The story of AFC Wimbledon is one that many Americans won't know, but on the…
Groundhopping at AFC Wimbledon Plough Lane
Even if you didn’t know the amazing backstory of AFC Wimbledon, seeing a game at Plough Lane would be a great introduction to watching soccer in London.
Greater London is really a sea of neighborhoods, little clusters of houses and shops and parks arranged near train and Underground stations, and it seems every one has a football club. Wimbledon — an area better known of course for other, more genteel sporting endeavors — is no exception.
What makes Wimbledon interesting as a club and a neighborhood is its combination of inspiring history, friendly atmosphere and cool neighborhood. Here’s what it’s like to see a game at AFC Wimbledon.
AFC Wimbledon History
The short version is this: There was a Wimbledon FC, known as the Dons or Wombles (for a children’s book character) who played at Plough Lane in Wimbledon. Their owner ran into financial problems and wanted a new stadium, but he couldn’t work it out, so he moved the team to Milton Keynes, which is known as a “New Town” because it was built from scratch after World War II. He renamed them MK Dons, and they continue playing to this day.
Americans may think, yeah, that happens. But in England it never happens — before or since, really. Move to another ground or part of town, sure. But move to another city and change names? “Horrified” is a good word for the general reaction.
So Wimbledon fans did something great: they started a new club, AFC Wimbledon, which they mostly own. It’s one of many so-called “phoenix clubs” to have risen from the ashes of previous clubs, usually ones that went out of business. Hence the new club logo:
That club started in the ninth tier of English football (here’s a guide to all the leagues and cups of England) and played their way up, making a new home in a nearby part of town called Kingston-Upon-Thames. That ground, Kingsmeadow, is now the home of Chelsea’s women’s team.
In 2016 they got promoted to League One, the third tier, where they remained until 2022 when they were relegated back to League Two. But what’s really cool is they built themselves a new stadium of their own — at Plough Lane in Wimbledon! It opened in 2021, and it’s where our groundhop occurred in October of that year.
Pregame at AFC Wimbledon
We got there via the Underground to Tooting Broadway, where you emerge into one of those typical London “high streets” filled with shops, cafes, pubs, traffic and people. In many ways it’s a perfectly normal place, but there are a few things you should check out before or after the game.
Two of them are markets, Tooting Market and Broadway Market, each of which I assume used to be filled with shopping stalls selling household wares, groceries, etc. Now they are mostly filled with restaurants and bars: your basic food court on hipster steroids. A few images, some including those great faces of people looking at me and thinking, “Why is that guy taking a picture?”
I also highly recommend a restaurant called Lahore Karahi, a Pakistani place in Tooting which has ridiculous biryanis.
Plough Lane, AFC Wimbledon’s Stadium
One great thing about Wimbledon’s new stadium is that it is tucked right into the neighborhood. In fact, the housing right around it was part of the development, so while it’s all very new — and perhaps a little eastern-bloc in its architecture, as many have noted — it couldn’t be more convenient and cozy.
Here’s the first view of the ground we had after walking over from the stadium; I would have taken more shots, but by this time a great English groundhopping tradition was underway; it was positively pouring rain!
Inside, it’s equally cozy, especially when it’s filled with boisterous home fans who are still pumped up about playing here at all — never mind the result. They’ve been nearly selling out every game, as well!
The interior definitely has the vibe of a new home. We thought it was funny, and maybe a little disappointing, the club didn’t take the chance to have better food or — crazy idea, I know — enough counter space for people to eat and drink on the concourse. I saw one guy with his meal on top of a rubbish bin!
They do get credit for having reusable beer cups, anyway.
The away end on this day wasn’t so full, as the visitors, Burton Albion, don’t have a huge following anyway. And it’s a decent trip to London from up there.
Another example of the coziness at Plough Lane: the media section is right among the seats! I took this shot on the way to my seats, and I can only assume the neighbors can hear the commentary.
Here’s a taste of the pregame atmosphere. See if you can pick up on the song — and now you know why they play it.
Our AFC Wimbledon Fixture
The game itself was a mixed bag. Burton looked a better team, which the table bore out, but their only goal was from a terrible Wimbledon mistake. They led, 1-0, for most of the second half before the home side got an equalizer in the 89th minute, leading to the one really big cheer of the day.
I get the sense the Wimbledon fans are still just happy to be there and playing in League One, though I’m sure they’d like to move up. One of them, a friend of mine named Carrie who grew up a Wimbledon fan, brought her scarf from the 1988 FA Cup win and kept chanting “Plough Lane! Plough Lane!”
— Carrie Quinlan (@quinlan_carrie) October 3, 2021
For me, it was all about catching up with friends and seeing my first English game in person since before the pandemic. And sporting my Timbers gear, of course.
Here are the official highlights from Wimbledon’s YouTube channel:
Groundhopping at AFC Wimbledon Plough Lane: A Video Guide
So, a draw in the rain, with a pub burger before, tea at halftime and biryani after, and seeing friends without worrying too much about the result? It’s what football is all about for us groundhopping neutrals.
And if you’re in London, wanting to see some football without breaking the bank at one of the big Premier League clubs, get on out to Plough Lane to enjoy a fun and friendly club and be part of a really amazing story.