For AFC Wimbledon’s manager, Glyn Hodges, Tuesday night’s long-awaited return to Plough Lane will be particularly poignant. Hodges was part of the Wimbledon side that shook up the football establishment in the 1980s, rising from the depths of the fourth tier to the top flight before famously lifting the FA Cup a year after his departure for Newcastle United in 1987.
After the then owner, Sam Hammam, sold Plough Lane to developers in 1991, the club endured a nomadic existence for more than a decade until they relocated to Milton Keynes in 2003. AFC Wimbledon were formed by supporters opposed to the move and almost three decades on from the last Wimbledon match in Merton, the opening of a 9,000-capacity stadium 250 metres from the old ground is the culmination of a remarkable journey. Doncaster Rovers are the visitors for a League One match.
“We’ve already trained there and every time I come back there is some kind of flashback,” Hodges says. “In the old days, I used to get the train to Haydons Road and go to a sweet shop before matches. We also used to spend quite a lot of time at the dog track and go banger racing there as well on Saturday nights, which is where the new ground is. It’s all quite surreal.”
Hodges is not the only person associated with AFC Wimbledon having to pinch themselves this week. The commercial director, Ivor Heller, was, like the founding chief executive Erik Samuelson, part of the board of directors who formed the phoenix club in 2002 when permission for the move to Milton Keynes was granted. He remembers the determination that they would one day return home.
“From the very start we talked about it,” he says. “There was just an irresistible pull – there is something in the Wimbledon DNA. The big turning point for us was when councillor Stephen Alambritis became leader of Merton council. He was the guy that plotted the route for us more than anybody else.
“He’s not a Wimbledon fan by the way – he’s a Fulham fan. But that makes it even better for me. He included us in the long-term development framework for the borough saying that if the greyhound track was to be redeveloped then it should be done for sport – specifically a home for AFC Wimbledon. That only got through because people thought we could never afford it.”
The club took only nine seasons to work their way back into the Football League, and their owners, the Dons Trust, acquired the site in 2013, with plans for the new stadium approved by Merton two years later. Spiralling costs forced the club to turn to their supporters last year, when an initial £2.4m was raised through a crowdfunding campaign. Then, faced with another £11m shortfall this year as construction neared completion, another £5.4m was added from the “Plough Lane Bond” – investment in the form of loans of a minimum £1,000, on five-, 10- and 20-year terms.
“There have been many miracles but the big one is that the supporters got together to raise the money,” Heller says. “That shows that fan ownership can work if you engage the supporters in the right way.”
“The fans have made it all possible,” adds Hodges, who took over as manager last year having returned as assistant to Wally Downes in 2018. “We all know the story and what went on. We’ve done it in our own way. Any hurdle that’s been put in front of us we’ve overcome. That’s what this club is about. We are role models for so many clubs. I know there are a few struggling at the moment – the longer lockdown lasts, the more dangerous it is for them. But what we’ve done and how we’ve done it is a great example to follow if they need to.”
Perhaps aptly, AFC Wimbledon’s last match before their grand homecoming was a typically hard-fought 1-1 draw with MK Dons on Saturday – a result that left Hodges’ side 11th. But with the potential to increase the stadium’s capacity to about 20,000, their manager is hoping some of the old Crazy Gang spirit in their new surroundings can inspire the next generation to emulate their predecessors.
“Now we need to make sure that our home form can kick the club forward again,” he says. “That’s the plan. We’re on a safe footing and we have a fantastic stadium to play in but the key is not to relax and think: ‘We’re home now.’ We draw a line in the sand and we go again. We have to make sure there is a long-term plan.”
Despite his allegiances, Alambritis – who will step down from his post this month – is expected to be among the select few allowed entry for Tuesday’s historic occasion given the current restrictions.
“We’ve been in the wilderness for almost 30 years and now we’re out,”Heller adds. “But now it’s like we are all held up at the gates waiting to be let in. Until that happens, this stadium is not going to be properly opened.”