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)





Old SW19 road sign from the days of Wimbledon FC

Old SW19 road sign from the days of Wimbledon FC

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.

Plough Lane Gates Photo: CC Licence Wiki

Plough Lane Gates Photo: Cliftonian via Wiki CC Licence

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.

Wimbledon FC Crest

Wimbledon FC Crest

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.

Sam Hammam Photo: © Glenn Copus / Evening Standard /Rex Features

Sam Hammam Photo: © Glenn Copus / Evening Standard /Rex Features

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.

Chief Executive AFC Wimbledon Erik Samuelson Photo: ©  Michael Fisher

Chief Executive AFC Wimbledon Erik Samuelson Photo: © Michael Fisher

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.

Sketches for a new greyhound track at Wimbledon Picture: Irish Post

Sketches for a new greyhound track at Wimbledon Picture: Irish Post

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 Photo: Irish Post

Paschal Taggart Photo: Irish Post

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.

New Grosvenor Stadium looking across towards greyhound side Photo: © Michael Fisher

New Grosvenor Stadium looking across towards greyhound side Photo: © Michael Fisher

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.