by Sam Elliott
ON Thursday night, at approaching 10.45pm in Merton’s usually uninhabited Civic Centre, arrived one of the biggest results in Wimbledon’s history.
A result that for some eclipsed the Crazy Gang’s taming of the Culture Club in the 1988 FA Cup final. Permission unanimously granted for not only a return to Wimbledon, but a return to Plough Lane. The homecoming of all homecomings.
Let’s return to June 2002, and a set of supporters suddenly need to create a football club. Problem though, they have no players.
Not just that, they have no manager. No ground and no league to play in either while we’re at it. No kit to wear and they had to beg, steal and borrow some footballers and cones together pretty sharpish so they could hold a hastily arranged trial on the town’s common.
It was the same week we were all praying for David Beckham’s metatarsal to mend itself ahead of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. With the headlines heading elsewhere, little did most know a rather famous repair job had just got started.
Milton Keynes may have nipped in to run off with the family silver, but a golden generation of fan power was quietly beginning in a tiny office in the back of a printing merchants in south west London.
This week, the romantics’ old favourite – Wimbledon’s remarkable streak through the divisions from the Southern League to FA Cup winners – arguably has just been equalled.
Yet 13 years ago AFC Wimbledon was just a dream, playing back in the borough was fictitious fantasy. But the team which just over a decade ago were playing the likes of Viking Greenford in the parks of the Combined Counties League were going back to a place they have mourned since 1991.
Power to the people. Bobby Gould, Wimbledon’s iconic FA Cup winning manager, never thought he would live to see the day.
He told The FLP. “It’s the conclusion to the story everyone wanted. When the flats went up on the old Plough Lane site, and when the club was essentially sold to Milton Keynes there was no chance.
“I think only Wimbledon fans could have done this. The people there, Erik Samuelson, Ivor Heller and so many others, they’ve done something great. They’ve not only recovered from their club being the first to ever be franchised in this country, but they are better for it. They committed themselves to this.
“Not only have they done it, they’ve done it the right way. It’s still fan-owned, it’s still in the hands of the people who love it – the people who created it.”
This was the mother of all ‘I told you sos’ to all those former Wimbledon owners who said Merton Council were the devil in disguise.
A quarter of a century of untidy efforts to return the club to its spiritual home was blown out of the water inside two years.
A footballing middle finger too towards the Football Association. Fans were told creating this new phoenix club back in 2002 would “not be in the wider interests of football”.
Penny for the thoughts of the genius within the FA’s three-man commission who came out with that nugget. It’s acted as the club’s inspiration ever since.
It’s not the same site from where their rise to the Southern League started, but it’s a stone’s throw away. The Dons will redevelop the town’s dilapidated Greyhound Stadium just up the road from where the magic happened. Nestled in between 600 stylish flats, the initial £20m, 11,000-capacity stadium will rise to 20,000 should the League Two club further progress.
They’ll be home by the summer of 2018 and the second chapter of one of the game’s most recognised stories will be complete.
Gould’s memories of the old place won’t ever leave him, although admittedly he wishes some of them could be wiped from his mind.
He has vowed to be there when the ribbon is cut back in SW19 and added: “Do you remember that picture when the players lined up and they all showed their a***s?
“Well that full moon cost the club £10,000. I was sitting in the stands with the wife and they started to remove their shorts. I was screaming at them but it was too late – I knew what was coming, a huge whacking fine, that’s what!
“I can’t see the AFC Wimbledon players getting away with that kind of behaviour under Neal Ardley but I can’t wait to see the team walk back out there.”