AFC Wimbledon co-founder Ivor Heller will be thinking about absent friends when he goes to the first game at their new stadium in Plough Lane on Tuesday.
The Dons’ commercial director was one of a handful of men who helped set up a new club in those awful days of 2002/2003 when it looked obvious that Sam Hammam’s old club would move to Milton Keynes.
Crossing the threshold of the new stadium as the club returns to its spiritual home should be a moment of triumph for him.
But the first game against Doncaster Rovers will have a bittersweet taste.
“It is going to be emotional of course but I do not know what is going to hit me most,” he said. “Not having people in the stadium – that may hit me more than anything.
“I will be thinking of the number of people that would kill just to be inside the ground. That will be what really upsets me.
“In the next few months we will have to find a way through this somehow.”
Heller credits a town hall leader and an accountant with being the masterminds behind Wimbledon returning to Plough Lane.
Erik Samuelson was chief executive until retiring aged 70 in 2018.
And Merton Council leader Stephen Alambritis had a plan long before he reached the peak of his career.
Heller said: “Erik took on a hard project and steered a very steady ship and brought the stadium to a level of reality that many thought would not be possible.
“And without councillor Alambritis, it doesn’t happen.
“He put a plan in place when he was only leader of the opposition in Merton. A lot of people thought it was mad – then he got control of the council.
“There was a change when we won promotion to the Conference South. I got introduced to Steve and persuaded Erik to come to a meeting with him.
“What made the difference was a Merton council motion which classified the site as zoned for sports intensification.
“Steve also put a vote to the council in 2008 asking for cross-party support to get Wimbledon back to Plough Lane.
“Some councillors didn’t think it would happen but didn’t want to be the people who said no.
“Once Steve and Labour won the council in 2010, that set the fuse alight.
“Bringing in developers Galliard was important but they of course wanted the whole site for flats. But the motion zoning it for sports intensification blocked that.
“There were lots of legal arguments to go – but the way was a lot clearer.
“[Chief executive] Joe Palmer has also led us through a critical time. He has done a bloody good job to adapt to the situation where we are nearly there. It has been a huge effort.
“And every member of the Dons Trust has played their part with every action they have taken and the support they have given to the club.
“Without the voluntary nature of what we started, this would never have happened. We’re all unpaid. It was a bit mad but always has been and probably always will be. People will always do more than mere mortals can manage.
“It’s impossible to calculate how much that unpaid work has been worth but it would be many millions of pounds.
“I’m hopeful there will be a proper tribute in the ground to the many people who helped us along the way but it will take time.”
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