The news this week that Palace are looking to leave Selhurst Park isn’t one that should concern us overly. After all, on the surface of it, it’s another London club simply looking to vacate their increasingly crumbling ground.
Yet the venue has had a major influence on the whole story of Wimbledon. Probably THE most substancial one in the last 30 years.
Those who jumped on the AFCW bandwagon post-2002 won’t ever fully understand why those with longer years of service will still refer to the venue in less than glowing terms. Those 30 and over, who remember the Plough Lane days (and those who do aren’t that old, and certainly have more than a few years left in them yet) will have probably listened to the news this week with a little bit of a wry smile.
In a period where there may well be the first signs of legitimate progress in Merton since 1989, it’s worth commenting about this particular venue on the other side of south London. As usual, these things start off innocently – my own initial visit to Selhurst was on the 26th December 1985 – a rainy Boxing Day, and my first ever away trip to boot.
Even back then, Selhurst was always a bit of an odd place to go. True, the first round of stadia reconstruction along the country hadn’t began to take hold, but it still had a bit of a dilapidated feel to it back then – the Arthur Waite stand had a hole in its roof, and I’m not sure if it was ever repaired.
Actually, now’s a good time to make a confession – when I was seven years old, I had both a WFC and CPFC scarf (actually my brother’s) on my bedroom wall. Then again, I also had a faded Liverpool shirt and a Scotland t-shirt with Kenny Dalglish on it. Fortunately, WFC won out very quickly, as tends to happen with seven year olds.
Anyway, we won 3-1, I thought all away games were like that, and I thought how glad I was that I didn’t have to go there every other week…
Fast forward to 1991. We know what happened then, and there are AFCW fans who only stepped into SE25 on the odd occasion. Plenty boycotted the move, at least initially. To this day, I’m still not sure whether it was leaving Plough Lane to begin with, or the way the whole move was sneaked up on us. Probably both.
Hammam spun the move as having to leave to secure our future, but dealing with Ron Noades is never a straightforward issue. There was an underlying fear/suspicion that the two of them wanted to merge the clubs. We had good reason to suspect that – lest we forget the protests (and a taste of things to come) during the FA Cup televised tie in 1987 against Everton.
Moving because your ground isn’t up to scratch is one thing, but the move in 1991 never got off on the right foot because there was too much distrust on the club’s future. Why else did the WFSC (Wimbledon Football Supporters Club) set up two campaigns, Support Wimbledon In Merton and Supporters Against Merger? The latter having the somewhat ironic acronym of SAM.
Eventually, talk of mergers etc died off, although Hammam did seem to spend every interview between 91 and 95 saying that negotiations with Merton Council were at a “critical stage” and he could say no more about it. These days, he would be taken to task very quickly, but in the pre-internet days he could do what he want and get away with it.
Strangely enough, the side was actually doing quite well, which kind of took the edge off things. Before he lapsed into a carictature of himself, Kinnear had built a strong, resiliant side who had legitimate claims to a European place. We did have some good memories around that time – the penalty shootout against Liverpool with subsequent airplane celebrations. The 4-1 against Blackburn. Our current reserve team manager’s header against United in the FA Cup. Seven Deadly Wins.
Off the pitch, relationships with Merton had broken down, almost beyond repair. How much of that was genuine and how much of that was Hammam hiding his real intentions remains unclear to this day – AFCW currently has a good relationship with LBM, but even so there are still quite a few fans who want to “get at” Merton. Hammam was great at the PR game, and in some people his legacy and ability to spin still lives on.
There was even the odd agitation about actually buying up Selhurst Park for ourselves. Looking back, being successful on the field increased a degree of militancy off it, with regards to the ground. It was around this time that WFSC was collapsing for various reasons (by the end, membership had gone from over 2000 in 89/90 to well under 200) and WISA started up.
Along came Dublin.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Wimbledon at Selhurst was simply about a few ground grumbles before Milton Keynes reared it’s toxic head. Dublin seems almost forgotten, but in the mid-to-late 90s, it was almost as big a threat to our existance as Franchise evenually became. You could write a whole book on this, but the gap between club and fan became the biggest before that fateful 2001/02 season.
And this is why Selhurst evokes so many negative connotations even now. For every Marcus Gayle header, there was three or four protests. For every Peter Fear run against Blackburn there was an empty crowd where you could hear the shouts of the player reverberating off yet another empty seat.
Our crowds could be woeful at Selhurst – we were never the biggest supported club to begin with (which is why the move there was so flawed to begin with), but Wimbledon FC neither knew nor cared about how to properly market the club. This was at the height of the Premiership hype, and the only time we ever got a full house was when the club opened the doors to away fans. 30000 against United, 20000 supporting the opposition, that kind of thing.
It was a very depressing experience to see games where you were either outnumbered on your “home” patch or had a row to yourself. When you consider that we spent much (if not most) of our time trying to fight to even keep the club in South London – let alone move it back to where it should have been – you can understand why there are plenty of AFCW fans who don’t ever want to go back there.
Not that it was even a financial success – Yidaho used to publish accounts, and while WFC made a profit in the last season at Plough Lane, it made losses in the first Selhust season and just kept on growing. While wages have been a part of that, it was never a successful move even for a bank manager.
The ironic side-effect of life in SE25 was that it brought those of us who were still motivated to watch the games closer together, especially during those horrific latter days. Mention the Thomas Farley and you’ll get some nice warm smiles and a few tales of planned protests of what to do next. I don’t think those days have ever been replicated in the AFCW era, because those involved now run the club.
Being at Selhurst ultimately created AFC Wimbledon, in both what happened at the hands of a three man commission and because it made us all band together and do something. When the first game post 28/5 happened, it seemed to close the chapter on the whole episode, and we managed to finally walk away from SE25 with some degree of dignity and self-worth.
And that’s the whole Selhurst thing in two little words – self-worth.
Memories seem to run all too deep still with a ground next to a Sainsburys, and there was and still is something about that place that drags people down. Reportedly, the Main Stand there has safety issues, and another other stand is sinking. Our relationship with Palace during those times was tainted by frustration, and these days I don’t think our paths ever cross.
Speaking of Palace, their ground reflects their club. They should be a top Championship/lower Prem side – they have some decent potential support, they aren’t near Millwall or Charlton, and yet they’ve always been as big as Barnsley. There’s always been a sense of decay about them, although when you’ve been run by wide boy Jordan and Goldberk they only have themselves to blame on that score.
Should they move “home”, they will probably find themselves reborn as a club. AFCW was a clean slate for us, but Palace may find themselves finally realising their potential away from SE25.
Occasionally, I find myself around Selhurst way, and I do pop along to the outside of the ground. It really isn’t much different to when we had our final game there in 2002, bar the odd lick of paint and the refurbished Sainsburys. We did have a positive effect on the local economy (as the owner of Chicken Cottage on Thornton Heath High Street once said to your editor during a pre-match meal), and yes, Doneagles is still there. Perhaps still hoping we decide KM is too much of a drag and we return back.
I had the chance of covering Palace v Norwich on Boxing Day, although the weather intervened. I have been inside the player’s bar, and it really is how you expect it to be – tacky, not particularly classy and looks cheap but isn’t. Like Selhurst itself, really.
That all said, I do have to say I would like AFCW to have one more game there, either as a friendly or more likely as a competitive fixture. The way Palace are going, we could meet in the FAC 1st round next season. It won’t be the massive headfuck that playing Franchise would be, but it would still be a “what the?” moment. All the old songs will come out, the Farley will be taken over again (yes, it’s still there), and we’ll all remember how shit it was to get out of the car park afterwards, or how long it was from the ground to Thornton Heath station.
In closing, moving grounds is always a massive upheaval, and for Palace fans moving to the athletics site will be one with mixed emotions. For ourselves though, we won’t miss it. We spent 12 years there, and they were mostly unhappy. The history lessons above should illustrate why.
If and when it gets bulldozed for a bigger Sainsburys and a few houses, it will be another chapter of the Wimbledon story closed for good. A chapter that changed the whole club, not for the better, and which has taken until 2011 under a new era to mostly get back. Every so often, we do like to remind ourselves of why AFCW exists, and it took an announcement from a Championship side this week to do just that.
Of course, I haven’t mentioned Carl Leaburn scoring against Palace there…