Jim White in the Daily Telegraph reports today (September 27th 2013) on the plan by AFC Wimbledon to return to the club’s spiritual home in the London Borough of Merton: 

Wimbledon FC Crest

Wimbledon FC Crest

“This week AFC Wimbledon began the process to build a new stadium. The fan-owned club, fourth in League Two, announced their intention to construct a new home on the site of Wimbledon’s greyhound stadium. What makes the plan particularly poignant for those who founded the club 10 years ago is that the new building will be just 250 yards down the road from the old Plough Lane ground where Wimbledon FC plied their trade for 79 years before they were notoriously sold into exile.

“Standing in this place, talking about building a stadium here is incredible,” says Eric Samuelson, AFC Wimbledon’s chief executive. “From where we came, now to go back and have an address at Plough Lane, there’s no other word: this is romantic. We are completing the circle. What a story this is.”

AFC Wimbledon Chief Executive Eric Samuelson Photo: © Michael Fisher

AFC Wimbledon Chief Executive Eric Samuelson Photo: © Michael Fisher

Not that romance is the first thing that springs to mind when surveying the site. Across the dishevelled car park from where Samuleson is speaking, a pop-up market is in place. Shouty traders are attempting to flog tired-looking office furniture from the back of transit vans. A row has broken out about the best position, and shouts echo across the scuffed tarmac.

The greyhound stadium itself, a fading hodgepodge of tumbledown stands, looks so unkempt, so flimsy, if the row gets any louder you fear the noise might open up cracks along its grubby side. Yet, while it might not look much, this is a place with huge emotional resonance for many thousands of Wimbledon fans who helped establish the country’s most successful football start up. Not least because it stands right in the heart of the community from which the club sprung.

“My wife always says to me when I can’t find something, go back to the place you last saw it,” says Samuelson. “That’s what we’ve done. This is where it all started.”

In many ways AFC’s story began the moment the old Wimbledon FC vacated Plough Lane in 1991. The club’s owners sold the ground for a development of flats. Unfortunately they had not secured a better place to go. So began 10 years of peripatetic ground-sharing which ultimately led to the decision to transfer the club to Milton Keynes, the theft that encouraged disgruntled fans to form AFC in 2002.

Which makes you wonder, if sourcing a site for a new stadium was what caused more than a decade of trauma, why did no one think of using the extensive spaces of the greyhound stadium next door before?  “They did,” says Samuleson. “I believe there was an attempt to groundshare with the dog track when they were still in Plough Lane. But it was never practical.”

What changed things was that the site was bought by developers Galliard Homes. They believed the best way to use what is a large, albeit shambolic area was to build a new sporting stadium in its core, fringed by a housing development. It went into partnership with AFC and has now submitted a report to the council to suggest the site be designated as ideal for this purpose.

If the independent inspectors agree and the council adopts the idea, the club will then apply for planning permission for an 11,000-seat stadium, with the potential to rise to 20,000. It will cost some £16 million.

“We’re a very prudent operation. We don’t want to put ourselves into hock. But we’re confident we can do it,” says Samuelson of the cost. The naming rights will be valuable, we’re putting in place foundations for a share ownership plan, we will make some money from the enabling development. Yes, we can do it.”

More than that, Samuelson believes they must do it. Not just because the club’s 4,100-capacity home in Kingston is too small to meet their ambitions. But because a return to Wimbledon is central to their founding ethos: after all it was the abrupt eviction from home that led them to be formed in the first place.

“About 18 months ago, we did extensive fan consultation about what should be our core aims,” he says. “The two biggest things that emerged were: one to stay in fan ownership; and secondly go back to Wimbledon.”

And though any redevelopment will inevitably lead to the end of dog racing on the site, AFC’s man insists that the new project will be of huge benefit to the local area.

“This will be a community asset, with dozens of things from street gyms to entertainment suites that people will want to use every day of the week. It will transform this part of the borough. It will make everyone proud. When we play another well-known fan-owned club in our first game in our new stadium, I’ll be fit to burst. Yes, it will be great to welcome Barcelona here.”

In the London borough of Merton, football is about to come home.”

AFC Wimbledon at Kingsmeadow, Norbiton Photo: © Michael Fisher

AFC Wimbledon at Kingsmeadow, Norbiton Photo: © Michael Fisher

However Dublin businessman Paschal Taggart has a different vision for the dilapidated greyhound stadium. He knows how significant the greyhound industry is, particularly in Ireland and has been lobbying greyhound breeders and trainers for support for his vision for a 21st Century dog track and a modern Wimbledon Stadium with many of the same community facilities such as a gym that Eric Samuelson speaks about.

Mr Taggart gave an interview last weekend to Philip Connolly of the Sunday Business Post, based in Dublin, another very influential newspaper. It has reported extensively about the state-owned (Irish) National Asset Management Agency, which effectively has the major say in the future of the Plough Lane site. So I am reprinting Mr Taggart’s comments here.

“Irish businessman Paschal Taggart’s bid to develop a €37 million greyhound racing stadium, on a site in London effectively owned by the National Asset Management Agency (Nama), has been put under pressure from a rival bid by AFC Wimbledon. AFC Wimbledon last week submitted an outline of its plans to develop a stadium at Plough Lane, as the club seeks to return to its traditional home. Nama holds the debt on Plough Lane, which is currently occupied by a greyhound racing stadium.

Taggart, a former chairman of Bord na gCon, the greyhound racing board, remains confident that his plan to redevelop the site and build a new greyhound stadium with a capacity for 6,000 spectators is the most viable.

“I don’t see us being beaten, but that could be famous last words,” Taggart told The Sunday Business Post. “It will always come down to the best bid, and we intent to submit the best one.”

Taggart, who chaired Bord na gCon from 2000 to 2006, submitted plans to Merton Council for the €37 million track at Plough Lane, but since expressed concern about his bid to retain a greyhound racing stadium in Wimbledon.

In a letter to newspapers earlier this summer, Taggart expressed his concern over the support behind the return of AFC Wimbledon to the Plough Lane area, but less obvious support behind the greyhound stadium and the plans that go with it.

AFC are working with Galliard Homes, which also wants to develop housing on the site, to win approval for an 11,000-seater football stadium. According to Taggart, a lease deal struck earlier this year between Nama and Galliard Homes has no effect on his plan and he has not given up on his bid for the stadium.

The council and local mayor’s office could decide the fate of the site early next year, which could result in Nama selling the site shortly afterward. Taggart has indicated his willingness to buy the site from Nama at market value.

The old Wimbledon Dons moved away from Plough Lane before the start of the 1991-92 season to share the Selhurst Park ground with Crystal Palace, before relocating to Milton Keynes in 2003 – a controversial move which took the team from London, where they had been based since their foundation in 1889, to Milton Keynes, about 90 kilometres from their original home. They were also renamed MK Dons, much to the anger of most of their original supporter, who formed AFC Wimbledon in 2002 as a “phoenix club” protest. AFC began in the ninth tier of English football, but are now only one division below MK Dons.”  (Sunday Business Post, Sunday 22nd September 2013)