimbledon lined up against Doncaster Rovers for their first match at Plough Lane.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Bye bye, Kingsmeadow, hello again Plough Lane. After nearly two decades groundsharing with Kingstonian, buying the ground, then passing it on to Chelsea, AFC Wimbledon at last moved back to their old stomping ground in 2020. 

Or rather, 250 yards away, as the new Plough Lane has been built on top of the former greyhound stadium, alongside the retail and housing development that went up after the original Plough Lane was demolished in 2002. Today’s iteration has a capacity of 9,000, with the possibility of expanding to more than twice that. For the time being, let’s see how it all looks with fans inside.

Some things have been carried over from Kingston. The north, away, end, is sponsored by Cherry Red Records of Dead Kennedys fame – label boss Iain McNay is an AFC fan and director – just as the whole Kingsmeadow ground once carried the name of this revered alternative label. Just as before, the East Stand is known as the RyGas, or rather just Ry.

Best of all, though, is the South Stand, a terrace of just over 1,000 safe-standing places, the home end that might be a wee bit happy when AFC Wimbledon walk out before them for the first time in 2021-22. The main west Cappagh Stand holds more than 4,000. Visiting supporters enter through gate 3, nearest Riverside Road.

Spare a thought, though, for Wimbledon’s former housemates Kingstonian, turfed out of Kingsmeadow in 2017 to make way for Chelsea’s junior team, and still looking for a permanent home. The Ks currently groundshare in Tolworth with Corinthian-Casuals.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

The nearest rail station to Plough Lane is Haydons Road, one stop from Wimbledon, which is also walkable – just. From Waterloo, a direct train takes 15mins to Wimbledon, also served by the District Tube line and Tramlink. Trains usually leave every 30mins from Thameslink platform 9 at Wimbledon, one stop/3mins from Haydons Road. If you’ve just missed one, it might be worth waiting for the next, as it’s a good 15mins walk between the two stations, along Queen’s Road beside the Centre Court shopping centre. This is followed by another 10-15mins walk up Haydons Road itself, then right into Plough Lane, by the Wimbledon FC monument created in honour of the club’s heritage.

Alternatively, from Alexandra Road stop A across from Wimbledon Station, frequent bus 493 towards Tooting takes six stops/10mins to reach Wimbledon Stadium, right by the ground. Coming back, the bus stop is by the Shell garage.

The sat nav code for Plough Lane is SW17 0NR. The ground is literally surrounded by industrial units but few operate at weekends. A Tesco Express (SW17 0NT) and a Lidl (SW17 0BW) either side of the ground have very limited, short-stay parking. Your best bet is the Centre Court shopping centre (SW19 8YE) at Wimbledon Station, which charges £3.60/up to 3hrs, £4.80/4hrs, open until midnight daily.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

Average attendances for AFC Wimbledon’s League One games at Kingsmeadow hovered around 4,500 – but given the circumstances of the Plough Lane return, this figure will surely increase for the first few weeks at the new ground, capacity just over 9,000. 

The home South Stand will be taken by season-ticket holders – there may be availability in the main west Cappagh Stand. Check with the club at tickets@afcwimbledon.ltd.uk or call 020 8547 3528 (Mon-Fri 9.30am-5pm).

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The opening of the club shop (Mon-Fri 10am-4pm, match days) at Plough Lane in April 2021 was another big sign that the Dons were back. The whole story is told in a book by former AFCW CEO, Erik Samuelson, All Together Now, or you can pick up the brochure BTPL (‘Back to Plough Lane’). There’s plenty of merchandise themed around the Plough Lane street sign, T-shirts, tops and baseball caps, or a simple keyring of Tomsk kicking a football might make a nice souvenir. 

For 2020-21, the club kept its colour scheme simple, standard blue for first-team shirt, yellow for away and green for third.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

If you’re arriving at Wimbledon Station, there are a couple of options on the Hartfield Road side of the shopping centre. The Prince of Wales looks a century out of place, a historic façade (‘Brandies, Liqueurs, Wines’) backdropping a busy, bland intersection. Inside, there’s abundant TV sport, standard pub grub and several beers including award-winning Copper Leaf Ale produced by the nearby Wimbledon Brewery. Below, with separate access, Bertie’s Bar is a cosy cellar spot with regular live music and a decent wine selection. 

Nearby, The Garratt & Gauge goes big on live sport and pool in bare-brick, urban interior offset by graffiti (‘Womble Til I Die’).

Near the ground, among the warehouses the other side of Greyhound Parade, By The Horns Brewing Co showcases the artisanal beers – Cosmic Warrior, West End Pils – they’ve been crafting here since 2011. The Tap Room (open Tue-Fri from 4pm, Sat noon, Sun 2pm) is open inside and out, pizzas served Fri-Sat. Look out for seasonal ales – winter means the Lambeth Walk porter. 

More pub-like and also close, The Corner Pin on Summerstown should spring back into life once football gets going at Plough Lane.

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