On many occasions Andy Brassell would have been extremely busy trying to keep the BT Sport audience abreast of the goals as they rained in across Europe. Liverpool’s 5-0 demolition of Atalanta was put into the shade by Borussia Monchengladbach’s shellacking of Shaktar Donetsk, and on it went. 36 goals in just eight Champions League games would have kept him on his mettle but Brassell was otherwise engaged. He was among a few dozen who were present to witness the return of football to Plough Lane.
That AFC Wimbledon were denied a victorious homecoming by a 91st minute equaliser from Doncaster Rovers’ evergreen James Coppinger was a minor fly in the ointment. “I had a sneak preview at the end of last week,” Brassell says. “The thing that struck me immediately was that here was a new football ground that was so close to the action, just like the old place.” Such proximity took Brassell back to his first matches at Plough Lane when he was a schoolboy.
“Even though I grew up in South London, all my school-friends were either Liverpool or Man United fans. I wanted to be different so I chose Wimbledon. I remember my first game vividly, it was August 1987, an evening game against Everton, who were then the reigning league champions. It was still school holidays so I was allowed to go.” They drew 1-1 and Brassell was hooked despite the superficial shabbiness.
“A lot of the supporters (and players) of the top clubs looked down at Plough Lane,” Brassell continues. “They regarded it as a bit of a dump. Admittedly the facilities were a bit rudimentary, but that was mainly because we had shot up the leagues so quickly. I loved it as everything was so accessible and the players were so approachable, you could mix with them in the club bar after games.”
Wimbledon’s rise was indeed meteoric, having become a professional club in the mid-1960s they joined the Southern League and spent the next dozen years as one of the leading non-league outfits. In the 1974/75 season they became the very first non-league club in the 20th century to win away at a First Division ground when they beat Burnley 1-0 at Turf Moor in the third round of the FA Cup. That was impressive however, their fourth round exploits overshadowed even that achievement.
Leeds United were the reigning Division One champions and were on course for the European Cup Final later in the season. A 0-0 draw at Elland Road was secured by Dons’ keeper Dickie Guy who, dressed in all green with matching green gloves, gained hero status that day as he repelled everything Leeds threw at him, including a Peter Lorimer penalty after Dave Bassett had fouled Eddie Gray in the penalty area.
Leeds did squeeze past Wimbledon eventually, winning the replay by the only goal of the game which was an own goal by the unfortunate Bassett, who was to play a major part in their climb up the leagues. The replay did not take place at Plough Lane after safety concerns over forged tickets led the tie being switched to a ground that would become a familiar one to Wimbledon. A massive crowd of just over 45,000 assembled at, of all places, Selhurst Park. 45 years on from that memorable FA Cup run and according to Brassell, Guy “is still very much emotionally involved” as the current club president and was there for the Doncaster match on Tuesday.
After their FA Cup exploits Wimbledon won the Southern League three times in a row and in 1997 were promoted to the Football League after Workington Town failed to be re-elected, one of the last times that archaic system was used. After a series of promotions and relegations left them back in Division Four in 1982/83 they started their rise under Bassett, gaining three promotions in the space of four years, reaching the First Division within a decade of becoming a Football League club.
Again it was the FA Cup that really brought Wimbledon to the nation’s attention in 1988 when the Crazy Gang beat the Culture Club and it was another penalty save, this time by Dave Beasant – the first in an FA Cup Final – that topped it all off. But for the 11-year-old Brassell it was victories at Plough Lane rather than at Wembley that stood out. “We beat Spurs (3-0), Man United (2-1) and Arsenal (3-1) at home that season and being so close, when you were in touching distance of the players, made it all the more memorable.”
Despite the heady success of the previous two decades the Sword of Damocles hung over the club as Plough Lane was not only ripe for property development but also was not really suitable for a club in the top flight. The recommendations of the Taylor Report that prompted the move to all-seater stadiums made a move away inevitable. And so it was that the last game at the old Plough Lane came at the end of the 1990/91 season when, almost inevitably, the visitors were none other than their future landlords, Crystal Palace who showed no compassion in winning 3-0 courtesy of an Ian Wright hat-trick.
“I have met Wrighty many times since and know him quite well now,” Brassell says. “So I do remind him of how he ruined our day. After the match everyone spilt on to the pitch, looking for something as a momento, maybe a clutch of turf or some netting but nobody was really sure what they were looking for. As fans we had grown accustomed to rumours about moving, with Dublin once mooted alongside Basingstoke and Tolworth, not to mention potential mergers. Many of us believed that the move to Selhurst was only going to be temporary.”
It turned out it was going to be their home for a decade, encapsulating their entire spell in the Premier League up to their relegation in 2000. Worse was to follow when the dreaded move to Milton Keynes was sanctioned by the FA. Wimbledon’s resurrection was mainly down to the supporters, who were inspired initially by their opposition to the owners’ decision to up sticks and move to Milton Keynes. Having suffered the nomadic existence of sharing a ground at Selhurst Park for all those years, this was one step too far and so incensed were the supporters that they saw their only option as to reform the club.
In many ways the ascent of Wimbledon in the 1980s was a parallel for what happened to AFC Wimbledon. Having been formed in 2002 after the acrimonious move to Milton Keynes, they rose from The Combined Counties League, the 9th tier of the pyramid, to reaching League One 14 years later after six promotions, four of them via the Play-Offs. Brassell remembers the first ever competitive match at Kingsmeadow. “We all have our own key moments, for me personally it was when we were playing Chipstead in front of a sell-out crowd of over 4,000 with hundreds locked out, and Kevin Cooper equalised. That’s when it really struck home that this was my team, my club, not just a protest movement. Everything fell into place.”
Most significantly, from the outset the club was one of a new vanguard of fan-owned clubs, who were wholly owned by The Dons Trust, and they have remained so ever since despite considerable pressure to relinquish control especially when there was an £11 million shortfall that threatened to derail the building of the new stadium. In raising £5 million in the space of a month as well as overcoming the considerable hurdle of Boris Johnson’s planning objections, when he was Mayor of London, they showed an incredible resilience and steely determination to survive that has been evident throughout their 18-year history.
The irony of the fan-owned club playing their first match at their new ground behind closed doors was not lost on Brassell. “Of course something was missing and it was totally surreal, but there was a huge rush of emotion. And having waited twenty-nine and a half years to go back I am sure we can handle six more months or however long it takes before truly welcoming the fans.” He might have missed a momentous night in Europe but in truth he could not have been anywhere else but at Plough Lane on Tuesday for the Dons’ homecoming.