By John Lyons
Dave Bassett and Ian Cooke are confident AFC Wimbledon will go from strength to strength when they move into their new stadium at Plough Lane.
The Wimbledon legends were on hand when the reformed club’s dream of building a new home back in the borough of Merton took a significant step forward last Friday.
Demolition work started on the old Wimbledon greyhound site, just a stone’s throw from the original Dons’ home in Plough Lane.
Once the site is cleared, construction will begin on building a new stadium with an initial capacity of between 9,000 and 10,000, with permission to extend to 20,000.
Construction work is expected to start as soon as the site clearance is finished, possibly by late summer, with an ambitious 2019 completion date.
For many, it will be the end of a long road. Wimbledon ground-shared at Crystal Palace from 1991 to 2002 and were then controversially allowed to move to Milton Keynes by the football authorities.
Dons fans who had lost their club set up AFC Wimbledon in 2002 and they have had an amazing run with six promotions in 16 years, to climb from the base of Non-League to League One.
Bassett believes the reformed Dons fully deserve the chance to return to their spiritual home.
The former Dons player, assistant manager and manager, who guided the club from the Fourth Division to the top-flight in the 80s, told The FLP: “I’m delighted for them because they’ve gone through a hell of a lot.
“Wimbledon were a league side and unfortunately they found themselves out of the league because of the way the Football League handled the situation at that time. That’s history. Milton Keynes are there and it’s done and dusted.
“AFC Wimbledon have done a tremendous job from where they’ve come from. They’ve got a good identity and philosophy, and people around the country admire what they’ve done to get back into the Football League and then get into League One.
“It’s marvellous and this is the culmination now. A lot of people will be delighted AFC Wimbledon are going back to Wimbledon and are building a new stadium.
“What AFC Wimbledon have achieved in coming from the bottom of the pyramid to where they are now is an unbelievable feat.”
And Bassett, who spent 13 years with Wimbledon, believes the club’s new home will give them the chance to continue their remarkable success story.
“They’ve consolidated recently, but this is a massive move getting the stadium,” he said. “This will create interest and usually when you move into a new stadium your crowds go up.
“Wimbledon’s fan base is about 4,500 at the moment, but there’s every chance there could be 10,000 at games in the future, which would be brilliant.
“It means there is more income coming into the club. The club will own the stadium. They will have their destiny in their own hands. They won’t sell the club to any individuals. They will look after the club and live within their means.
“They’re not going to suddenly jump to the top, but you can dream. We had a dream when I was a player to get into the league and climb to the top-flight in ten years – and we actually did it in nine.
“But it wasn’t easy and I don’t want to put pressure on anybody to say Wimbledon are going to go roaring up and achieve what we did.
“I certainly hope they do. I would love them to get in the Premier League, win the FA Cup. It would be fantastic, but they’ve got to make sure AFC Wimbledon continues and survives.”
Cooke scored 297 goals for Wimbledon in 615 appearances from 1963 to 1977 and is just as optimistic about the reformed club’s future as Bassett.
“The standard of the stadium when it’s finished will be of such a good quality that I hope we will at least double the crowd we get now,” said the Dons’ non-executive director. “There’s going to be a lot of interest from people locally and I hope the people that live round here will want to come and watch.
“We are a fans-owned club and will probably always be a fans-owned club.
“Because of that, the ability to make large funding investment isn’t there. We are very reliant on fans and sponsors. Once we start to get double or even more than that, it will give the manager more room to manoeuvre, to meet the wages of the better players and hopefully that will let us kick on and have the potential to move up to the Championship.
“I won’t say the Premiership at this stage but let’s wait and see what happens!”
Aside from Bassett and Cooke, Dons chief executive Erik Samuelson and the leader of Merton Council, Stephen Alambritis, were present as the bulldozers got to work last week.
Samuelson said: “As a community-owned club, we are delighted to be returning to our spiritual home in Plough Lane.
“In addition to bringing league football back to Wimbledon, the new stadium will form a base from which to expand our award-winning community work.
“Ever since we were reformed in 2002 we’ve been nurturing a dream of returning to a stadium of our own, back in Wimbledon.
“Today is the start of turning that dream into reality. We are on our way!”
Alambritis added: “This is a momentous day in Merton’s history with the first physical signs of AFC Wimbledon coming home to their spiritual home in the London Borough of Merton.
“The council is extremely proud to have played an important part in the club’s journey since we granted planning permission in 2015.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the Plough Lane site come alive again and watch the new stadium and housing being built over the coming months.”
The new stadium is part of a wider mixed-use development, built by a joint venture between Galliard Homes and Catalyst housing association.
The scheme is due to deliver 604 new homes and close to 18,000 sq ft of commercial space.
The joint venture also intends to provide 177 affordable homes, nearly 30 per cent of the entire development