While fans across the country have been forced into a stadium sabbatical for a year due to coronavirus, AFC Wimbledon supporters have been away from their spiritual home for three decades.
After leaving Merton in 1991, the Dons endured a nomadic existence until the club’s journey came full circle with a move back to Plough Lane at the beginning of this season.
But due to the global pandemic forcing all games to be played behind-closed-doors, the return has been bittersweet – until now.
Tuesday evening saw 2,000 fans realise their incredible dream as a test event against a Liverpool Under-23 side finally saw football come home.
The Premier League side may have won 3-1 but the events on the pitch paled into insignificance compared to the importance of the occasion.
Even the often frustrating pre-match queues outside a ground was a sight to behold, long lines of blue and yellow snaking round New Stadium Road punctuated by the infamous fluorescent jackets of stewards pointing awestruck fans in the right direction.
Ahead of the game the excitement and uncontrollable fervour was almost palpable.
“It’s incredible, it’s mad” explained George Butler. “We just want to be inside the stadium and see how amazing it is.
“It would be lovely to be in there with a big crowd but to be honest when we get in, we’re going to be speechless, so we won’t be able to shout because we’ll just be taking it all in.”
George is a fifth generation Wimbledon fan, and his mum, Maria, added: “I might have a tear in my eye. George’s grandad is sitting somewhere else in the ground.
“It’s a real family thing and it’s so important we’re back here. I never thought I’d see the day.”
“It’s a dream come true,” said Alan, another fan. “It’s hard to believe. You look at it (the stadium) now and think ‘is it really there?’ But it is, and it’s just amazing.”
Even the looming grey clouds above SW17, threatening the Dons faithful with a miserable downpour in typical English fashion seemed to bow to the pressure of the footballing gods and quickly dissipated to be replaced by a surreal rainbow across the East and North stands, an aesthetic befitting of the occasion.
Other than the players entering and exiting the field to rapturous applause, the game itself was a blur – the joy and adulation of merely being present far outweighing whatever was happening on the pitch.
At half-time fans populated the concourse and reconnected with old friends and faces, not only highlighting the disconnect coronavirus had brought over the past year but a reminder of what it truly meant to be ‘home’.
Mike Taliadoros (better known as Mikey T) from Radio Wimbledon expertly summarised the night: “Many of the fans won’t have been to Plough Lane since May 4th 1991.
“It’s been 30 years of a nomadic existence – first 11 years groundsharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, then the intervening years at Kingstonian and a brief spell up at QPR.
“Whilst many of the younger fans may not have been part of Plough Lane back in the day or even Selhurst, this is part of our heritage.
“We played at Plough Lane for just under 80 years in our first stint and it’s a great feeling to put the final piece of the jigsaw into place and come home.
“When we’ve got a full house here, the atmosphere will only add to the real determination the players have shown in the closing part of this season.
“It will underline and further galvanise the bond between players and the fans which is a massive part of the AFC Wimbledon story and the mindset and the ethos of the place.”
Fan, commentator and self-proclaimed “statto and stretcher-carrier” Barry James echoed the sentiment, emotionally saying: “It’s been a long time coming, from the South East counties league.
“This is so emotional – I never thought I would shed a tear but I have tonight. We are home.”
It was a beautiful occasion, one that the fans and everyone associated with the club thoroughly deserved and undoubtedly will be just the first of many….