• By Yann Tear

Today, AFC Wimbledon will prove Lawrie Sanchez wrong as they prepare for return to spiritual home

Seldom will a result matter less.

This week, this night, is all about the historical implication. The context. The realisation of a seemingly impossible dream.

Officially, it is AFC Wimbledon’s first ever match in their new home at Plough Lane – against Doncaster Rovers, lest we forget. But of course, it is so much more than that.

Several years ago, I spoke to Lawrie Sanchez when he was boss of Fulham, about his old club.

Scorer of the most famous goal in Wimbledon history when the Crazy Gang defeated Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final at Wembley, Sanchez made a rather disappointing admission when I asked whether the soul of the Dons lay in the new location at Milton Keynes or with the newly formed AFC Wimbledon setting out at the bottom of the football pyramid.

He said, more in sadness than anything else, that he would probably have to look to the newly relocated Wimbledon as the carriers of the flame – the place where, henceforth, he would turn to when thinking of the club’s gloriously insane past.

In reality, he was probably thinking it just too fanciful that this Phoenix being re-assembled by a few diehard fans could ever truly rise from the ashes to reclaim its rightful place in the league. That it would probably wither on the vine as a project.

It will forever rankle that the club’s identity was stolen and its league position usurped by the entity which became MK Dons. The derided ‘franchise’ they do not even want to recognise by naming, not even in casual conversation.

It is the scandal that has always driven the club’s supporters to find a way back. To find justice, however long it took.

Eighteen years ago, the new Wimbledon started out in tier nine. Even by the standards of a club with such famously humble Southern League roots, Combined Counties football appeared to be a world from which there could be no fairytale escape.

And yet, here we are. Blood, sweat, tears and six promotions – helped along the way by players and supporters who would die for the cause - Wimbledon have not only risen up to League One, but have also achieved the second of the seemingly impossible aims they had in reforming: a return to holy ground.

The former Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium which was next door to the old Plough Lane, is the space now developed into a tidy fit-for-purpose arena for 9,300 spectators, thanks to the generosity of fans signing up to a bond scheme.

Much as they succeeded in making their groundshare at Kingsmeadow (in Kingston) feel like home for a good many years, the desire to one day return to their spiritual home in Merton has always been there.

Today, that dream has been realised as they return, not only to the borough, but to Plough Lane itself. Their home from First Division days before they had to move on in 1991 and play on at Selhurst Park because the Taylor report – in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy – demanded all-seater stadia in the top divisions. 

Living round the corner at Worple Road, I saw many top-flight games there. I remember seeing them thrash a Gary Lineker-led Spurs 5-1. The well-healed clubs hated it. The spit-and-sawdust setting created a special bond between players and fans that has transcended the passing of time.

It will be emotional for me going back and I am not even a fan. It will feel a million times more special for the supporters who have made it happen, once they get the opportunity they deserve to be there in person.

The wretched Covid crisis has deprived them of the chance to be there on this special day, but they have been patient and steadfast in making the dream come true, so their moment will come.

“This feels like a milestone rather than a celebration,” said Charlie Talbot, a co-creator of the bond to get the stadium built. “The journey isn’t really complete until all the fans can be there and celebrate what we have all achieved.”

Hopefully, at some point, Sanchez can come along to see for himself the legacy of his crowning moment for the amazing Wombles.