HOW AFC WIMBLEDON, NAMA, IRISH GREYHOUNDS, A DUBLIN BUSINESSMAN AND MERTON COUNCIL WILL SHAPE THE FUTURE OF PLOUGH LANE IN LONDON SW19
Wimbledon might be known internationally for tennis. But the area also came to fame through the achievements of Wimbledon Football Club. Plough Lane used to be their home. Now the original pitch is a housing development, a bit like Glenmalure Park in Milltown, former home of Shamrock Rovers FC. Durnsford Road (where the main entrance was) is where I saw the Dons play in their days as an amateur team (I began to watch them around 1963 when they won the Amateur Cup), as semi-professionals in the Southern League and eventually as a football league side rising to the first division and winning the FA Cup. The club survived there until 1991 when they entered a ground-sharing arrangement with Crystal Palace that lasted until 2003 in order to comply with a new FA rule on all-seater stadia.
In the closing stages of Wimbledon FC at Selhurst I remember talking to the owner Sam Hammam about a suggestion that he was considering moving the club to Dublin (even Belfast was mentioned at one stage). Some Irish businessmen and at least one prominent soccer commentator were very supportive of such a move.
You can read more about the ‘Dublin Dons’ in Donal Fallon’s Come Here to Me blog here. In the end FIFA opposed such a move and the FA gave approval to transport the club, not abroad, but sixty miles away to a franchise in Milton Keynes, which now plays in League 1, one division above the new Wimbledon.
Plough Lane is also the site of another sports venue, Wimbledon Stadium. I remember going to watch speedway there. It is also the last remaining dog track in London, which had 33 greyhound stadia in the 1940s, and home to the William Hill Greyhound Derby, which always attracts a lot of Irish interest. I should add that although I never went to a dog meeting at Plough Lane, I have been a spectator at greyhound races in Ireland and have generally enjoyed such events. Indeed I have been at the stadium at Dundalk, which was opened on a greenfield site in 2003 (with an all-weather horse racing track added later) by the Irish Greyhound Board (Bord na gCon) when the businessman Paschal Taggart was the Chairman. It replaced an older stadium that closed in 2000.
Fast forward a decade and now we have a new club AFC Wimbledon based at Kingsmeadow in Norbiton but proposing to move back to their spiritual home in Merton. The outline plans for a new stadium seating 11,000 with potential to upgrade later to 20,000 have been fine tuned over the past year and have just been submitted to Merton Council. The football club’s preferred location is now known to be the greyhound track, beside the original home of the Dons at Plough Lane. The Club’s Chief Executive Erik Samuelson has explained how the proposals have taken a significant step forward. He also cautions supporters that there is a long way to go before the Dons’ plans become a reality.
However there is a separate proposal which has come from a consortium led by the Dublin-based businessman and greyhound enthusiast Paschal Taggart, who I referred to earlier. He has proposed a new greyhound stadium on the current site, with a squash club and gym etc.. He also points out that the (Irish) National Asset Management Agency NAMA will have a major say in any future development. So once again, Dublin comes into the equation when the development of our now community-owned football club in London is to be decided. Wimbledon was one of six greyhound tracks acquired by Risk Capital Partners from the Greyhound Racing Association in a £50m deal financed by Irish Nationwide. So because of the source of the loan the Stadium’s short term future has been determined by NAMA. The state agency in Dublin granted a five year lease for the Wimbledon track in July to a management team.
Paschal Taggart in a letter in July published by the Greyhound Owners’ Breeders’ and Trainers’ Association urged supporters to continue to lobby Merton Council. He told them bluntly: “NOW IS THE TIME FOR GREYHOUND PEOPLE TO STAND UP AND BE COUNTED if they believe that Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium is important to the UK and Irish greyhound industries“. Note the way he is appealing (quite legitimately) to breeders and trainers on this side of the Irish Sea. He was also playing the Irish card by saying in an Irish Post interview earlier this month that “many members of the Irish community around South London, and further afield, would be affected if alternative plans by the football club AFC Wimbledon to move back to the club’s former home were granted by Merton Council“. He has also been quite disparaging about our club, referring to AFC Wimbledon as a “Mickey Mouse football team” in an interview in July with the Irish Times.
It should be stated that the AFC Wimbledon pIan has been submitted to the Council in conjunction with Galliard Homes which wants to develop 600 houses. Galliard Homes is a co-owner of the Wimbledon Stadium site with GRA Ltd whose parent company is the investment company Risk Capital. Galliard and the GRA are also at the centre of a row over a proposed housing development to replace the greyhound track at Oxford, which was closed down by the operator at the end of last year and has now been declared by the local Council to have heritage asset status. Paschal Taggart expressed an interest in rescuing the Oxford stadium in February and also indicated his support for a return of speedway, according to the Oxford Mail.
The Plough Lane site has been designated for “sporting intensification” and is the subject of a draft sites and policies document by Merton Council. The document, which outlines planning regulations for all sites in Wimbledon, will be subject to a public inquiry led by an independent inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. A final report will be given in early 2014 at which point the Council will adopt the plan allowing formal applications for the site to be accepted.
Can soccer and greyhounds be combined? My local dog track at Ballyskeagh near Lisburn serves also as a soccer stadium. Lisburn Distillery from the Irish League Belfast Telegraph Championship 1 division have a stand and social club on one side of the ground at what they call New Grosvenor stadium (Distillery FC used to be based in the Grosvenor Road area of Belfast until 1971, so their name and their history has been retained in their new setting from 1980 and in the new title from 1999). The main drawback I found when I attended a Setanta Cup game there against UCD (and I was one of the handful of College supporters present!) was that the pitch seemed quite a distance from the spectators, because of the width of the dog track. There is a similar situation at the Brandywell where Derry City (a former club of Wimbledon legend Eddie Reynolds) play in the Airtricity League of Ireland.
If you go to the dogs, you enter Drumbo Park and can have the benefit of all the bar and restaurant facilities in the purpose-built stand, opened in 2008. I have not yet been there but maybe I will get the chance to take a look at the set-up in the near future. The whole ground can accommodate 8,000. This article from Wikipedia gives a description of how the two sporting interests go about their business almost in separate worlds but using the same plot of land:-
“The two organisations …co-exist on an icy basis of minimal co-operation and do not offer their facilities to each other’s events or co-operate in offering spectator packages for combined events. Indeed Drumbo Park has placed a dress code ban on the wearing of football related clothing in its stand. The nature of the two markets the Football Club and Greyhound Stadium are aiming at is also quite different. New Grosvenor Stadium is aimed at the traditional football fan and promotes itself as a family day out to the local Lisburn market whereas Drumbo Park caters for the hen party, stag night, office party and couples night out market aiming its advertising at the whole of the UK and Ireland. Both operators recognise that there is little cross-over in their respective markets and as a result have made no attempt to offer combined marketing packages.
There is only minimal infringement by one organisation’s events over the other’s as Greyhound racing is traditionally an evening event while Football is traditionally reserved for afternoons. Drumbo Park are restricted however to hosting meetings on Thursday-Saturday evenings only as Lisburn Distillery play many evening fixtures on Tuesdays and Wednesdays while the Irish League also occasionally stage Monday night games for television purposes, though, as of 2010, Lisburn have yet to feature in a live Monday night game. Conversely Lisburn Distillery have been unable to try out a switch to Friday evening Football as some other Irish League teams have done in a bid to increase attendances owing to the Greyhound Friday night meet.”
I write this as a season ticket holder and a founder member of AFC Wimbledon in 2002 via the Dons Trust, when the club started off in the Combined Counties League.