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Back to Plough Lane

Perhaps the easiest headline I’ll ever write. And one of the nicest.

So that’s it then. The judicial review period is over. No more delays, no more hurdles. No more stomping through proverbial treacle. No more of the sense that something or someone will throw one more spanner in the works.

We’re going home. And nothing can now stop us.

It’s going to be a while adjusting to that fact. Surely there’s going to be yet another little intervention from an “interested party”? You almost get to the stage where you’re inventing more hurdles just because you expect them to appear.

You watch, we’ll now be worried that there’s going to be some major Neolithic settlement directly under the dog freezer. Or a mural depicting Julius Caesar on the site, driving an old Ford Orion in the famous Roman Banger races.

But we can now sing “We’re AFC Wimbledon, we’re on our way home” and know that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.

And yes, the journey has been very long.

I don’t mean 26-year long, I mean waiting for interventions, or yet another planning stage to get through, or another writing campaign. They were months, even weeks, but sometimes they felt like eons.

Even 4pm on the 24th January until the day we put the phone call in on the 1st February still raised doubts.  What if somebody came in with, as Chris Grayling put it back in 2013, a “cheap delaying tactic“?

You could have been forgiven for asking just how many more hoops do we have to jump just to go home.

The answer now, is that there aren’t any. Just let that sink in for a little bit – the light has turned from red, to red/amber, to green. We’ve gone past the stage of looking out for any idiotic pedestrian who still thinks they’re safe to cross, and we can finally get motoring.

There’s been times when it seemed as distant as it was during the Selhurst days.  I still remember the reaction on the evening when Boris the Retard did what he did**, which was undeniably the lowest point of this whole journey.

** – we mostly got it right, but it appears the one big error we made was after 10th December 15, when we didn’t lobby BtR despite advice from seasoned political advisors. You can have your own theories as to why he called it in, but the constant yapping by the stockies gave them an advantage that they shouldn’t have had…

Common sense prevailed, of course, when Sadiq Khan realised he couldn’t justify reviewing it. There were still a lot of nerves for getting the Secretary of State to OK it, and the whole wait for the s106s was towards the end getting very torturous.

The phrase that ends “he who waits” could have been written specifically for us.

This JR stage might have been a little bit of a surprise to some of our fans who weren’t paying attention. The club didn’t make a big thing of it, perhaps not wishing to draw attention to the final chance to delay things.

Not that I think there were (m)any grounds for a judicial review anyway. It was all within the framework of something called the London Plan, and that was sorted out before it even went to LBM in December 2015.

I lost track of how many consultations there were, and that’s not forgetting the ones for Khan and Saijd Javid as well. Not to mention defining Wandsworth’s role as the Viz character Meddlesome Ratbag.

Oh, and there was something in the s106s about them as well. I expect they’ll still be moaning about everything even when it’s built and operational.

The doggers and stockies had little to no case. Their only – and I mean, only – issue was whether the dog track owners did anything contrary to the terms of their rent when turfing them out. And yes kids – they were only tenants of Wimbledon Stadium.

They are now history.

At times, it’s breathtaking to think how many years this has been in the making, and the bulldozers are only now getting warmed up.

If a book on this is to be written, and I hope it is, I’d like to know the timeline of when the idea of moving back home to Plough Lane became more than just a pipedream.

There were little signs, little nuggets that suggested something was happening. A request on the WUP guestbook one quiet afternoon, which must have been around a decade ago now, asking for an aerial shot of the dog track always seemed a bit of a weird request to the uninitiated.

I believe it turned up here.

I always did find it odd that there was a “special deal” at the dog track on 24th January 2009. Unusual not because it was a post-game social event, but because a glance at the OS back then said “club officials and other VIPs” were going to be there.

Those there can tell me whether it was just a night out, or whether we were bringing the tape measures that evening. And yes, the sharp eyed amongst you have already twigged the date. It only took nine years.

There were rumours about other sites, and even staying at KM (which was never greeted with any enthusiasm), surfaced. In an alternative universe, would we now be talking about where to park on the Lombard Estate in Merton, or wherever the other location was?

We know the housing aspect in this project, but who remembers the idea of having a cinema and/or hotel on the site instead? Would that have got through any easier than the housing? Or would it have made thing more difficult? We’ll never know.

There was the time even before that, in September 2007, when the back of the Evening Standard stated that the dog track was for sale and we were supposedly interested (which ever-so-coincidentally came out on the same day as a big strategy review meeting).

Even then, as Taggart would have said, it was just aspiration. Until the day we formally announced our intentions, that is.

The dog track was the obvious answer from the day the old Plough Lane got built upon. Forget the emotional ties – an existing stadium (so no change in planning use) that was ramshackle, and it’s better served by public transport than a lot of places.

Also, it hosted two “sports” that struggled and were disposable. The gates closed to the doggers in March, and they got forgotten very quickly.

There used to be three, of course, and speedway might have been the fly in the ointment. When NPL got going, one of our fans said to me “I wouldn’t have liked it if we had kicked out them out”.

And though it shares the same terminal decline as dogging and banger racing, speedway seemed to be the sport that many of our fans had a soft spot for. I’m certainly no petrolhead, but this always looked quite fun to be at.

There was some irony that they left PL in the same year we did, and I hope the return of us won’t be as ill-fated as the Wimbledon Dons reboot…

I mention the phrase “fly in the ointment”, and I think I can safely write the following now. We might have come a cropper in this whole project on two flanks, but it was a mixture of our good planning (in both senses of the word) and some outright incompetence against us.

Firstly, we could have had some issues with the whole parking/traffic thing. In the representations part of LBM’s planning portal, even some of those in favour of us wanted to know more on that score.

It wouldn’t necessarily have killed the project, I’m pretty sure even the biggest issue would have been ironed out, but people don’t want to get snarled up in a traffic jam and/or not be able to leave their homes.

And let’s face it – some people will want to drive and park up near NPL. That probably won’t be sorted out fully until the stadium is built and we know what people are going to do. But it was a potential weakness in our bid.

So the NIMBYs were, ahem, badly advised enough to focus on the flood plain – something that developers know a ton about these days, often out of necessity. Great for us, but if you opposed our plans a poor line of attack.

Indeed, I was amazed at how bad the campaign was by them. I expected a well organised, co-ordinated effort against us that we would have really had to knuckle down against.

A bit like the lot who are against Aberdeen’s new stadium, who have clearly anticipated flaws and have already mobilised (with funds for their own judicial review).

We saw precious little of that from our own dissenters. We got a few “organised” letter campaigns**, although planning officers and councillors must know every little campaigning trick in the book.

** – if you have a spare day, read the representations on the LBM planning portal. It’s very curious that there was a spate (within a day or three of each other) of objections from those saying much the same thing and – perhaps tellingly – failing to put their names and addresses on the submission. A legal requirement, and something I don’t consider accidental…

Oh, and as this is the 21st century, we had social media to contend with. Well, a few “concerned local residents” with Twitter accounts that seemed to specialise in a strange mixture of shrieking and smearing.

The tone of it was that everything we or LBM said or did was a lie, basically. Also, I think I glanced at that “SW19 Stadium Watch” blog once (somebody save it for prosperity before it gets hooked), and the only thing sincere about it was the anti-AFCW/LBM/NPL agenda.

Did somebody say “astroturfing”?

While they were their own worst enemies, and engaging with them was mostly a waste of time akin to putting Taylor out wide, the NIMBYs did mostly have a legitimate claim to being interested parties.

Which leads us onto the second thing that might – might – have damaged us. Namely, a credible alternative bid for the site.

Let us not pretend otherwise here. Galliard would have preferred it if they could have had 100% of the site for housing. That they couldn’t, made us the best choice for them.

That might not have necessarily been the case though. The GRA have disposed of virtually all their tracks, because dog racing is a waste of time these days. Go on greyhound forums, and you’ll see how it’s in a lot of trouble, more than you realise.

But the WGS owners are first and foremost businessmen, and they might have had their heads turned by a well-funded alternative bid.

We used the “bring the Dons home” to good effect, but we still could have faced a hearts-and-minds battle from the doggies. The whole “last track in London” angle for starters, though that does forget there’s still Romford and Crayford.

Oh, and it would have ignored why there’s only two tracks left in London, and why more famous venues than Wimbledon (ie Walthamstow and Catford) bit the dust.

I did expect to see and hear stories that dog owners would be taking their hounds to local schools, to show how cutey-wutey their little doggies are, and how great it would be to have a lovely new venue for them to race around.

You can hear the “aaawwwwwwwww” already. At least until the mutt leaves a little parting gift as gratitude…

We expected a competent, well planned alternative that would have tested us to the limit. Instead, we got to face Paschal Taggart and Diane McLean.

Everything the Saviour of Greyhound Racing™ was a front, really, making himself look so important. According to an SW19 reader who saw his “presentation” to a bunch of WPRA members, it heavily focused on the CGI stuff and had absolutely nothing of substance after that.

Insert your own comment here.

To be fair, he had many traits, even if none of them were good. A loudmouth for sure, a boor as well, a whiny blowhard when we got going, and ultimately somebody who wasn’t ever going to be capable of delivering.

I would have loved to have seen his plans, because I bet they would have been torn apart when we got our teeth into them. I assume he had them anyway, he was very happy to tell the Racing Post he did.

Deep down I think he knew we would destroy them/him, which is why he took a back seat pretty quickly.

His arrogance was irritating to the point it was almost antagonistic. He definitely felt we would fail, and I believe he was convinced Galliard would come rushing to him to give him the site cheap as they had no other option**.

He was the only who did.

** – although if greyhound racing was remotely viable, the GRA/Galliard had enough clout to rebuild the track themselves and not let Taggart have even 0.0000001% of the profits. He was simply irrelevant to them.

McLean did manage the impossible – she made the NIMBYs look like tactical geniuses. Her idea of campaigning was to be relentlessly negative about us, done with an over-aggressive zeal and offered absolutely no positive vision for an alternative whatsoever.

In an alternative universe, we would have been nursing our bruises after fighting to the death with those two. That was never going to happen though, because the one and only time we faced each other, was on 22 January 2014 at LBM.

It was the meeting with the Planning Inspector, and Secret Agent wrote about it for WDSA, which you can read here.

It really is cracking stuff to read. If you just want a brief synopsis, it was the equivalent of them going into a pub, shouting loudly, swinging at anything and everything, which everyone else sat laughing at them as they slugged each other.

I think from that day on, their campaign was dead in the water. That’s the impression I got from those there at the time, and more or less confirmed reading that close to four years later.

Sure, they had an (informal) link-up with the WPRA, and reportedly advised them on tactics against us. Which probably explains why they did an awful job.

But Taggart was just useless. He was an opportunist, a gambler if you prefer. He gambled we would fail, and he lost even before the traps opened. I’d almost feel sorry for him, except he doesn’t appear to love dogs quite so much after all

OK, there were other enemies. The stockies shouted the loudest, recycled the most online petitions, demanded the loudest to be put in the s106 discussions long after everything else had got signed, and basically wanted something for nothing.

They’ll have to get off their fat arses and actually do something now. Something that involves other things besides constantly whinging.

Wandsworth council were full of warmth and human kindness, I don’t think. Although one suspects it was little to do with AFCW/NPL and everything to do with Merton being Labour controlled. Politicians aren’t rational human beings at the best of times.

There was even an issue with the Wimbledon Guardian at one point, which definitely appeared to favour those hostile to NPL (giving credence to quotes from Taggart/NIMBYs but finding it harder for us to get counterpoints, priority given to anti-NPL letters, that kind of thing).

A couple of people left, and things got a bit better. But it was never as supportive as the South London Press was…

I could go on, and dig up everyone who tried to throw roadblocks in our way. I was going to mention the Racing Post effectively being Taggart’s own Pravda, although a lot of the old articles about the dog track are unavailable now. How odd.

But none of that matters now. The bellyaching of Taggart is for comedy purposes only. McLean can go back to whatever she does. Wandsworth have to get along with LBM, and the NIMBYs will either have to work with us or just lump it.

The best tactic we employed was to engage where necessary, and totally blank those who didn’t matter. We dealt with every authority and governmental body we needed to, we ignored the NIMBYs and went to the local residents directly.

We didn’t bother dealing at all with Taggart/McLean, something I think made them more angry as they realised how sidelined and impotent they were. They wanted a slanging match with us, but never got even an informal acknowledgement.

Our approach worked.

Of course, you may believe in the concept of stars aligning, and they certainly did for us. The club’s on-field success generating the right profile at the right time, and also forcing the club to properly evaluate that KM would never do any more.

And while I think everyone would have preferred not to have left PL at all in 1991, we also couldn’t have left ourselves in purgatory for too much longer.

AFCW faces a demographic timebomb as it is, in terms of its future direction. But right now, there is still a sizeable percentage of people who not only remember PL, but WFC in non-league football the first time around.

They’re still active, some of whom have been involved in advising the club gratis. But if we had left it even five years longer, many of them wouldn’t be here. This might have been the last chance to have done something.

I don’t know what the percentage is of those who went to PL (even for just one season), but here’s a rule of thumb – if you went to watch the last game against Palace as a seven year old, you would be about 34/35 now.

But it won’t be that long before those who only remember Selhurst and/or KM become the majority – if they’re not already. And while they may understand the significance of “going home”, why should they care as much as those who were there back in 1991 and before?

A sobering thought, maybe.

Again, that doesn’t matter so much now. This bit was always the trickiest, because you have to do a lot of work in planning, but you just get a piece of paper at the end of it. So much legality, so many planning obstacles, and you haven’t even been able to lay a brick yet.

I guess it will all feel very real when the first bulldozer goes in and starts doing its dirty work. That will start this month, and I hope somebody has put up a webcam already, because that will become almost mandatory viewing.

And then we can truly feel like we’re righting the big wrong of the last twenty six years.

Of course, we now have to build the bloody thing…