AFC Wimbledon. Proving all good things come to he who waits.
When I first started SW19’s ARMY in the summer of 1999, the Holy Grail of article writing would be the first time we would be playing back home.
Even the name of this very place, named after a Dons Song lyric (criminally lesser known than the WAW dirge, and far better) was a subsconscious homage to that.
After all, how can we continue to call ourselves Wimbledon when we weren’t playing there?
“Home” was always Merton, more specifically that piece of land around the Plough Lane/Durnsford Road part of the area.
It might have also been the old ILEA grounds near Morden Park, or the ex-SavaCentre by Colliers Wood station. It might even have been Beddington Lane, for those with slightly longer memories.
Wherever it was, it wasn’t Selhurst. And certainly not Milton Keynes.
This particular journey started 21 years ago, and it’s one that had already been going for eight years previously.
Tonight, it ends. Both SW19’s own path and the one both WFC and AFCW have walked for close as dammit to three decades.
That’s a long time.
Admittedly, I didn’t expect our final step home to be in the scenario it was. Tonight should have been the big homecoming, though needless to say that would have been on a Saturday or Sunday instead.
We should be looking at our nicely new season tickets, wondering what the view will be like. What Plough Lane (2020 edition) will actually be like in the flesh.
Not to mention seeing everyone in exactly the same boat, dewy-eyed old heads and newbies who wondered what the fuss about returning to Merton was about.
Sadly, the world has had different ideas, and as such tonight becomes a weird mix of euphoric celebration and a strange anti-climax.
Actually, “anti-climax” is the wrong word to use, because this will be a lot more meaningful than that.
Maybe it’s fatigue, a sort of happy wearyness that will fade once the sheer enormity passes?
The journey home doesn’t end tonight after all.
We know why, and once crowds can return, that circle is fully complete and the chapter finally reaches its well-deserved conclusion.
The club this morning posted pictures of the ground under floodlights, finally ready for action.
There are many shots that make the hairs stand on end, but this one seems to grab my attention most of all.
Maybe because it’s a normal shot? And really, normality is all we’ve really craved, like other football fans have.
Everyone else seemed to have their own ground, their own little space on earth, something that almost seemed spitefully denied to us.
It will take a while to readjust to it being ours, but ours it is.
There’s been some nice writeups today, in the Sun, Telegraph, Guardian, the i, City AM, and probably other places I haven’t found yet.
Get tomorrow’s papers and there’ll be plenty more too.
I genuinely could take a couple of weeks to go through everything that has led up to tonight. And I still wouldn’t get everything down I wanted to.
Indeed, I started writing this on Sunday, on and off, although in truth this is an article that has taken twenty-nine years in the making.
And strangely enough, it’s actually proving more difficult to write than I thought it would.
Part of that has been, like has usually been the case for the past fifteen years, I’m not sharing in the collective moment tonight, albeit through a computer screen.
I’m doing the proverbial day job at Charlton, although they too are another club who would understand our own emotions this evening.
No, in “normal” times I would not be working tonight. The people I work on behalf of would understand.
But typing all this out, it’s weird how I feel numb as much as everything else – there’s been so much stuff, so much crushing disappointment over the years, that it’s difficult to fully assimilate now we’ll be finally home by bedtime tonight.
I think that will be the case for a lot of people. Sure, the kickoff will put more than a few lumps in throats, but it will take time for it to feel properly “real”.
About a month ago, I put out a request for anyone who had some stuff from the early 1990s about returning home.
A couple of people replied – you know who you are, and extra special thanks – and during writing this, I went through a couple of things sent through.
It’s not only been thirty years of hurt, but thirty years of protesting in one form or another, and forever looking over one’s shoulder, wondering what hurdle will turn up next.
In 1994, LBM stabbed us in the back, apparently. Pick up a programme from around October that year, and you’ll see Hammam in over-wrought, melodramatic victimhood.
He was good at that. Especially as he never wanted to return home, because it meant spending his own money.
Fast forward a couple of years from that, and there was the Dublin Dons fiasco. In painful hindsight, that was a sign of worse things to come.
But rewind back from that – I picked up a couple of copies of Grapevine (remember that?) from October 1991, when we just settled into exile at Selhurst.
On page three of that very publication, I noted the following:
After the West Ham game, I was having a drink with a couple of the players, and the question of travelling came up.
The reply received did not surprise me; the player concerned did nor enjoy having to travel the extra distance from the training ground in the morning of the match to Selhurst Park…..
… So if this player is not happy, you can imagine how others must feel.
That very issue also had something called “Supporters Against Merger”, urging for, among other things, people to:
“…write to Wimbledon Football Club reminding them of their obligations towards a new stadium”.
That went well.
Back then, there was also Yidaho**, which was a bit more, ahem, strident.
That season alone, it had the “Two Faces of Sam Hammam” mask, which that and something else reportedly got it banned (or something) from Selhurst.
** although this from issue 15 caught my eye. Anyone remember the month and year?
One thing struck me from reading those fanzines back then – it was that Selhurst was almost seen as temporarily.
OK, it was, although not in the way we all hoped.
But the way it went from optimism that we’d be back home soon enough (1991-94), to Merton “betraying” us (1994), then some weird thrashing about until Dublin (1995/6ish to about 1998) and then MK itself (2001 onwards) gives more than enough context.
Part of the reason why this article is focusing more on life pre-2002 is that there seems to be a blind spot over it.
That’s understandable, especially from those who experienced that time first hand. We were doing OK enough on the field, but off it was soul-destroying.
The period from 1991-2002 makes tonight as much what it is, as anything AFCW has done.
Why? Because there were so many times in that time when returning home was as far away as it ever was.
Hammam was spending more time on either buying Selhurst (he believed Palace were about to go bust), or Dublin, or Glasgow, or Dartford, or whatever else he could think of.
Anywhere except Wimbledon.
We can over-dwell on that time, and it’s ironic that we had to become AFCW to realise the dream of returning home.
Even then, up until 2010/11 that was always a bit of a pipedream.
Our return to the EFL and the harsh inadequacies of KM forced our hand, but the determination to go back to Merton was never going to go away.
Would tonight have happened in the WFC era? I think it might have done, actually, though that would have required a change of ownership.
And you have to think back to when NPL was first mooted – after a lot of rumour and gossip about the club announcing a new stadium, about three years before we actually did.
So often, even that just seemed like it was mere aspiration, as a certain Paschal Taggart bragged.
Penny for his thoughts right now.
The last ten years stadium-wise is a book in itself, from the high of December 10th 2015 to the lows of the current PM calling it in.
Then the current Mayor of London realising what a crock of shite that decision was, through to the endless S106s, to Historic England sticking their nose in, almost out of embarrassment.
Even this time last year, the club almost running out of money, and what followed after that. Oh, and Coronavirus too.
We can reminisce about thirty years of hurt, but the past thirty months have been pretty testing too.
And NPL itself still isn’t finished. Tonight is beyond special, but it’s only the absolute bare minimum we could get away with.
It’s ironic that had crowds been allowed back in, tonight would be played at Loftus Road.
We might have had to wait until the New Year before it was completed, and we could have seen inside for ourselves.
But it’s in keeping with the way we do things, really. The Big Homecoming will happen, but like leaving OPL, Selhurst and KM – it’s happening almost under the radar.
Life back home will return bit-by-bit. The bar and the club shop will be open by the time current lockdown restrictions get lifted, and that will be another step forward.
We’ll have the inevitable tours of the ground to look forward to, and at some point we might even be allowed to watch a game there.
As said above, the journey back home is not completed tonight. But it’s the first time we can finally look inside our new house and turn the lights on.
If you’ve got this far reading the above, thanks for your stamina. There’s enough of it, and there’s tonnes of stuff I’ve missed out.
There is one final thing for now. I’ve mentioned “29 years”, “three decades” and other such variations on a theme so, so many times in this piece alone.
We all sing “The journey was long”, and it’s only when you sit down and think about it – it’s not only a whimsical lyric in a song.
The time we’ve been away from home hasn’t just been years, it’s been a whole generation, and perhaps more.
I was still at school when we left for SE25. I turned 45 years old less than a fortnight ago.
If you want to put our exile into even more sober context, consider the following – our last league game at Plough Lane was against Crystal Palace, on 4 May 1991.
If you went home that evening and looked at an atlas, you would have found the Soviet Union, East Germany and West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia on it.
The news might have had John Major talking to George Bush Senior, possibly about the Apartheid in South Africa still going on.
You might have bought a new telly from Rumbelows or Comet, where you could have seen Arsenal clinch the title that season.
We finished seventh that campaign, by the way, under the late and IMO underappreciated Ray Harford.
That was one place behind Manchester United, who many were wondering if they’d ever win an eighth title.
They’re on twenty now.
If you’d bothered to look lower down, you would have seen Scarborough, Maidstone United, Aldershot (not Aldershot Town), Chester City (not Chester) and Darlington all fighting it out in the Fourth Division.
You might have also bought a radio on your trip to Rumbelows in your Ford Fiesta, where you would have discovered Cher was number one that weekend with the Shoop Shoop Song.
Bryan Adams hadn’t hit the top spot with “Everything I Do” yet, and some American band called Nirvana were just finishing off a new album called Nevermind.
They were a grunge band, something that was about to be released on an unsuspecting public.
If you read something like the NME or Melody Maker, you might have heard of them and phoned up to book a flight that summer to NY on Pan Am or TWA.
Failing that, you might have gone down the pub with your mates, but you would have needed to arrange a time on a landline phone – or on the corner of Plough Lane and Durnsford Road after the game.
You only had a mobile phone if you were a Yuppie or somebody who carried a big brick with you.
And no, you didn’t have the internet back then. Hell, you probably wouldn’t have had a computer, unless you needed a database, stock control or basic word processing.
You would have had to wait for the World Wide Web to come into being, along with the Nintendo 64, the DVD and the Premier League.
Not to mention Virgil van Dijk, Mo Salah, Neymar, and Jesse Lindgard all hadn’t been born yet.
I could go on, though I won’t. All that needs to be said is that all that has happened since the first team last kicked a ball in Wimbledon.
And you know what? It really is time we had a home game…