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A Sort of Homecoming

Make your own U2 reference here. Even if it’s 1991 being the last time they were any good.

When I expected to first walk into Plough Lane, Plough Lane v2.0, New Plough Lane (NPL) or whatever other variant you call it, I thought it would be a jam-packed friendly where everyone would just be happy to be there.

As we all know, life has made other plans for us all right now, although when I got the chance to cover the Sunderland game for a North East paper last week, I was very quick to accept it.

Strange, that.

Anyway, you’ve probably read the post-game thoughts from the Mackems, and I still stand by all I’ve said.

But as promised – this is the nice report from the weekend. The one that will make it better, even if it’s frustrating as the vast majority of you still haven’t got inside.

And no, I don’t feel guilty.

So, what is it like watching a League game at Plough Lane for the first time since 1991? Well, it’s like this…

I guess the early kickoff and knowing I had to do some actual work tempered a lot of excitement. Certainly, I was more bothered with trying to find a car park space.

Which, by the way, you can all forget about once “normal” games take place. I struggled in the business park behind the north stand, and that’s with minimal people behind closed doors.

Maybe the car park on Weir Road where Homebase was will be a decent bet? Just be prepared to pay for it.

Anyway, I drove to the venue, with a few memories flooding back from thirty years ago. Even down to the small railway tunnel on Lower Downs Road, for those who know that area.

It was quiet the rest of the journey, going down Gap Road and into Plough Lane itself. Next time I’m at a game, I expect it won’t be.

For reasons of accuracy, the last league game against Palace wasn’t my last time watching football at the old place.

Those with long memories will know that we had afternoon reserve games for a few years afterwards, which I often went to and were always enjoyable.

Maybe they’ll return?

I was also one of the 2000+ who piled in for I think was the last ever football match there, against Palace (again) in the FAYC.

When fans finally come back, what are the odds we’ll play the Eagles once again?

So, my first impressions. I should say they were of ghosts of Wimbledon past swirling around, or the imposing flats surrounding our new venue.

Actually, it was waiting in my car next to a building site, watching the Sunderland team bus struggle into New Stadium Road.

A romantic name for a passageway, I’m sure you’ll agree.

More on that in a second, but one thinks that they might need to sort that particular bit of practicality out at some point.

Anyway, I parked up and can tell you the Stadium Cafe near the venue is OK enough for pre-match eats.

Some will miss Fat Boys, though I never thought it was as good as people said it was.

I’m pretty sure we’ll all have our own pre-game meeting points, even if it turns out to be the planned McDonalds next to Lidl.

One not very good start for the Stadium Cafe though – they managed to get my order wrong…

So, into the lion’s den, so to speak. Well, into what is still largely a building site, anyway.

The above picture is the aforementioned New Stadium Way, where the away fans (and presumably media too) will be entering through.

I expect it will be given a more Womble-friendly name at some point, but I can’t help think if the approach might be wasted on away fans.

Walking up to the turnstiles as a home supporter on it could evoke some future memories. On the flip side, after games like yesterday, it means making an early exit takes longer.

The road is mostly new, except for the barrier wall on the right hand side, as you walk in. With a nice reminder of venues past.

If you like pictures, you’ll love this report from now on, because there’s a few of them. Not brilliant ones, admittedly, but I’ve never been one for photography.

When you get to where the stands are, one thing did strike me – how roomy the outside is. Even down to the “limited” car parking on site.

The top one was taken before the game, the bottom one after. Note the tractor on the second one, and how much space there still is behind it.

I’m sure some clever bod will transpose this onto what we had at KM, and looking at them – I don’t think our old venue had much more (asphalt) parking after all.

I know we’re planning a five-a-side pitch on this bit at some point, and at least we’ll have room for it.

The whole size thing is one of the main takeaways I have from my whole visit. The separate media entrance has a reception area which is as big as the KM offices, give or take.

It’s not the only thing that sticks in my mind though.

When you do things like use some proper toilets, and walk up a flight of stairs, and walk through some doors and onto a concourse to find the press seats, you realise how “proper” it now looks.

It will take a bit of getting used to, having not only our own venue but something that is actually fit for purpose.

Old Plough Lane was home, and wasn’t a bad non-league ground, but if we’re being honest – it was inadequate.

The less said about Selhurst the better, and KM became a nuisance of a venue in the last few seasons of our time there.

This picture is the lower concourse of the West Stand, facing towards where the pub/”Fan Zone” will be.

It’s a hundred times better already, and it’s not fully furnished.

With Kingsmeadow, you were almost embarrassed to say we played there. At Plough Lane, you’ll be proud to take people and show them around.

Yes, it’s a new stadium. Yes, it will have its teething troubles. And yes, the first couple of times you go there, you might think it is a little bit sterile.

Once it’s lived in, so to speak, you’ll learn to love it very quickly.

The first time looking onto the pitch? I won’t say it was anti-climatic (it was probably because I was more focused on finding my press seat), but the overwhelming sense of emotion never happened.

I think that’s because I’ve seen so many pictures of it over the last few months, that I knew what to expect.

True, there’s that initial “wow” factor of seeing it for the first time, but after that, it’s almost like it’s always been there.

That might possibly be a good thing.

Size wise, the most notable paradox isn’t what you didn’t expect to be bigger but the one thing you did.

The massive wall behind the south stand isn’t quite so imposing the first time you see it in the flesh after all.

The photos you see manage to make it look bigger than what it is in real life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s undeniably huge and I like the fact we have some unique features.

But it’s something that somehow manages to blend into the scenery very quickly. And if you’re in the south stand, you won’t notice it at all.

As I was there on press duties, a word about that particular side of things.

You probably won’t know this, and almost certainly won’t care, but the facilities at KM were a little, well, tight.

As in, wouldn’t-even-put-cattle-into-it tight.

Here, you can leave your seat without forcing the entire row to move out of the way. The desks actually have some room, the power sockets work, and as the top picture/one from yesterday show, it’s not a bad view at all.

Remember – a happy hack equals a better match report. Though yesterday pushed that notion to the extreme in my case.

As I settled down, I got a nice tour of the West Stand by nice Mr Lowne (cheers Laurence).

The first impressions are that it’s going to be a great place to watch the game, except for one particular section.

I know where that is, and anyone who finds themselves there isn’t going to be happy. But you’ll only be put there if you’re annoying…

Looking at the smaller stands, they’re going to be like the JG stand at KM (in a good way) – very intimate, and the views are going to be a helluva lot better than they have been for the past eighteen years.

The hospitality sections are going to be very decent indeed, and you genuinely do get a sense of excitement about what is possible.

The potential is enormous, and the only thing that will hold it back is AFCW itself.

The emphasis here is “going to be”, and that’s a recurring feature of the visit.

Obviously, you can’t go into grounds right now, and you probably won’t be able to until after Easter.

But even if you could – we’d still be at Loftus Road right now.

It’s when you walk around and have a nose behind the scenes that you realise just how much work needs to be done.

I don’t just mean outside looking into the East Stand from Plough Lane itself, I mean properly inside.

This will give you an idea:

Granted, it’s not like it everywhere. But the hospitality decks are definitely works in progress, none of the concession stands are fitted out, and it hasn’t been handed over by Buckingham yet.

Being without fans has done us a favour here, because we can finish it off before the first test event takes place.

And there’s a lot of finishing off to do.

Unsurprisingly, the scoreboard doesn’t work yet, so at least we’ve taken a bit of Kingsmeadow with us.

To give a further example of how much still needs doing – when doing press duties, you get given a team sheet beforehand. It’s very rare you don’t, even in current Covid times, put it that way.

As far as I know, we don’t even have enough put in to have an office with a printer to distribute them. That’s how much more we’ve still got to finish.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. It’s a case of when, not if that gets sorted – just like most of Plough Lane v2.0, as it goes.

You all know about the game, and you probably won’t want to relive it. From a media point of view, doing games at our place are going to be a doddle.

From a supporter one though, I wonder how yesterday would have panned out if we had a full house.

We’ll be on top of the players, perhaps in more ways than one, and like stadia across the country right now – the one missing ingredient is the support.

I made this very point to a couple of people yesterday, and many times online before, but the atmosphere will be electric if it’s an evening game and everyone is “on it”.

Even yesterday might have turned out different had the players realised they had to raise their game.

What’s going to come clear very quickly is that collectively, we’re going to love Plough Lane.

Not just because it’s ours, and it’s not a hovel, but also it won’t take too long before it becomes “home” again.

It’s important to remember the following though, something that might not go down well with a couple of people.

New Plough Lane is to Old Plough Lane what AFC Wimbledon is to Wimbledon FC – the same thing, but different.

It’s not the old place, and nothing will ever be a replacement for it.

But it doesn’t need to be.

The enormity of returning home has still to properly register, and there will be a lot of people with tears in their eyes on that first proper homecoming match.

I wasn’t emotional yesterday, though. Partly through actually working, and partly through being pissed off with the result.

But instead, I feel a sense of almost completeness, as though the circle is about to be fully closed off.

That will finally happen with the first full crowd in the venue, but the best thing I can say about yesterday is that I thought nothing of it.

It wasn’t a chore like Selhurst or KM, and in the case of the latter it never felt like going to a home game in the way yesterday did.

Even down to little things like having a post game gossip with two particular individuals, knowing we didn’t have far to go afterwards.

Yesterday was shit football wise, but it otherwise felt right being there.

I don’t know when I’ll next be back at a home game, probably the same time as just about everyone else will be.

It’s worth being patient with the current situation though, because it’s going to be special – and I can guarantee that.

One thing though that makes the whole thing seem both very surreal and even more bizarrely normal – the last two league games I’ve been to Plough Lane, we’ve lost 3-0…

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