Dons Icons #2 – Show Me The Way To Plough Lane

Ah, Plough Lane! If a certain chairman hadn’t bought out the covenant from Merton Council, then sold the place for a massive personal profit, before holing us up on the other side of South London at his mates gaff before spending the best part of a decade telling everyone he was going to build a new stadium, only it turns out he never actually tried to build a new stadium, but all the while he had been lying to us to the point the fire brigade had been called to extinguish his pants so often he had the local station on speed dial… well if none of that had happened there would still be a Plough Lane for us today.

That covenant business still pisses me off. I mean what’s the point in having one on a piece of land if someone can come along at any moment and simply buy it up. Sam the Sham spent most of the nineties blaming the council when it wasn’t their fault at all, however ultimately I do still blame the council because if they really supported Sam idea to build a new stadium in Merton, be it at Wandle Valley or wherever, why didn’t they say ‘Ok Sam, we appreciate the situation the club is in, we’ll waive the covenant the day Wimbledon play their first game in the new stadium.

Of course, Sam would have wailed about the need for developing the ground, and how our parents the council have stabbed us in the back to our faces, and it is divorce, and blah blah. But without the possibility of a quick buck, Sam would have to have earned his money. With the Premier League cash starting to pour in, we would have eventually been forced to redevelop Plough Lane into a Premier League suitable stadium.

Sam Hammam knew which side his bread was buttered on, and when I say ‘bread’ I of course mean money, and you can also substitute the word ‘buttered’ for ’money’ as well. In fact remove the words ‘knew which side his’ and change them to ‘cares about is’. And add the word ‘All’ to the beginning. Now change the rest of the words to ‘money’ as well. So what I really meant to say was ‘All Sam Hammam cares about is money money money money’. Sam considers himself to be ‘the father of AFC Wimbledon’ by the way. Well, if you ever read this Sam, your not. What are you going to do now, start crying again?

We were just a simple fan base back then. Perhaps we thought our simple club had nothing worth exploiting? That we were so humble and insignificant the sharks would go for the bigger fish first? Either way, if you had told someone that our little ground stood on land worth £8m, and shortly our club will receive millions every year just for entering our league, you would have been laughed out of town. As many a wiser man has said before me, if we knew what we know back then, things would have turned out very differently.

Plough Lane would be a different stadium now if we had remained. Even if the worse case scenario had happened and we had plunged from the Premier League at first attempt, that wouldn’t have been so bad. We might have hopped between what is now League 1 and the Championship for a few years, but we would at least have been able to build a local fan base during the football boom. New stands would have been built, but gradually, so the place still felt like home.

But this article was not intended to be a ‘what if…’ more a ‘what was…’ I just want to recount my memories of the place. My dad, a Fulham supporter, had naturally taken me to see my first football match at Craven Cottage against Hull, and several times after. Most noticeable were night games where I remember the pitch almost luminous green under floodlights with a huge camber when viewed from pitch level, and the crowd sparse in what was a comparatively large ground.

He also took me to games at Brentford (hidden behind the houses), Chelsea (all crumbling terraces or seats in terrifyingly high stands) and Crystal Palace (where everyone seemed to be very angry about something…). We went to QPR as well, which felt all American, with the goalies wearing ‘American Football trousers’ and the ball bouncing really, really high like it did when I booted it in the air in the playground.

He even took me to Richmond Road to see Kingstonian play a friendly against a Fulham reserve team. It seemed a dingy and unwelcoming place, the big old wooden stand creaking beneath us. Kingstonian FC weren’t the team for me, in fact none of them were. I had been taken to Plough Lane before when I was much younger but hadn’t been able to remembered it, yet as a seven year old I knew well who Wimbledon FC were.

Their results were read out on World of Sport and Grandstand for a start. As well as that, our local paper ‘The Surrey Comet’ had Wimbledon reports in its giant pages, in the special sports section that came with it where I read my neighbours Little League reports. They must have been local, as the bus went to Wimbledon, they didn’t go to Fulham, or Chelsea, or Crystal Palace. I had asked my dad to take me, but he worked weekends and could only take me to evening games. Eventually one came along, against Shrewsbury Town.

My dad must have feared the worst, as he took me in the away end, which was just a big hill to me. It smelled of a damp pitch, and the river behind us, and the stuff footballers rubbed on their legs. The ground lay in front of me, the home end where the noise came from, but I also remember wondering why the stand to my left wasn’t open, except for the small terrace running across the front of it. I remember being quite disappointed we couldn’t stand with the rest of the crowd.

I stood at the front behind the goal, unashamedly cheering when Wimbledon scored (as presumably my dad stood ten feet behind me pretending he didn’t know me!). It hardly mattered, the fifty or so Shrewsbury fans seemed more preoccupied by their own teams’ performance. When I read the book ‘Steaming In’ ten years later I took great delight in the fact I had, as a seven year old, ‘taken’ the Shrewsbury end that night!

My dad had given me fifty pence to buy crisps and a drink, but the man walking round with the tray hadn’t spotted me the first time round, so I spent ten minutes fiddling with the coin waiting for me to come back round. Of course I dropped it onto the warm-up track, and try as I might couldn’t quite reach it. Eventually (and this is probably what sealed in my mind I would become a Wimbledon fan) a boy my age in a tracksuit walked round. I didn’t point it out to him because I thought he might pick it up and steal it (that’s what we would do round our way!), so I hoped he would walk past without noticing. To my horror he stopped and picked it up, but shocked me by turning to me and asking if it was mine, then giving it back to me!

We were still going to watch Fulham more often than Wimbledon – in fact as my neighbours were Chelsea fans and unhindered by working Saturdays I was probably watching Chelsea more than I was Wimbledon, as they occasionally took me along as well! Picking up bits of vegetable at the bottom of the Shed and throwing them at each other was about the only fun to be had there – I could barely see the action on the field miles in front of me, mainly because some fools thought it was a great place to park their car – so there was no way I would support a team stupid enough to put their car park inside the ground!

Eventually Wimbledon were due to play Fulham, and I had been fence-sitting slightly at school, proclaiming myself a Wimbledon fan but lauding Fulham, mainly to remain popular with the couple of Fulham fans there. One of my other school friends told me to choose one or the other, and it was always going to be Wimbledon (back then I led, I didn’t follow!). The game finished 1-1, but that was it, I had nailed my colours to the mast. Forever more Wimbledon FC would be my team. There was just one problem – my dad.

I remember when for some reason one night before dinner I announced that I was a Wimbledon fan. My dad said ‘Naaaahhhh’ (in the same way he would if I had accidentally broken something, stretching the word out really long, but not in a threatening manner). I thought he wouldn’t be pleased with me. Instead, he calmly asked me why I wanted to support Wimbledon, and I remember sputtering out something about ‘just wanting to’. My mum then whispered to him so I couldn’t hear (but could!) that ‘he can support Wimbledon if that’s what he wants’. To be fair to my dad he took it pretty well as any good father should (although I may have some difficulty accepting any potential offspring of mine choosing an English team that isn’t AFCW!).

We went to Wimbledon, and we went to Fulham. We went to football, as dad and son. And my dad even came to love the Dons (never as much as Fulham of course…), even the time a Dons fan trod on his foot at an FA Cup replay at Everton when there must have been about 80 of us in the huge away section. It must have been my funniest moment in football – my dad laughing ‘This wankers trod on my foot when there’s all this space!’ while the guy carried on chatting to his mates like nothing ever happened! I told him – we don’t really care for our personal space that much at Wimbledon!

Its at this point I would like to make a public appeal, so important that I need to flag it up in bold –

An important appeal by the Anonymous Don! Please read! Even if it’s the only bit you do read!!!

As previously stated, my memory of the time I became a Dons fan is a bit fuzzy. At the moment I have the Shrewsbury game as an arbitrary date. I have another game from around the same time at Plough Lane that I remember just as clearly – but it may have been before or after the Shrewsbury game of ’85 (perhaps May ’85?)

It was a West London Cup match, an end of season trophy competed between Wimbledon and Fulham. Naturally my dad took us in the away end, though there were a few Fulham fans in attendance and perhaps a thousand or so Dons fans. Anyway, it absolutely pissed it down, torrential style – like you see on footage of a Miami hurricane (but without the wind…). As the Main Stand was mostly empty, the Wimbledon stewards led the Fulham fans around the pitch to the dry seats.

I remember the rain clearing in the second half, and Wimbledon winning the game 4-3. More importantly I gave my dad some grief about Wimbledon beating Fulham meaning if it was before March ’85, I can re-date my first game as a Dons fan and perhaps find a programme if indeed one was even produced. At the end of the game the supporters were invited onto the pitch to see the trophy presented in the Main Stand (for which I cheered when the Wimbledon captain held the cup aloft!), then me and a friend wanted to play football on the pitch, didn’t have a ball so had to make do without one.

He hit an imaginary shot low towards my left corner that I dived full stretch to divert the imaginary ball past the quite real post at the Wandle End (although my friend claims it actually went in – so if you can help with this dispute as well you would be a legend!). If you have any further information if you could let me know via the usual channels that would be great! Thanks in advance!

Appeal over… Article continues below…

Later visits saw me enter the home end turnstiles, where as well as the familiar smells from before, I found a peculiar mix of piss and burgers, which took a while to get used to. I also noticed the little passage under the South Stand, always wondering what was down there… We rarely turned left onto the West Bank, we would stay where we were or turn right, pay extra, and go onto the South Stand Enclosure. The terrace wasn’t high here; it was concrete steps filled in with ‘cinder’ (or dirt as I explained to schoolmates later) as were the terracing in the corners and the lower part of the West Bank.

From here I got a much better view of the grounds most obvious feature (which wasn’t actually in the ground) – the electricity pylon. It was almost twice the size of the floodlight in that corner, but my young mind, oblivious to the danger, always wondered what it would be like to watch a game from the top – although as I had almost soiled myself in the upper tier of the East Stand at Stamford Bridge I doubt I would have enjoyed it! (As an aside I did get a fantastic view from those vertigo inducing seats at Stamford Bridge of Eddie Niedzwiecki losing the ball for Michael Robinson to score the decisive QPR goal from the half way line in a League Cup match there during the 80’s).

I always wondered whether footballers back then might have occasionally played the old electricity pylon trick I would later pull on slower minded teammates of my own. I can imagine it now, you know the one, it goes as follows – the chief tormenter (probably Wally Downes if the Dons ever did it) goes up to the young apprentice about to make his debut and points at it and says ‘What’s that thing over there behind the floodlight?’ Meanwhile teammates are creeping slowly towards the victim, who at this stage will be totally confused and ask what he’s talking about. ‘You know, over there. The electricity thing’ and the youth will say ‘Pylon?’ at which point all his team mates bundle him shouting ‘All Pile On!’ No?

I had picked a fantastic time to become a Wimbledon fan. Before too long we were challenging at the top of Division Two. I had started to explore the ground more. We had gone round to visit the club shop, where I sorted through old kit in cardboard boxes looking for bargains I was occasionally allowed to buy. Fashanu came, and we were up. The ground was to look a little different in our first season in the top flight. Well, loads of concrete had been dumped at the top of the Wandle End, to enable more visiting fans in.

And that was about it as far as preparations for Division One were concerned. The South Stand reopened as well, and a few coppers were now regularly positioned at the back of the West Bank, but that was it! You could imagine how much Liverpool and Spurs fans hated it that year (not Chelsea fans though – they had been relegated!). My regular space had become the corner of terracing between the South Stand and the West Bank – in front of the toilets. I remained in that position, or on the right side of the West Bank, until the ground closed.

My favourite memories had to be the three games before the cup final, where we had to go to get our vouchers for Cup Final tickets. In 1974/5 my dad had been to every Fulham home game that season, yet couldn’t get a ticket to the Cup Final, and was determined to make sure his son wasn’t going to miss out as well.

There was nothing to play for in those games, yet Wimbledon still took it to their opponents. There was a 2-2 draw with Chelsea, but before that an electrifying 2-2 draw with Portsmouth under the lights. I missed not only the goal, but also a clash between Fashanu and the Portsmouth goalkeeper that led to him being stretchered off (Not Fashanu, obviously!), as we were stuck in a gargantuan queue at the turnstiles. Obviously as a Dons fan around that time, especially a young fan, that was the best bit missed as far as I was concerned!

In the last couple of seasons I became old enough to travel to Plough Lane with a friend. We took the train, as it was just as cheap for youths like us, and quicker than the 131 or 57. We would walk from Wimbledon station, or if we felt lazy get the train to Haydons Road. I would buy a programme from the guy outside the newsagents, and would read it when we occasionally got there so early the turnstiles hadn’t opened yet. Then it was out front to the terraces.

The proximity to the gents was always useful for me, as I occasionally got over excited before matches and had to squeeze a few drops out before the game began, so not to miss any action. I remember after one Ribena-fest before a game against Sunderland I had to go seven times in the hour before kick-off alone! A record, surely! Perhaps only matched by an elderly gent who was on the same piss cycle as me…

Eventually it became the norm for me to go on my own when my friend couldn’t make it, which I suppose what makes me bad company at games and led to me becoming ‘The Anonymous Don’ I am now. I became focussed on the game itself, rather than chatting to people around me. That was to be the last season of first team action at Plough Lane. I didn’t go to the last game against Palace. Perhaps if I had known then… I mean there were rumours, but my immature mind just thought ground shares and mergers were the stuff of fiction. It had been mentioned so often, but never happened, so I though we were immune.

My last game at Plough Lane was a reserve team fixture, on the afternoon of a League Cup tie with someone (perhaps the Liverpool airplanes game?). I know we won 4-0, I can’t remember who we played, but I remember Peter Fear sat in front of us. The ground was a shell by then. Everything that could be removed and sold had been. Without supporters in, there was nothing there. We made that place special, or as far as I’m concerned, you made it special. Everyone who ever visited the old place. For some reason while I write this the Placebo song ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ has popped into my head, which seems pretty apt.

For all of you who didn’t visit and were perhaps disappointed I didn’t describe the turnstiles or crush barriers in minute detail, I’m sorry. It did, you may be interested to hear, have a cantilevered cover over the West Bank (it had no roof supports to get in the way). I appreciate the cover at Kingsmeadow is the same, but it was novel when first erected. Sidney Black built it for us…

The prospect of someday moving back to Plough Lane, albeit across the Wandle, is incredibly appealing. I almost don’t want to think of it, for fear I may allow unrealistic dreams to run wild in my head. We have all been hurt before. Lets do our very best to make this happen, but if it doesn’t, make the move elsewhere, and take it with us in our heads.

For it still exists, in my mind. It is safe there, and can never be torn down. Plough Lane was special because of the people, the memories, and our history. As a ground it was neither a shithole or glorious, though probably closer to the former. But because of what our club made of it, it is legendary, and will be ever more. 

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