AFC Wimbledon rose from the lowest level of senior football to become an established English Football League side after it was set up in 2002 by fans in response to Wimbledon Football Club’s decision to relocate to Milton Keynes.
Now, the opening of their new stadium in the coming weeks is a moment steeped in history.
The original incarnation of Wimbledon spent nearly 80 years at Plough Lane, which became home to some of the country’s biggest characters and greatest trophies, including the FA Cup in 1988.
For many fans in the Merton area, having football back on such a treasured street will be worth the wait, even if it is still unknown when they can finally pile through the turnstiles on a Saturday afternoon.
However, one die-hard Wombles’ fan has had the privilege of watching the new home take formation from the bottom up – the club’s official build photographer, Kirk Pritchard.
“It’s quite emotional seeing your football club go back to its home,” said Kirk, who has autism. “We’ve been thinking about Wimbledon going back to Plough Lane for close to 30 years.
“When you see the football club and the community coming home, and how it is close to completion in its true colours of yellow and blue, it’s awesome. While there, I nip into the stadium and say, ‘wow, you look amazing’.
“I’ve been watching football since I was about seven or eight and I like looking at club histories, including how they were formed and their stadiums, and I enjoyed learning about the old and the new sides of Wimbledon.
“Photography is the thing that I’m good at and I go for it. If you have a skill or passion and want to do something, then go ahead – even if there isn’t a job for you or someone says you can’t. But you need patience.”
Kirk’s unique responsibility with AFC Wimbledon came from a desire to get out and about, and accepting mistakes as a learning process.
After unknowingly taking photos from a restrictred part of the building site and having had an altercation with a building contractor, Kirk posted on his Facebook page that he had been banned from taking further photos. This was greeted with uproar from the fans, proving how much of a positive figure this recreational, cell phone happy snapper had become within the supporter community.
The club’s commercial director Ivor Heller was made aware of the incident and quickly took steps to rectify the situation, promoting Kirk into his current role and ensuring he had access to the building site.
Kirk not only has a professional camera now, but is an ‘honorary’ board member at the club and is often asked about how the new ground could be made autism-friendly; his voice grabbing peoples’ attention as much as his photos.
“The main thing is getting people to the stadium safely from the station, crossing the road.
“There is a building site next door which won’t be finished which may be a problem. The other issue is the industrial site next door with all the trucks coming past the stadium, so we definitely need to get some road safety volunteers, similar to those around schools.
“We are also talking about ear defenders or headphones, utilising the family stand at the new stadium, and making sure those who have a hidden disability can be recognised by wearing armbands or something similar.
“If possible, we are also trying to ensure people can come in and get to know the stadium, including a tour to identify themselves with the environment.”
This work marries nicely with Kirk’s AFC Autism group – an initiative that he founded to increase inclusiveness within the game for autistic fans up and down the country, which is seeing him work with retired professional footballer, and anti-discrimination advocate Anwar Uddin.
Photographing matchdays at non-league team Glebe is also an important part of Kirk’s average week, as well as his involvement with XR Football UK – a group that tackles climate change – after feeling inspired to find his voice by environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who has Asperger’s.
“I am a curious person,” he explained. “They are opportunities to learn and research about different environments and do things. I’ve been to Comic-Con, protests, all sorts of places, so I get prepared for the unexpected, and get through fine.
“We want to be more passionate about climate change in football and raise awareness of our football grounds that aren’t likely to survive it.
“Hopefully, we can get people to be aware and demand a kinder world.
“It can be a little bit frustrating at times due to COVID-19, but that can’t be helped. When things get you down, you get back up, keep being yourself and enjoy life as best as you can, no matter what hits you.”
Kirk practices what he preaches, which is especially clear to see for supportive mum Kas.
“As a parent, you have to take that big step and let your child fly,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean you stop worrying, you’ll always worry, but it’s being brave enough to know they have their own lives and need to lead it. And Kirk tries to lead his to the full.
“Ignorance can be quite difficult to deal with, but autism is now more generally acknowledged and as people become more aware, it gets easier, and it’s good that these young people are speaking out.
“We simply don’t appreciate enough how many autistic people there are in society. When Kirk was given the opportunity to photograph Glebe FC’s first football team, he was very nervous because he knows he is a little different from others, but it was amazing how many of the players knew someone or had someone in their family with autism, and they appreciated meeting someone like Kirk.
“It’s getting people to understand, and the more we do that, the more we’ll make little breakthroughs.”