Hugs all round as Councillors vote for Dons to come home
Journalist and lifelong AFC Wimbledon fan Rob Crane, who writes Dons' match reports for www.wimbledonsw19.com, was at Morden Civic Centre for Thursday's historic planning meeting. Here's his account of the evening:
Casual visitors to Merton Civic Centre might well walk past without noticing the small display of football memorabilia located just inside its library. It’s a display created as a consequence of the 2008 accord that saw the entity known as Milton Keynes Dons hand back the Wimbledon FC patrimony that had, in somewhat notorious circumstances, fallen into its possession.
But if the uninitiated passer-by were to stop and take a peek, they might be surprised to see one bizarre item nestled in amongst the trinkets and pennants. Proudly displayed between the match ball from the club’s first Football League game in 1977 and a silver model windmill – made from Dutch silver and presented to the club during a tournament in Amsterdam in 1930 – is a framed small piece of wood, covered in slightly peeling blue paint.
It’s symbolic of the spell that football grounds hold over aficionados of the sport that this small scrap of Wimbledon’s former ground at Plough Lane should be kept in such exalted company. And it was perhaps therefore fitting that on Thursday night, just a short distance away from this display, councillors were meeting to decide the club’s planning application to build a new stadium back on Plough Lane.
Planning committee meetings don’t usually attract much public attention, but this one was different. Since the day that Wimbledon left Plough Lane in 1991, via exile at first Selhurst Park and then Kingsmeadow, it has been a burning ambition of the club’s supporters to return to the area they represent. Add in the events surrounding the Milton Keynes move in 2002, and this was a planning application that had caught the interest not just of supporters and local residents but, as the explosion of #BringTheDonsHome tweets was to show, the wider footballing world too.
Fifty lucky Wimbledon fans were able to access the public gallery, the first having arrived over two hours before the doors opened in order to bag their seat. Others watched a live relay that was shown on a big screen in the Civic Centre foyer. Hundreds more watched the same feed on the internet, among them exiled fans in far-flung corners of the globe.
The council chamber itself was equally packed, with council officials taking the unusual step of producing a seating plan to ensure that everyone could squeeze in. Despite it being panto season, thankfully the two sides of objectors and supporters maintained civilised relationships.
It had been a marathon, not a sprint, since the club submitted its original planning application a year ago, and that determination to give everything a thorough hearing was again in evidence on the night. When committee chair Linda Kirby kicked off proceedings at 7.15 pm, those accustomed to local government meetings settled back into their seats, settling down for the long haul.
And they were right to do so. First Merton planning officer Neil Milligan ran through the proposal, summarising a mammoth 490-page document that had been sent to councillors the week before. Then objectors had three minutes each to summarise their reasons, going over familiar concerns regarding transport, flood risk and the intensity of the development. Unusually, the objectors included a councillor from nearby Wandsworth, ‘playing away from home’, who also expressed his concerns about the development.
But then it was the turn of AFC Wimbledon and Galliard Homes to state their case. The first ripples of polite applause emanated from the public gallery as club chief executive Erik Samuelson, Kay Skelton from the AFC Wimbledon Foundation and Southfields Academy chief Jacqui Valin were amongst those who outlined the community benefits that the club could bring.
Ninety minutes into the meeting – the same length of time as a football match – but we were still only warming up. Now was the time for planning committee councillors to ask their questions as they went through the planning report section by section. Attention in the public gallery wavered as prosaic matters such as refuse collection arrangements were discussed, with some observers keeping themselves entertained by turning to Twitter to read the many humorous observations about the meeting’s progress.
In contrast, the members of the Dons Trust Board who were sat in the chamber were listening like hawks, trying to divine the mood of the meeting by interpreting the nature of the councillors’ questions and extrapolating them into a likely vote for or against.
At 10.05 pm the councillors’ questions finished. Those in the public gallery shuffled up in their seats with renewed interest: was it time for the vote? Not yet: we still had to hear the councillors’ comments. But now for the first time encouraging snippets began to emerge: the councillors were still holding their cards close to their chest, but a pattern of heartening phrases began to emerge.
Then suddenly, over three hours after the meeting began, we were there: Linda Kirby called for the vote. Those for? From the back of the public gallery, frustrating glimpses of arms in the air could be seen, but were there enough of them to gain approval? Then a magic word came from Councillor Kirby’s lips: unanimous. All 12 councillors had voted in favour.
The public gallery erupted into applause. Club representatives in the council chamber leapt into the air to hug each other. A pair of greyhound-racing enthusiasts stomped out from the gallery, making sure their mutterings about brown envelopes were just loud enough to be heard.
As the poor planning committee prepared to carry on working its way through the remaining items on its agenda, Wimbledon fans gathered in the foyer downstairs, celebrating with each other and exchanging joyous hugs and handshakes. Then came more applause as mild-mannered Erik Samuelson came down to join them after finishing the first of a sequence of media interviews, posing for photographs with all and sundry.
For many it was the start of an evening of alcoholic celebration. Others will have been sobered by the knowledge that there are still hurdles to be overcome, with both the Environment Secretary and the Mayor of London capable of calling in the plans for further consideration.
But 24 years after their last game at Plough Lane, all were united by the knowledge of one thing: the Dons are finally coming home.
By Rob Crane
December 12, 2015