When Wimbledon left Plough Lane in 1991 there was no internet, no mobile phones and the best fans could do to get organised was sit in, photocopy fanzines and generally get the proper hump. With all that in mind, Sam Hammam found getting shot of our ground rather simple compared to what would happen in this day and age of live blogging, internet detective work and an interested media.
In 1991 the last ever game played in SW19 wasn't even announced as such. The programme on the day mentioned a possible move to a new home. It spoke about how we'd need to leave Plough Lane following the Taylor Report as the ground was not big enough to make it all-seater. Summer came and our home ground went.
Hammam had spent some time leading up to the departure telling us how the council had treated him badly, how he was the father of the family and how he knew best. Shrewd as ever Hammam didn't sell the ground there and then, but we was moved out and off up the road to share stadiums with the man he'd bought Wimbledon FC from, Mr Ronald Noades - another "character" of a chairman.
The Plough Lane site had been given to the club by Wimbledon Borough Council (later became renamed Merton Council as it currently remains) in 1912. It contained a pre-emption clause requiring the land to be used for sports, leisure or recreational use only. Were Wimbledon to go into liquidation, Merton Council had the right to buy back Plough Lane for £8,000. Hammam claimed this clause restricted the sale of the land which he "needed" to finance a new stadium nearby and he sought to remove it.
The programme on the day mentioned a possible move to a new home
The council to this day suggest they sold the site and removed the clause as Hammam had threatened protracted and expensive legal action. Figures are disputed as to how much was paid the council to lift this clause (£300,000 to £800,000 depending who you ask). Hammam very generously rented the ground back to Wimbledon FC for £50,000 a season (it was used for Wimbledon and Crystal Palace reserve matches after we left) until 1998 when the site was sold to Safeways for a quoted £8.5m. The entire proceeds of which went to Hammam's company, owned by his brother and himself.
Sitting as tenants at Selhurst Park Hammam championed the notion of how we had a "window of opportunity" or put another way; we didn't have any ground maintenance and could spend the savings on footballers (it transpires that wasn't true, we apparently paid 50% of all ground maintenance and operation of the stadium as well as 10% of all ticket sales and 100% of all food and drink went to…drumroll, the company owned by the aforementioned Ron Noades).
As time ticked away, and with the age-old and sadly still to this day effective "opiate with success" method of quelling supporters, talk of going home was replaced with tales of Basingstoke, Gatwick, Dublin and beyond as the "only" solution.
Around this time I was one of six fans invited to dine with Hammam in a Wimbledon restaurant. The phrase keep your enemies close springs to mind. It was an evening of him trying to sell us the idea of Dublin (along with one of our number getting so hammered he fell of his seat). Free travel, massive matches, one of Europe's biggest clubs yada-yada. I told him I'd fly from Dublin to watch us playing back in SW19, but not the other way around.
Hammam very generously rented the ground back to Wimbledon FC for £50,000 a season (it was used for Wimbledon and Crystal Palace reserve matches after we left) until 1998
He seemed dumbstruck that we didn't all think he was on to something great for our club. Whatever our view he was going to, as "father of the club" take us away and we, as "the children", should follow. Again he was told point blank that wouldn't happen - what would we do when the club left? "Start a new one in the lower leagues" was my answer. Without hesitation he replied "If you do that I'll fund it".
Plough Lane was now being prepared for demolition and in a startlingly offensive, yet typical, display the club programme carried an article passing comment on how sad it was that Aston Villa had decided to redevelop its Trinity Road Stand (which had stood since 1992) without a single mention at all of the passing of our own ground, gone forever. Such was the disregard for what the fans wanted.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Safeways were struggling with planning permission and eventually sold up to a housing company. 570 flats were later built on the site deemed "too small for a football stadium" (a load of shite then and still shite now) that remain there today like some sort of horrific "affordable" tombstone.
Hammam cashed in further selling 80% of Wimbledon FC for £28m to two of Europe's wealthiest men. Kjell Inge Røkke (worth a cool £2.2 Billion US dollars in 2008) and his business partner Bjørn Rune Gjelsten were probably the Premier League's first foreign owners capable of turning things completely upside down with the power of the chequebook. Instead of investing and developing, they couldn't even be arsed to take the club home preferring to chase Hammam's defunct vision for Dublin before they realised it wasn't going to happen.
"Start a new one in the lower leagues" was my answer. Without hesitation he replied "If you do that I'll fund it"
After a bit of turbulence, which included the club buying John Hartson for a jaw dropping £12m and the Norwegian owners sending Leeds United player Eirik Bakke's dad in to look through the books, Hammam finally waved goodbye. Not before he grabbed his last drop of money out of Wimbledon selling to arch muppet and swivel-eyed gimp Charles Koppel for £1.8m, a man so versed in English football and its traditions he claimed in a meeting with supporters that "ground sharing works fine for the Sheffield clubs" - this despite us having played Sheffield Wednesday just weeks before.
A proposed merger with QPR came and went (our owners didn't give up on that; QPR's did) and we all know the sad and sorry story of how the FA allowed the club to get mugged off up the M1…
We find ourselves now in charge and control of our own club and after last season's bumpy debut back playing league football, but Plough Lane being out of the club's grip is the biggest pain Wimbledon fans have had to bear since the reboot. Kingsmeadow is homely, ours (following a buy out from the small businessman that had it before us) and helps us realise income to survive but it's not home. It never really could be.
I've spent forever saying we are a club in exile, that we belong in Wimbledon and that it should be a matter of principle that we go home and that it is a stated ambition we never, ever drop.
Last week the glorious headline that is "AFC Wimbledon announce plans to move back to Plough Lane" emerged. It isn't firm plans, there's no architect's vision to drool over, we don't own the land and there is a long and winding road ahead, but it's a statement of intent.
Kingsmeadow is homely, ours (following a buy out from the small businessman that had it before us) and helps us realise income to survive but it's not home
The submission from the club to the council declares, and I quote, "the proposed stadium will be designed to have an initial capacity of 12,000 spectators, with the ability to increase to a capacity of approximately 22,000 as AFC Wimbledon grows". There will be other plans submitted for the land which Merton's published preferred use of the site is for the intensification of sporting activities but the game is afoot and we are right in the mix.
21 years since leaving home and 100 years since we first played on Plough Lane in SW19, the people in charge of my club have declared publicly that Wimbledon's football club want to return. For Dons supporters it feels that football might just be coming home after all.
Quotes last week:
I never ever thought I would see that in my life time! So very happy for all the people that have contributed to the new Dons!
It would be terrific if they go back to Plough Lane. A fantastic achievement by all concerned. Shows what could have been done by others.
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