There may be something romantic about the fact I decided to forego West Ham's latest home game and head to AFC Wimbledon. They could be seen as polar opposites as far as clubs are concerned, and Kingsmeadow is a world away from the London Stadium - as most grounds are. I had metaphorical birds to kill, however, and a stone gripped firmly in my hand. I had two London League clubs left to visit. One of them, Chelsea, was booked in for the end of the month. The Dons were the only other one left. The Dons received planning permission for a new stadium close to their spiritual home of Plough Lane and plan to leave Kingsmeadow in 2019. It may not be their home for much longer, so I had to pay this famous, intriguing club a visit.
Competition: League One
Refreshments: £8.30 (burger, tea and Mars bar)
Star man: Lyle Taylor
Who are ya, Wimbledon?
AFC Wimbledon was founded in 2002 after the original Wimbledon were relocated to Milton Keynes. After the move, a group of fans met in a pub on Wimbledon Common and formulated a plan to resurrect their club. The idea was put to the independent supporters association and an appeal for funds was launched. In a matter of weeks a manager, kit and badge were unveiled to nervous fans and a fascinated media. The new club held trials for new players on Wimbledon Common just over a month after the old one had been relocated.
AFC entered the Combined Counties League and were promoted in their second season. They won Division One of the Isthmian League at the first attempt and were promoted from the Isthmian Premier three seasons later. They won the Conference South in one year and took just another two to finish second in the National League and gain promotion to the Football League. In just nine seasons the new Wimbledon had repeated the achievement of the old club and won promotion from non-league into the Football League. After five seasons in League Two the Dons were promoted into League One via the playoffs.
AFC agreed on a groundshare with Kingstonian after they were founded. Kingstonian were in financial trouble and Wimbledon’s eventual purchase of the ground helped ensure both clubs had a permanent home. Permission for AFC’s new stadium, on the site of the old Wimbledon dog track, was granted in 2015. They then sold Kingsmeadow to Chelsea who currently use it for their women's and youth teams. The Dons can also play there until their new ground is ready.
- AFC Wimbledon hold the record for the longest unbeaten run in English Senior Football. They went 78 league games without a defeat between February 2003 and December 2004.
- The Dons were the first Football Club to be presented with a Prime Minister’s Big Society Award for their community programmes.
- AFC’s promotion in 2016 meant they were playing in the same League as the successors to the original Wimbledon, MK Dons, for the first time in their history.
AFC had only lost one of their last five league games, a 2-1 away defeat to Portsmouth. They’d won their last two home games against Bradford and Southend but were sitting in the relegation zone. A win against today’s visitors Blackpool could potentially move them out of the bottom four.
Blackpool were six places and five points above Wimbledon, although they had played two games more. They’d only won one of their last five games, away at Rochdale. Blackpool won the previous meeting between the two sides at Bloomfield Road. A 1-0 win in September.
The AFC Wimbledon experience
Train: Norbiton is the closest station to Kingsmeadow. It can be reached from London Waterloo in 30 minutes. Exit the station onto Norbiton Avenue and follow the road onto Gloucester Road. Turn right and then left onto the A2043. Follow the road to the ground.
Car: There is a car park at Kingsmeadow but it tends to fill up, so you’d need to arrive fairly early. The ground can be reached by exiting the A3 at New Maldon and following the A2043.
There is a strong connection between the fans and the club at Wimbledon, as you’d expect from a fan-owned club with non-league roots. The supporters group, The Dons Trust, own the majority share in the club and have pledged to maintain it at a minimum of 75%. You'd know AFC Wimbledon was a club with deep roots in its community even if you were unaware of the club's short, eventful history. You can feel it as soon as you pass under the distinctive archway.
The matchday programme, always a window into a club's culture, reminds fans that the club has been collecting donations for the Wimbledon foodbank and features several interesting columns. In one Erik Samuelson, the Chief Executive raises the alarm on the increasing amount of unregulated intermediaries around Football League clubs and the dangers they pose to the club's young players. Academy Head of Football Mark Robinson also features and discusses the educational programme the club puts on for its academy players. They aim to enable young footballers to effectively assess the challenges that lay ahead in their chosen career.
On my visit, I picked up my ticket from the white ticket booth. It wasn't immediately clear where to go next. Away fans seemed to go left while everyone else headed right. I followed the rest all the way over to the far corner of the ground. Kingsmeadow's non-league roots became clear as I had to walk around the terraced area to my section. The ground has a 50/50 split as one end and side is seated and one is terraced. My ticket was for the Rygas sponsored side, but in reality, I could have stood anywhere. I could have, were it not for the persistent rain which forced most in the standing areas to find their spots early. They sent out the occasional scout to secure tea and snacks.
As I walked through the Chemflow sponsored end to get to the far side there was a clear buzz around the ground. This is something you rarely experience in stadiums where people pile in five minutes before kick off. The home team were warming up in the corner between the two terraced sections and clearly enjoyed the interaction with eager fans looking for shelter or queuing for hot food and drinks. As the players headed back into the dressing rooms the last arrivals shuffled into the final empty spots, and the home crowd found their collective voice. The atmosphere was good throughout the game, aided by a good home performance. The feeling was largely positive considering The Dons' league position, but many fans who still remember the trials and tribulations of the beginning of the century will be happy just to have a team to watch.
New signing seals comfortable win for the Dons
AFC started the game well and tried to put pressure on the visitors. Lyle Taylor provided a threat from the outset and kept the Blackpool defenders on their toes. The visitors began to settle after the early exchanges and had a few promising attacks down the left-hand side. D’Almeida had a few good touches and Vassell held the ball up effectively, as he had done when I saw Blackpool at Peterborough earlier this season.
The home side continued to get their attackers in the game although they didn’t create too many good chances. Abdou had a couple of attempts from outside of the box. One went for a throw-in, and the other would have ended up at Norbiton Station were it not for some netting above the stand. After the break, however, the home side found their shooting boots.
Just as the second half had got underway a ball forward missed Taylor, and his marker, and fell to McDonald. The striker raced through, but his shot was well saved by Lumley. Trotter reacted quickly, got on the end of the rebound and calmly passed the ball into the back of the net. From that point forward AFC took control. Taylor had an attempt soon after to double the lead but was denied by Lumley.
With control established the Dons decided to bring on their new signing. Joe Pigott had arrived from Maidstone United. He didn’t take long to make his mark. He picked up the ball on the right-hand side of the box, swiveled and fired the ball into the far corner of the net with only his second or third touch of the game. It was a dream return to the Football League for the former Charlton player. Wimbledon saw the game out and picked up a deserved win to take them out of the relegation zone.
Although there are clear signs that AFC Wimbledon have become an established Football League club, Kingsmeadow still has a non-league feel and there is a clear connection between the fans and the team. The programme proved to be a great window into the club. So many are just advertising vehicles and stats repositories. The players also seemed comfortable with the fans and the mood was positive, despite The Dons starting the day in the bottom four.
The designs for AFC’s new stadium look great and it’s good to see that the club are starting with a smaller ground with room to expand. I’m sure a lot of people in football will hope the club can match the feats of the original Wimbledon and make it to the top flight. For now, the club have a fight on their hands to remain in League One. It’s a relegation battle that could also feature a certain team from Milton Keynes.