FA Cup: Wimbledon's storied Plough Lane past and the new chapter being written

From 1912-1991, Wimbledon was home to the old Plough Lane.
AFC Wimbledon loves a good story. Their remarkable history is filled with them. Ollie Palmer scored Saturday's first FA Cup goal in front fans at Plough Lane in more than 30 years.

Born 1992, the same year Wimbledon moved to their new Plough Lane ground. Palmer was a big Wimbledon fan from childhood and attended matches at Selhurst Park. He stopped supporting the club after the Football Association granted permission for them to move to Milton Keynes in 2002.

He calmly turned the Guiseley goalkeeper and slid the ball in to send his team through to the FA Cup Second Round with a 1-0 win on Saturday.

It was a great game for the 4,973 home fans and those who watched it from their flats looking out at the Plough Lane stadium. This deal brought AFC Wimbledon 'home.

It will not live on in the memories as Lawrie Sanchez's goal in the first half at Wembley in 1988 when Bobby Gould's Crazy Gang beat Liverpool to win the FA Cup. They are now closer to a chance to upset English football in the competition that helped to forge their identity. Next up is a home tie against Gillingham and Cheltenham.

It would be foolish to exclude Wimbledon from consideration. Their rich history at Plough Lane is a testament to the fact that there is no club that isn't possible.

"People frequently ask, "When did the Wimbledon story actually start?" Ivor Heller is AFC Wimbledon's Commercial Director and was a key figure in the club’s resurrection from the dead.

Heller cites the FA Cup run 1974-75. In the Southern League, the fifth tier English football league, Wimbledon defeated Burnley at Turf Moor to win round three. This was one of rare occasions when a non-league opponent has beaten a top flight opponent on their home ground.

Round four saw them travel to Leeds, who would be competing in the European Cup final four month later. They drew thanks to Dickie Guy, now AFC Wimbledon president - which saved a Peter Lorimer penalty. For the replay at Selhurst Park, 45,071 people were present. Leeds won 1-0 with a Dave Bassett goal.

Wimbledon was captivated by the cup run in 1986, when the Football League required clubs to apply for membership. The system was abolished in 1986. League members had to vote one member out to ensure that the club applying for membership was successful. This didn't happen very often.

Wimbledon won the Southern League in 1976 and 1975, and they applied for Football League membership in both of those years. Each time, they failed.

However, a combination of their FA Cup successes and their accessibility in south-west London meant that they were elected after a third consecutive Southern League title in 1977. Cumbrians Workington were then dumped, the third club to be voted out of the fourth division since 1958.

This was the beginning of one of England's greatest rises. Wimbledon was ranked in the top flight of England nine years later. They won the FA Cup in 1988, two years after beating Liverpool at Wembley.

Evidently, players' standards improved as they moved up the leagues. Their stadium was not.

Plough Lane, pictured in August 1990. This was the beginning of the last season at the old ground.

Lawrie Sanchez says that Plough Lane was "a shambles stadium for non-league football," and that he scored the goal that won in 1988 the FA Cup. He also won at Huddersfield two year earlier, which saw Wimbledon promoted to the top flight.

"I cannot emphasize non-league enough. He adds that the ground spent virtually nothing on it during all of those promotions.

"The tunnel was not more than six feet wide. There were a few infamous incidents. Concrete was also used for the floor. All of us had studs so we had to be able to move around. Anybody who ran in and out of the tunnel would likely end up on their backside.

"The dressing rooms were in the days when there were two substitutes so there was barely enough space if the manager needed to change somewhere else. Half-time was when they kept the subs out to allow the manager and his assistant to talk.

If that was the case for the home team, how about their visitors?

Dennis Lowndes, who was a lifelong fan and used to work on the ticketing side of the club but is now part the ground staff, said that "they were the worst you'll ever see."

"We did everything we could to make them uncomfortable, even putting water on their floors. They would moan and groan about it.

"My father worked in the changing rooms. He was a Wolverhampton boy and told Tommy Docherty that it was the worst Wolves team he'd ever seen when they arrived in 1985. Docherty turned against him, saying: "How can you play football at a place like that?"

Sanchez sums it up well: "The big guys just wanted to do the most damage possible."

And not like the Wimbledon players.

Sanchez adds that the room used to eat before games was converted into a bar for players and later turned into a nightclub. "Many a player was thrown out of that room at 2am."

However, not everyone embraces it.

Manager Dave Bassett criticized Ted Croker, the Football Association secretary, for saying Wimbledon's facilities were "totally incompetent" to host First Division football. He also stated that Tottenham and Manchester United were being forced to play there.

Sam Hammam, the owner of Plough Lane, used the match program to announce his plans to leave Plough Lane one year later. He said that it was "a hindrance" to his ambitious plans.

He said it was not capable of meeting the required standard.

Some argue that the statement was incorrect and that a stadium with 20,000 seats could have been constructed on the same site.

Hammam disagreed. The Taylor report into Hillsborough's tragedy in 1990 recommended that clubs move to all-seater stadiums. Plans were made to ground-share at Selhurst Park with Crystal Palace.

Heller says that "Plough Lane was only an anchor around the neck of the owners, because it suited them selling the land."

"There were not really any arguments. It was done in a way that made it impossible to argue.

"There was a lot of talk, but nobody thought we would leave Plough Lane. That would be it. That is exactly what happened. There was not much fanfare. There was not much excitement at Plough Lane for the 'last game'.

"It was the final season, and it was done. It felt all very submissive."

Wimbledon fans have long fought for Plough Lane's return for many years.

Wimbledon's last match at Plough Lane was on May 4, 1991. It happened to be against Crystal Palace.

Selhurst Park was the home of the team for the next 11 seasons. However, after an FA arbitration hearing granted permission for the club to move to Milton Keynes, AFC Wimbledon was formed. The old club was closed down.

AFC Wimbledon played at Kingsmeadow in 2002-03 and saw a crowd of 3,003 people. This was their first season in the Combined Counties League Premier Division – then the ninth tier of English football.

That same season, Wimbledon (soon to be Milton Keynes Dons) attracted 664 people to Selhurst Park in order to play a League Cup match with Rotherham.

Wimbledon hosted their first match at Plough Lane on the 3rd November 2020. However, fans couldn't return to Plough Lane until May due to Covid restrictions.

Although it is only six miles to Plough Lane and Kingsmeadow, AFC Wimbledon has never considered it a permanent home. They wanted to return to Merton where they could establish roots.

Stephen Alambritis was the leader of Merton Council and a man who wanted it to happen as much as them.

Alambritis, a Fulham fan who grew up in the shadows of Craven Cottage thought that the sight of Fulham fans heading to stadiums with floodlights shining on dark night was magical.

He says, "One of my first actions as leader was to apologize to AFC Wimbledon fans because the council did play a role in its demise." We let go of a covenant that stated this plot was only for sport. This allowed Sam Hammam to sell the old stadium for housing.

Alambritis met Heller, AFC Wimbledon chief executive Erik Samuelson. The bond was almost immediate.

He says, "What I got out of those two was a real continuity and consistency. Those were the people I was dealing and they were the ones who would return."

Councils can get sloppy with something like this. These two men will be representing the football club, I have to admit. They are honest and will play for the club. It's a wonderful story. It was a terrible mistake that we made years ago. Let's make it right again."

Alambritis was granted a sports intensification use stipulation for Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. It is located 250 yards further along Plough Lane than the place where Wimbledon used to play. Alambritis contacted the company that had loaned money to the owner of the stadium and negotiated a deal with the council, AFC Wimbledon, and Galliards.

"I enjoy making things happen, and what are people likely to remember?" He said that he liked things that stick out from the ground. I had a vision of things that would happen when I was a leader. People would see a place and say "there's a football stadium that's not there before."

Alambritis says that the stadium can be increased from its current 9,125 capacity up to 20,000, and that there are 850 housing units, "32%" of which are affordable.

Palmer (second from the right) celebrates his win against Guiseley

Alambritis didn't get all he wanted. AFC Wimbledon's postal code is SW17. Wandsworth is the owner. The Post Office refused Alambritis request to change it from SW19 to Merton, the old ground.

Wimbledon was back, in essence. They just needed the money to build it. The building of the ground was a huge revenue-generating operation. John Green, author and fan, gave the final push by making a substantial donation. The club returned to Plough Lane on the 3rd of November 2020 for a League One match against Doncaster. Unfortunately, there were no fans to witness it.

Heller says, "In one sense it's great but playing in a ground without fans was soul-destroying."

It was horrible. There are a lot of ghosts. It was hard to imagine the experience with people inside.

Heller got his wish on the first day of the current League One campaign when Bolton were the visitors. This resulted in a remarkable 3-3 draw, as AFC Wimbledon recovered from a 3-1 deficit.

Heller, who grew up watching football at the old stadium in the 1970s, doesn't remember the hot dog and onion smell of the new stadium. If you are close enough, the strong wafts of liniment do not emanate from the changing rooms.

It is located just over the River Wandle, and the huge electricity pylon seen in many photos of the old ground. However, it does have rail seating, as one would expect from a modern stadium. The site is smaller than the old Plough Lane, but there's plenty of space. There is also more cover for spectators from all sides.

You will also find appropriate banners that proclaim: "The Dons are back", "We are the resurrection", "There is a light which never goes out", and "Keep the faith".

While some financial issues remain to be resolved as a result of the initial funding, the club's management is accepting the fact that they will have to deal with every day football questions - Saturday included a perceived bad style of play - and not existential ones.

You never know where your journey may take you.

"After all that we've been through, who would want to tell me what I could dream and what my limitations are?" We don't need a glass ceiling.

"We have a bigger base now than we did in 1977 when we joined the league, that's what I can tell you."