On the eve of AFC Wimbledon’s first match at Plough Lane, Dons Trust Chair Mark Davis expresses his thanks to everyone who has played a part in Wimbledon's return to Plough Lane.
Tomorrow marks a landmark day in the history of AFC Wimbledon, when our first team will turn out for the first home match in Merton following a diaspora one day short of 29-and-a-half years. It will be a strange experience, in some ways, with our fans not able to attend. But it will be a major event for AFC Wimbledon and the Dons Trust nonetheless.
As Chair of the Trust, and someone who’s been closely involved in the stadium project over the past few years, I want to pay tribute to everyone who’s played a part in that return. It might sound like a gushing Oscar ceremony speech, but it needs to be done. My only difficulty is that, despite gradually gathering together a list of names on a scrap of paper over the past few months, I will inevitably miss some deserving people out – especially those who were involved in the project before I was.
Perhaps the first people to thank are the members of the Dons Trust, who roundly made their feelings known, back in 2009, about early proposals to extend The Cherry Red Records Stadium as our permanent home. The feedback was clear: members wanted to return to Merton – a determination that was reinforced by the strategy consultation some time later.
That feedback set in train a number of activities, including a search for suitable sites in Merton (Plough Lane was not the only option) and representations to the London Borough of Merton about the need to provide for a football stadium in the local plan and, later, for the greyhound stadium to be designated as a site for sporting intensification. There were no doubt many people involved at that stage, including Tom Adam, who chaired a stadium committee, and Hugh Scanlon, a planning professional.
I also want to thank the London Borough of Merton for their support – not only Cllr Stephen Alambritis, who has been a true friend to AFC Wimbledon during his time as Leader, but also a team of capable and hard-working officers who have worked so diligently in processing our planning application and discharge of planning conditions and building controls.
The opportunity presented itself to work first with Stephen Sexton, of The Newridge Group, and subsequently with Galliard Homes, on the redevelopment of the greyhound stadium. Ivor Heller worked on brokering these relationships, which eventually led to the partnership with Galliard Homes.
With that partnership arrangement in place, the hard work began, to turn the return to Merton from a dim prospect into reality. And the architect of that – the person who saw the project through to the point where the first spade was being dug in the ground – was the Club’s CEO Erik Samuelson.
What Erik pulled off was an extraordinary feat – giving all parties the confidence to keep developing a new stadium for AFC Wimbledon at a time when we had no money to pay for it. Ably assisted by Dan Norris (a real estate lawyer with Hogan Lovell) and Andrew Williams (as project manager), Erik negotiated the arrangements that would underpin the project – commercial agreements with Galliard Homes (subsequently in joint venture with Catalyst Housing), planning agreements with the London Borough of Merton, the sale of The Cherry Red Records Stadium to Chelsea and the construction contract with Buckingham Group Contracting. The Bring the Dons Home campaign, orchestrated by Charlie Talbot, played an instrumental role in garnering support for our planning application.
An early landmark was the crucial decision to sell The Cherry Red Records Stadium to Chelsea. It was vital that members approved the sale through a so-called Restricted Action. David Hall, David Lloyd, Roger Evans and I formed a working group in 2015 to get the necessary support. We are indebted to Charlie Talbot, Marc Jones and Graham Stacey for their assistance with the promotional materials – including the brilliantly chosen label for the campaign ‘Back in Two Ticks’.
Development of the project has been overseen by a stadium committee, which I have chaired since early 2019. We meet every Monday morning to run through developments over the previous week and plot out actions for the week ahead. Current attendees are Joe Palmer, Tom Rawcliffe, Edward Leek, Luke Mackenzie, Mick Buckley and our ever-resourceful project manager Joe Giordano. Previous members include Erik Samuelson (who was succeeded as CEO by Joe Palmer in April 2019), Robert Crane, Colin Dipple, Roger Evans and Sean McLaughlin. Inevitably, a large burden of the workload between meetings falls on the executives and professionals involved in the stadium delivery. I pay particular tribute to Joe Palmer, who stepped into the leadership role vacated by Erik when he deservedly took his retirement.
Clearly, raising money for the stadium has been a vital aspect of the project, which has occupied a lot of attention from the stadium committee, particularly Tom and Edward. Besides the planning contribution from Merton Catalyst and the proceeds from the sale of The Cherry Red Records Stadium to Chelsea, we have raised equity through Seedrs and from direct investors, including Nick Robertson. We are also borrowing a construction loan from MSP Capital. But the biggest amount we are borrowing is through the Plough Lane Bond, on which Charlie Talbot, Xavier Wiggins, Graeme Price and Damian Woodward played a massive role at a crucial juncture. Thank you to everyone who invested in the Seedrs share sale and the Plough Lane Bond, and indeed to those individuals who made cash donations, including legacies.
Whilst the final touches to the construction haven’t yet been completed, it’s a testament to Buckingham Group that they’ve made such progress under some very difficult circumstances this year. It’s particularly pleasing that, thus far (touch wood), there hasn’t been a single reportable accident on the project.
Besides construction, delivering the stadium has involved a substantial IT project, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Chris Mappley and David Growns spent two years designing and implementing this infrastructure – the network, server rooms, wifi, point of sales, turnstiles and access control, CCTV, TV entertainment systems and internet access.
Behind the scenes, there has been an Operations Committee, chaired by Joe Palmer, dealing with the practicalities of moving into and operating the new stadium. This was split into two areas. The first was focused on commercial and marketing elements of the new stadium, including the team of people involved in developing and implementing the debenture scheme and ticketing arrangements. My thanks to Klaudia Wieczorek, Damian Woodward, Mandy Bynon, Ivor Heller and Anna Kingsley. The second area was the development of the operational plans and procedures required to obtain the licenses to be able to play in the new stadium, including the creation and management of the Safety Advisory Group - special thanks to Paul Moran, Phil Clarke, Claudia Wilmot, David Charles and Bob Sherwood.
Above all, thanks are due to the wonderful fans of AFC Wimbledon and members of the Dons Trust, who have stuck with us through thick and thin. There have doubtless been times when your patience has been tried and your purse-strings tugged further than is reasonable. I fervently hope that our new stadium will be an ample reward for your loyalty and generosity and that it is not long before you can come and watch a match there.
Finally, my thanks to the long-suffering families of people who have been so immersed in the stadium project, and my apologies to everyone else whose contribution isn’t acknowledged above or in the list that follows!
The Dons Trust version of this article contains a fuller list of individuals and organisations who have helped us to achieve our dream. If you can think of someone who ought to be thanked but is not on the list, you can add a comment on the Trust website telling us who they are and what they did, so that deserving omissions can be added to the list.