Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten - Plough Lane

This week's trip down Memory Lane sees us visit Plough Lane with Natter Football. You can follow him on Twitter @natterfootball
 
Nostalgia tends to distort and glamorise, of course. That’s particularly true, I suspect, when much-loved but now departed football grounds are ‘revisited’ in the mind. Memories, vivid and half-baked alike, come flooding back against a backdrop of stands and terracing that reached up into the sky (always packed, of course) , of a greener than green pitch, tasty food and toilets that never leaked.
And there’s Plough Lane, the home of Wimbledon Football Club for 79 years, and my spiritual home for a small part of that time. No matter what tricks nostalgia tries to play on me, there’s no avoiding the bitter truth: Plough Lane was an absolute dump.
Happy days at Plough Lane
Mind you, when I first came across Wimbledon FC our ground was revered by home fans and visitors alike. But in those days we were giants of the non-league world, dominating the amateur Isthmian League and later the semi-professional Southern League.  With two, seated stands, terracing at both ends and with crowds of 3-4,000 most weeks, Plough Lane  was something to be proud of.

But entry into the Football League in 1977 resulted in Plough Lane losing some of the gloss it enjoyed in non-league circles. We became just another pro club with an OK stadium that needed investment to bring it up to standard.
Some improvements were forthcoming (a roof over part of the terracing at the Durnsford Road
end, where the hardcore Dons fans gathered), but spare money was in very short supply so any changes that were made were in the ‘essential repairs’ category, rather than major improvements.
And that’s pretty much how it remained until Wimbledon’s incredible elevation to Division One in 1986. Apart from some new crash barriers, tweaks to the turnstiles , some seats and the obligatory coat of paint – all ‘essential repairs’ -  Plough Lane set out its stall to welcome the gods of the footballing world.
I can still vividly recall our first home match. It was a Tuesday night game against former European Champions, Aston Villa. We won 2-0. And Plough Lane erupted with noise generated by a disappointingly small crowd of 6,366. But what we lacked in numbers, we made up for in passion.
And, as the season unfolded, we welcomed giants such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea  and their massive away support, resulting in sell-out crowds of 16,000 with Plough Lane literally bursting at its seams an hour before kick-off.
But despite the arrival of the big-time game, sell-out crowds and attendant TV cameras,
Plough Lane remained largely unchanged.  The main stand, capacity approximately 2,000, had one ladies’ and one gents’ toilets. The situation of the terraces wasn’t any better. I won’t mention the food because even the thought of it, many years later, still makes me queasy.
 
Plough Lane might have lacked even the basic standards that players and fans of other clubs would regard as essential. But as Wimbledon fans we didn’t give a damn. Sure it was our home, but we also knew that the cramped, uncomfortable, slightly dilapidated surroundings gave us a huge advantage on the field of play.

The stands and terracing were within a couple of feet of the pitch so visiting top players, unused to such an intimidating atmosphere, were often unnerved by the situation. Our boys, with their get at 'em style of play, responded magnificently.
And so the Dons’ dream-like journey in the highest echelons of English football continued culminating, of course, with our greatest-ever result , when in 1988 we beat Liverpool 1-0 to win the FA Cup at Wembley.
But despite our success on the field, the club’s finances came under even more strain as costs continued to exceed income. As a result even the ‘essential repairs’ budget started to look a bit depleted and Plough Lane began to show its age.  Meanwhile club owner Sam Hammam began looking for a new location to hopefully build a bigger, modern stadium, as the cramped site occupied by Plough Lane didn’t allow expansion.
But his efforts were overtaken by the creation of the Premiership and a ruling by the football authorities that all participating clubs must have all-seater grounds with a minimum capacity of 20,000. This ruling signaled the end for Plough Lane and in 1991 the Dons moved to Selhurst Park as tenants of Crystal Palace.
Alan Cork with the FA Cup at Plough Lane
Wimbledon remained, unhappily, at Selhurst Park until 2003 when, following relegation to the Championship and a change of ownership, the owners of the Dons were allowed by the FA to move the club almost 100 miles away to Milton Keynes, ignoring a raft of seemingly water-tight regulations controlling the location of League clubs.  Eventually Wimbledon Football Club was re-named Milton Keynes Dons. This was the first and remains to-date the only instance of franchising in British football.
On a happier note, the theft of Wimbledon Football Club galvanized us Dons fans into action so we formed our own club, AFC Wimbledon. Today we stand on the brink of promotion to the Football League. But that, as they say, is another story.
So what of Plough Lane today?  Where Fashanu, Jones, Beasant, Sanchez, Wise and the other members of the notorious Crazy Gang used to thrill the faithful, now stands a huge, ugly block of flats. No doubt the anonymous development is regarded warmly as ‘home’ by residents, just as the old decrepit, cramped Plough Lane was very much home to the fans of Wimbledon Football Club.
But I doubt if the flat dwellers have the faintest idea that the foundations, on which their homes are built, once bore witness to one of the truly great Cinderella stories in British football history, although I’d like to think that, as they sun themselves on their verandas, across the breeze comes the occasional faint “Come on the Dons’ chant as a respectful reminder of what went before.
Last Gone But Not Forgotten: Highbury, Arsenal

1 comment:

Nick said...

great article mate. My first game was also against Villa, but in the 88/89 season.

Fond memories of Plough lane, like you say it was a fantastic non-league stadium.... which suddenly looked crap and tiny when compared to Highbury or Upton Park as we ascended into the top divisions in just a few years.

AFCW till I die