Relocation of Wimbledon F.C. to Milton Keynes

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Graffiti on the locked gates of Wimbledon F.C.'s traditional home ground, Plough Lane, in 2006. The club, nicknamed "the Wombles" or "the Dons", last played first-team matches there in 1991, and the stadium was demolished in late 2002. Blocks of flats have covered the site since 2008.

Wimbledon Football Club relocated to Milton Keynes in September 2003, 16 months after receiving permission to do so from an independent commission appointed by The Football Association. The move took the team from south London, where it had been based since its foundation in 1889, to Milton Keynes, a new town in Buckinghamshire, about 56 miles (90 km) to the northwest of the club's traditional home district Wimbledon. Hugely controversial,[1][2][3] the move's legal authorisation directly caused the establishment of AFC Wimbledon by disaffected Wimbledon supporters in June 2002. The relocated club spent most of the 2003–04 season playing in Milton Keynes under the Wimbledon name, before it rebranded itself as Milton Keynes Dons (MK Dons) at that season's end.[4]

Wimbledon Football Club spent most of its history in amateur and semi-professional non-League football, and was elected to The Football League following the 1976–77 season. An unusually rapid rise through the professional divisions followed for the club over the next decade, culminating in promotion to the First Division (then English football's highest level) before the 1986–87 season. The team subsequently won England's top knockout cup competition, the FA Cup, in 1988. This unprecedented spell of sustained success by a traditionally obscure, unknown club has been called a "fairytale".[5]

A series of club owners believed that Wimbledon's long-term potential was severely limited by its home ground at Plough Lane, which never changed significantly from the team's non-League days. Extending this dissatisfaction to the stadium's location, Wimbledon chairman Ron Noades briefly explored moving the club to Milton Keynes in 1979. As a new town formed in 1967, Milton Keynes had no Football League club representing it, and moves there were also fleetingly mooted by Charlton Athletic in 1973 and Luton Town in 1982. Wimbledon remained at Plough Lane until 1991, when the club was told to redevelop the old ground by the Taylor Report. The club's owners could not afford to do the necessary work, and so arranged for the club to temporarily share Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park ground, about 6 miles (9.7 km) east of Plough Lane, while they sought a new stadium site for Wimbledon in south-west London. They searched fruitlessly over the next decade.

Starting in 2000, the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, led by Pete Winkelman, proposed a Football League-standard ground in Milton Keynes, partly funded by an attached retail development. This stadium site was offered to Luton, Wimbledon, Barnet, Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers. None of these clubs was interested at first, but the introduction of a new chairman at Wimbledon, Charles Koppel, led to more receptive talks. These ultimately led to the club moving to Milton Keynes with the intent of playing on Winkelman's proposed site. It was in financial administration when it did so, and remained in this state until Winkelman bought it in 2004. On buying the team, Winkelman changed the club's name, badge and colours; the team's new stadium opened in 2007. Milton Keynes Dons initially claimed Wimbledon F.C.'s heritage and history as its own, but renounced this in 2007.

Background[edit]

New town of Milton Keynes[edit]

Main article: Milton Keynes
Cranes surrounding a development in Milton Keynes, 2006

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, the population of London increased significantly, causing the construction of a number of new towns across the south-east of England. Overspill housing for several London boroughs was constructed in Bletchley, in north Buckinghamshire, by London County Council.[6][7][8] With this not proving to be enough, a Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MoH&LG) study proposed "a new city" near Bletchley in 1964.[9] Bletchley, which had been considered for designation in its own right, became instead only a part of the planned development: a further MoH&LG study in 1965 recommended that the existing towns of Stony Stratford and Wolverton should also be included.[10][11] A target population of 250,000 was given for what was to be the biggest new town of all, built on an area previously home to about 40,000.[12] "Milton Keynes" (named after the village of Milton Keynes already present on the site) was purposely placed equidistant from London, Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge, and close to main roads and railways as well as Luton Airport.[13] It was designated as a new town on 23 January 1967.[14][15]

All of the football clubs present within the boundaries of the new town were playing outside The Football League. The largest of these teams were United Counties League sides Bletchley Town and Wolverton Town & B.R.,[n 1][n 2][16][19][23][24] South Midlands League outfit Stony Stratford Town and local teams New Bradwell St Peter and Newport Pagnell Wanderers,[n 3][26] who would join the South Midlands League in 1970 and 1972 respectively.[27][28]

Accession to The Football League, and the concept of club relocation in English football[edit]

Relocation of Wimbledon F.C. to Milton Keynes is located in England
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Relocation of Wimbledon F.C. to Milton Keynes
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Relocation of Wimbledon F.C. to Milton Keynes
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Geographical distribution of the 92 clubs in The Football League during the 1967–68 season, and Milton Keynes (marked in grey). Many teams are concentrated in urban areas such as London (London clubs marked in blue).

In English football, the relocation of teams away from their traditional districts is extremely unusual because of the nature of the relationship between clubs and their fans: the local football club is regarded by most English football supporters as part of the local identity and social fabric rather than as a business that can be transplanted by its owners at will. As a result, any relocation plan would be strongly opposed by fans in the club's original area, and unlikely to succeed in most new locations due to the existence of established teams in most towns and cities that would already have secured the loyalty of native supporters. John Bale, summarising a study published in 1974, writes that, in the view of most fans, "Chelsea would simply not be Chelsea" were that club to hypothetically move a few miles within the same borough to Wormwood Scrubs.[29]

However, the geographic redistribution of the 92 Football League teams was considered a possible eventuality by some around that time, including Sir Norman Chester, who headed an investigation into the condition of English football in 1968.[30] Before the 1986–87 season, clubs could not be relegated out of the League's Fourth Division. The bottom four clubs would have to apply for re-election by the other member clubs at the end of each season, alongside any non-League teams who wished to take their place,[31] but the replacement of an established League side in this way was quite rare. From the inaugural post-war season (1946–47) through to 1985–86, clubs already in the League were supplanted on only six occasions.[32] "New communities have developed ... which lack clubs in League membership," Chester reported, in 1968. "Amalgamations of old clubs would provide vacancies for new clubs to enter the League. Alternatively the movement of established clubs to new communities could provide a way both of saving old clubs and at the same time bringing League football to new and growing areas."[30] Having been established in 1967 as the largest of the "new towns" springing up across southern England and the Midlands,[33] Milton Keynes provided a clear staging ground for such an experiment.[30]

Changes since 1979

At the end of the 1978–79 season, 20 leading non-League clubs left the Southern League and the Northern Premier League to form the Alliance Premier League, a nationally-organised non-League division. It was first contested during the 1979–80 season, and endured under that name until 1986, when it renamed itself the Football Conference. Since the 1986–87 season, the champions of the Conference have received promotion to The Football League, with the League's bottom club being relegated in exchange. This was expanded to the Conference champions and the winners of a promotion play-off before the 2002–03 season, with the worst two League clubs being relegated.[34] The situation of the Football League "closed shop", which for nearly a century effectively barred most non-League clubs from accession, therefore no longer exists.[31] The English football league system (which also includes some clubs from Wales) now comprises more than 480 interconnected divisions, spread across 24 tiers. The top five levels each comprise one division of between 20 and 24 teams from across the country, while those below include multiple regional divisions of varying sizes.[35] All of these divisions exchange clubs at the end of each season through promotion and relegation. Under this system, any club in the country can hypothetically aspire to win enough promotions through the various tiers to play in The Football League, or even in England's post-1992 top division, the Premier League.[36]

Parallels in Scotland[edit]

During the immediate post-war period, new towns such as Glenrothes and Cumbernauld were founded in Scotland, in much the same manner as in England. Promotion and relegation in and out of the Scottish Professional Football League was not introduced until the league system was organised in 2014;[37] until then it was nearly impossible for a side outside the League to join.[38] As a result, these new towns lacked League teams of their own, while many of the League's member clubs remained concentrated in well-established cities. By the time of the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium's formation in 2000, two of these clubs had left their metropolitan districts for new towns. In 1994, third-flight club Clyde moved from Shawfield Stadium (close to Rutherglen in the south-east of Glasgow) to Cumbernauld, about 16 miles (26 km) to the north-east.[39] A year later, Meadowbank Thistle, a struggling Edinburgh club in the fourth tier, relocated amid fans' protests about 20 miles (32 km) west to the new town of Livingston. On doing so, it changed its name to Livingston Football Club.[40]

The development surrounding Clyde's new ground at Broadwood has never been completed, in part because not enough supporters were attracted to the club's home games during its early seasons there. The team came close to being liquidated by its creditors, but was saved by the intervention of a consortium made up of a supporters' trust and some other investors.[39] Livingston's fanbase grew significantly after their move and the club was promoted three times over the next six years. Livingston finished third in the 2001–02 edition of the Scottish Premier League and won the Scottish League Cup in 2004. However, a series of financial problems then dogged the club over the next five years, culminating in an intense crisis during the 2008–09 season that nearly forced the team to close. Livingston's economic situation has stabilised since new owners took over in 2009.[41]

Another such instance of team relocation in Scotland occurred in 2002, when Airdrieonians, a second-tier club from the Lanarkshire town of Airdrie, went out of business. A new club called Airdrie United unsuccessfully applied for the newly vacated space in the League's fourth tier, but Gretna were elected instead.[42] The new team's owners thereupon bought the assets of financially troubled Clydebank, relocated that club 23 miles (37 km) east to Airdrie, and rebranded it as Airdrie United.[43] Disaffected Clydebank supporters formed a new club, also called Clydebank, in 2003, and joined the Scottish Junior Football Association.[44]

Early Milton Keynes relocation proposals[edit]

Charlton Athletic (1973)[edit]

The first Football League team to be linked with a move to Milton Keynes was the south-east London club Charlton Athletic, in 1973. The Gliksten family, which owned Charlton from 1932 to 1982,[45] had a history of proposing elaborate schemes for the club—on buying the team in 1932, they briefly planned to expand its home ground at The Valley to house 200,000 fans, which would have been a world record capacity. Jimmy Seed, Charlton's manager from 1933 to 1956, claimed in his autobiography that a subsequent financial quandary led the Glikstens to consider moving the club to South Africa to avoid taxes.[46] The Milton Keynes link came during another period of economic difficulty, soon after the club was relegated to the third tier at the end of the 1971–72 campaign; the new town was barely five years old.[47][48]

Towards the end of the 1972–73 season, the Glikstens revealed plans to build a community sports complex at The Valley, and to hold a public market at the ground on weekdays. Greenwich Council refused to licence the market, and insisted that the complex be built on public space at a local park. The club reacted by announcing it had been approached by "a progressive Midlands borough" which wished it to move there.[49] Fans inundated the local media and club offices with strong opinion against any relocation, prompting Charlton Athletic to print a statement in the match programme released on 14 April 1973, telling Charlton supporters that the club's proposed move was because of the council's attitude regarding the market and sports complex plans, which the team said threatened its future. "You, the supporters, can make sure the club continues in Charlton by protesting as loud as you can to Greenwich Council over their refusal to grant us permission for our plans," the message explained.[47] Fans immediately diverted their attention to the council, which soon caved and allowed the ground extensions. No relocation occurred.[49]

Wimbledon (1979)[edit]

Wimbledon play Oxford United at Plough Lane during the 1981–82 season

South-west London club Wimbledon, traditionally a semi-professional non-League side, were elected to The Football League before the 1977–78 season, having just won the previous three Southern League championships. They proceeded to perform strongly in fully professional football, winning promotion to the then-top flight First Division for the 1986–87 season.[50] The club's swift rise from obscurity through the English football pyramid, latterly described as a "fairytale" by the BBC,[5] caused the team to reach a level of prominence far above that suggested by its modest home stadium at Plough Lane, which remained largely unchanged from the club's non-League days.[5] Ron Noades, who purchased the club for £2,782 in 1976,[51] came to see Plough Lane as a potential limitation by 1979. He surmised that it could only attract a relatively small number of fans because of its location, close to large areas of sparsely-populated parkland.[52]

In 1979, when Wimbledon first won promotion from the Fourth Division after two seasons in the Football League, Noades' interest was piqued by the site designated by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation for a stadium next to the town's still-under-construction Central railway station.[52] Planning to move Wimbledon there through amalgamation with an established Milton Keynes club, Noades purchased debt-ridden Southern League club Milton Keynes City (MK City)[n 1] for £1.[52] He and three other Wimbledon directors—Jimmy Rose, Bernie Coleman and Sam Hammam—were promptly voted onto MK City's board "in an advisory capacity". Noades said at the time that the four directors were making a separate personal investment. The acquisition of MK City was not relevant to a potential move, he said, though he also spoke at length about the superior long-term promise of the Milton Keynes location.[53] Despite his early optimism, he soon became disillusioned about the plan, coming to the conclusion that his team would not draw larger crowds in Milton Keynes. "I couldn't really see us getting any bigger gates than what Northampton Town were currently getting at that time, and, in fact, are still getting," he explained, in a 2001 interview.[52] He sold MK City, and abandoned his planned relocation of Wimbledon.[52][53] He sold the club to Hammam for a figure between £40,000 and £100,000 in 1981, and bought nearby Crystal Palace later the same year.[51][54]

Luton Town (1983)[edit]

Luton Town, based some 15 miles from Milton Keynes in Luton, were also seeking a new site at this time. As early as 1960, then-First Division Luton's attendances had been deemed far too low for the top flight by Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, which also considered their ground at Kenilworth Road, in the middle of town, to be hard to get to.[55] At this time the club was already planning a 50,000-capacity ground near Dunstable, to the north-west of Luton,[55] but no new ground materialised. Luton were relegated in 1960 and, apart from the 1974–75 season, remained outside of the top division until 1982–83. With the team still based at Kenilworth Road, Luton's owners proposed moving to Milton Keynes, where, according to The Luton News, the hypothetically relocated and renamed "MK Hatters" would play home matches in a new "super-stadium".[55] The idea was very poorly received by Luton fans, and viewed, in Bale's words, as "tearing the club from its most loyal supporters".[29] Vehement opposition from Luton's local support combined with the wide unpopularity of the proposed move to prevent it from occurring.[55][56]

Wimbledon leave Plough Lane[edit]

Taylor Report[edit]

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Wimbledon moved about 6 miles (9.7 km) across south London, from Plough Lane to Selhurst Park, before the 1991–92 season. This move was supposed to be temporary while the club arranged a new stadium of its own on a more local site.[5]

After reaching the First Division before the 1986–87 season,[50] Wimbledon's success as a club in the top flight of English football was founded on unorthodox financial management and judicious dealings in the transfer market.[1] The team was granted planning permission to build a 20,000-capacity all-seater ground in its home borough of Merton in 1988, soon after it won the FA Cup, but the site was instead made into a car park by a newly elected Labour council in 1990. Wimbledon's desire to move was made a necessity a year later, when the Taylor Report, which ordered the extensive redevelopment of football grounds, was released.[5]

When Hammam purchased the club from Ron Noades in 1981, Wimbledon also owned the ground at Plough Lane; a pre-emption clause existed, however, which reserved the site for "sports, leisure or recreational purposes" only. If Wimbledon Football Club were ever wound up, Plough Lane's owners were legally bound to sell the ground to Merton Council for £8,000, irrespective of inflation.[54] This clause reduced the possibility of the club losing its home stadium, but it was unpopular with a succession of Wimbledon owners as it made the site practically worthless as real estate. Hammam complained that this limited his ability to borrow money needed to redevelop the ground.[54] Seeking to increase Plough Lane's commercial value, he entered into negotiations with the council to remove the clause in 1990; the eventual agreed price for the revoking of the clause was a sum between £300,000 and £800,000.[54] At least one Wimbledon club director resigned his position in protest.[54]

Even with this clause removed, the team could not afford to redevelop Plough Lane when required to do so the following year. As a result, it moved about 6 miles (9.7 km) across south London before the start of the 1991–92 season to share the Selhurst Park ground belonging to Noades' Crystal Palace. This was intended as a temporary arrangement while Wimbledon arranged the construction of their own new ground in a more local area, but the move was still unpopular among fans. Attendances fell in the years immediately following Wimbledon's departure from Plough Lane.[5]

Wimbledon at Selhurst Park[edit]

Wimbledon Stadium in 1995. The Greyhound Racing Association proposed to redevelop the ground for dogs and Wimbledon F.C. home matches in 1992, but nothing came of this.

Merton Council had been recommending that Wimbledon move to a site in nearby Beddington, but this proposal fell through soon after the move to Selhurst Park.[5] With the inflation in costs brought on by the foundation of the FA Premier League in 1992, the club soon began to lose money heavily.[1] Hammam attempted to find a new home for the club, but perceived the council to be showing little support for his efforts. In frustration, he sought to relocate within south London, examining "seven boroughs" including Tolworth and Brixton.[57] His anger at the council's attitude was such that he declared that in the event of such a move he would change the club's name entirely.[5] He later claimed to have looked at every possible site in Merton.[57] In 1992, the Greyhound Racing Association offered to redevelop Wimbledon Stadium (less than a mile from Plough Lane) into a 15,000-seater dog racing and football ground, but Hammam did not take up this offer.[5] Two years after this, the council, attempting to retain the Plough Lane site for public use, refused to sanction Hammam's proposed sale of the ground for a supermarket redevelopment. Hammam angrily "vow[ed] never to return to the ground".[5]

While remaining at the club in an advisory role, Hammam sold it to two Norwegian businessmen, Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten, in June 1997.[58] Six months later, Wimbledon were reported to be reconsidering the Wimbledon Stadium football and greyhounds option.[59] With political control of Merton Council having changed, Hammam secured the £8 million sale of Plough Lane to Safeway supermarkets in 1998.[54] He unsuccessfully attempted to gain permission to redevelop a former gas works in Merton during the same year,[54] and soon after once again launched abortive negotiations over a site in Beddington.[54]

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Hammam began to look further and further afield.[1] Despite the anger from a majority of supporters,[1] considered Basingstoke, "Gatwick" (near Crawley), Dublin, Belfast, Cardiff and (non-specifically) "Scotland" as potential new locations for the club.[5][57][60][61] He even received Premier League approval for his preferred option, Dublin, before the idea was vetoed by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) after a lengthy and often heated debate in Ireland.[54][57][62][63][64] According to Hammam, Wimbledon were during this time also approached by seven other teams, all from outside of London, each of whom offered to share their home ground.[57][n 4] After the FAI veto of the move to Dublin, Hammam attempted to buy Selhurst Park from Noades, still the owner of the ground despite his sale of Crystal Palace in 1998,[51] but this plan came to nothing.[54] Hammam subsequently sold his shares in Wimbledon in February 2000,[65] and became the owner of Cardiff City in September of that year.[66] Wimbledon, meanwhile, were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 1999–2000 season.[50]

Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium[edit]

Background and motivations[edit]

A man in a dark suit with wispy brown hair and a wide smile looks into the camera.
Consortium leader Pete Winkelman, pictured in 2011

The Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, led by Pete Winkelman and supported by Asda (a subsidiary of Wal-Mart) and IKEA, was formed in 2000.[54][67] The consortium proposed a large development in Milton Keynes, including a 30,000-capacity football stadium,[68][69] an Asda hypermarket,[68] an IKEA store, a hotel,[69] a conference centre and a retail park.[54][68][69] The decision to build such a ground was complicated by the fact that the highest ranked team in the town, Milton Keynes City,[16][n 1] was playing in the then eighth-tier Spartan South Midlands League, four divisions below The Football League.[16] The developers could not justify building a stadium of such a size for a club of this small stature.[67] According to Wimbledon fans opposed to the move, the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium resolved to immediately "import" an established Football League club to use the ground, rather than wait for MK City or any other local club to progress through the rankings over time.[67]

Wimbledon fans opposed to the move later surmised that the stadium was a "Trojan Horse" only included in the blueprint to bypass planning rules,[67] and that although the consortium described the Asda superstore as an "enabling development to finance the building of the stadium", in their view the opposite was in fact the case.[67] They said that this was why it was so necessary for the consortium to have a professional team in place right away: without one, the ground could not be built, and the development could not go ahead.[67] Whatever the truth, local Milton Keynes authorities favoured the plan. Council leader Norman Miles said that a relocated club would be welcomed, but also implied that its previous identity would be irrelevant: "It could be Southend or Blackpool I suppose," he said.[70]

Negotiations with various clubs[edit]

Plough Lane in 2000, standing derelict

The first club approached was Luton Town,[55][71] but discussions were broken off after The Football League refused to allow such a move, saying that no member club could leave its home town.[55] Nevertheless, the consortium attempted to negotiate a move with two London clubs over the following months. Crystal Palace (Wimbledon's landlords) and Barnet were each approached, but neither was interested.[55][61] The consortium then offered the ground to Wimbledon, saying that the club name, colours and badge would remain after any potential relocation.[72] At the same time, Winkelman began to register various internet domain names relating to "MK Dons", most prominently mkdons.co.uk and mkdons.com, both of which were registered through Tucows, Inc. on 23 June 2000.[73] Wimbledon rejected the initial proposal, made in late 2000,[54] but Charles Koppel, the new chairman appointed by the Norwegian owners in January 2001,[74] was in favour of accepting it.[54] He said that Wimbledon's owners were subsidising the club to the tune of £6 million per year, and that a relocation of this kind was necessary to prevent it from going out of business.[54]

The Milton Keynes consortium, meanwhile, turned its attention to west London club Queens Park Rangers, who were in financial administration at the time. QPR were promised that the club's name and its blue-and-white hooped strip would be kept if it moved, and that the club's fans would be represented on the board of directors.[67] Despite their economic difficulties, QPR dismissed the consortium's offer at the end of the 2000–01 season, leading the developers to once again contact Wimbledon in June 2001. With Koppel now in charge, the club was more receptive this time around.[54] As talks progressed, Winkelman approached the owner of Milton Keynes City, attempting to buy the club name.[67] It soon became clear that the bulk of Wimbledon's support strongly opposed a move of this kind.[75]

During early May 2001, Wimbledon and QPR briefly discussed possibly merging, with the new team playing at QPR's Loftus Road ground.[76] The Football League was officially informed of this plan on 2 May 2001; it announced the same day that it would give "favourable consideration" to a takeover of QPR by Wimbledon, but that the process would have to be very quick if the merged team were to take part in the 2001–02 season. Noades told the press that Wimbledon would have to give him 12 months' notice to leave Selhurst Park. The vast majority of Wimbledon and QPR fans quickly made their opposition to this plan known.[77] Following Wimbledon's draw with Norwich City at Selhurst Park on 6 May, Koppel came onto the pitch to address the home fans; he was greeted by a chorus of jeers from the Wimbledon supporters. Koppel said that "there never was a merger proposal with QPR",[78] that the discussions had been entirely instigated by the Loftus Road club and said that Wimbledon had only listened because QPR had a stadium to offer.[78] QPR abandoned the merger proposal two days later, citing potential fan alienation.[79]

Legal process[edit]

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Selhurst Park
Selhurst Park
Locations of Plough Lane, Selhurst Park and Milton Keynes

Koppel announced in August 2001 that Wimbledon Football Club intended to relocate to Milton Keynes.[75] The club made a formal application for Football League approval at the same time.[2] The proposed move was opposed in most quarters: along with most of Wimbledon's fans, both The Football Association and The Football League were against it.[1][2][3] Two similar club relocations had occurred within the Scottish Football League during the 1990s (albeit over shorter distances),[39][40] but the relocation of a Football League club in this manner was unprecedented. The Football League told the consortium that any Milton Keynes club would have to earn League membership by "progress[ing] through the pyramid" and unanimously rejected Wimbledon's application to move,[2][70] remarking that "franchised football" would be "disastrous".[80]

The decision was contested by Wimbledon, leading The Football Association to form an arbitration panel, made up of Association vice-chairman and Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, York City chairman Douglas Craig, and Charles Hollander QC.[2][81][82] Craig was a controversial choice for some because of his actions as York chief;[80] he had sold his club's stadium, Bootham Crescent, to a holding company he also owned for £165,000 in July 1999, and in December 2001 he had announced his intention to evict the team and sell the ground for £4.5 million.[83] Before the arbitration panel heard Wimbledon's appeal in January 2002, Winkelman said that even if the appeal were unsuccessful, "our door will be open to any club in trouble".[84]

The panel unanimously decided that the decision taken had "not been properly taken in the legal sense, and that the procedures had not been fair", reopening the possibility of Wimbledon moving.[2] As a result of this verdict, the League board reconvened on 17 April 2002 to reconsider the proposal, and concluded that the matter should be considered by an independent commission appointed by The Football Association.[2] The commission members chosen by the FA were solicitor Raj Parker; Alan Turvey, a member of the FA Council, and Chairman of the Isthmian League; and Steve Stride, the Operations Director at Aston Villa.[2] The commission ruled in favour of the move, by two votes to one (Turvey voted against[85]) on 28 May 2002.[2][3]

Relocation[edit]

Wimbledon F.C. and AFC Wimbledon are named in full throughout the following sections to avoid ambiguity.

Foundation of AFC Wimbledon; Wimbledon F.C. prepare to move[edit]

AFC Wimbledon (blue shirts) warm up before taking on Raynes Park Vale in a Combined Counties League game at Kingsmeadow, on the last day of the 2002–03 season

The Football Association announced that although the decision was final and binding, it still strongly opposed the relocation. It said that its recommendation to the independent commission had been against the move.[3] FA Chief Executive Adam Crozier, meanwhile, publicly said that he believed the commission to have made an "appalling decision".[86]

Many strongly disaffected Wimbledon F.C. fans regarded the move's sanctioning as the "death of their club", and decided to found their own team, in their view a spiritual continuation of the original. Within a matter of weeks, they had done so; the new side, AFC Wimbledon,[1][3] entered a groundsharing arrangement with Kingstonian, and moved into the latter club's home ground of Kingsmeadow, in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, adjacent to Wimbledon F.C.'s traditional home borough of Merton. The fans' club was accepted into the Combined Counties League, seven levels below Wimbledon F.C.'s place in the second tier, and began play at the start of the 2002–03 season.[60] Safeway meanwhile demolished Plough Lane, and sold it to a property developer in November 2002.[87]

Wimbledon F.C. became pejoratively nicknamed by some as "Franchise F.C.".[60] With most local fans following AFC Wimbledon instead of Wimbledon F.C., attendances at the original club's home matches at Selhurst Park fell far below those at Kingsmeadow.[60][88] Wimbledon F.C.'s resultant lower income contributed to the club entering administration in June 2003.[89][90] A month later, the largest football team in Milton Keynes, Milton Keynes City, went out of business, unable to secure the investment it required to continue.[17][18]

Proposed merger of Wimbledon F.C. and Luton Town[edit]

Soon following the end of the 2002–03 season, Luton Town were purchased by a consortium of "businessmen" from Hong Kong and the United States, led by John Gurney.[91] As Luton owner, Gurney floated the idea of buying Wimbledon F.C. and merging the club with Luton Town, "effectively buying a back door to Division One".[n 5] He said that he would approach the Wimbledon F.C. administrators to find out the terms as "it does no harm to ask the question".[91] Further ideas from Gurney included the building of a "70,000-capacity stadium" near Junction 10 on the M1, and the possible renaming of his club to London Luton "after the airport".[91] None of these plans was followed up, however. After six weeks of Gurney ownership described by Luton supporters' representative Yvonne Fletcher as "a complete nightmare, kind of Kafkaesque",[91] Luton Town entered administrative receivership "as a protective measure", resulting in Gurney's departure and the abandoning of his plans.[92][93]

Wimbledon F.C. in Milton Keynes[edit]

Milton Keynes Dons (white shirts) play against Blackpool at the National Hockey Stadium during the 2004–05 season

The College of Arms had informed Wimbledon F.C. in August 2002 that its continued use of the Wimbledon Borough arms for its logo was "unlawful" in light of the relocation, so a new badge was created before the 2003–04 season. Featuring a stylised eagle's head—an element from the Wimbledon arms—and drawn in navy blue and yellow outline, the yellow formed a rendering of the letters "MK" (for Milton Keynes).[94] Wimbledon F.C. started the season at Selhurst Park, before beginning play in Milton Keynes in September 2003. When the club moved, it was to the National Hockey Stadium, which had been temporarily converted for football use (construction had not yet started on the permanent stadium). In their first match there, on 27 September 2003, they drew 2–2 with Burnley.[95][96] The club proceeded to struggle both on and off the pitch throughout the rest of the season, spending its entirety in administration, and eventually finished bottom of the second-tier First Division, causing them to be relegated to English football's third level.[50][96]

In May 2004, soon after Wimbledon F.C.'s relegation, British journal Property Week reported that the construction of the new stadium would be cancelled were the club to go out of business.[97] Richard Foreman, a director of the consortium's development consultant, said in response that the project would continue with "the total support of the council" were this to happen;[97] the consortium would invite another League team to move to the new ground, he said, and would have 18 months to do so.[97] This did not prove necessary, however. Winkelman's consortium brought Wimbledon F.C. out of administration in June 2004,[98] and, although it had originally stated that the name "Wimbledon F.C." would remain in place regardless of the move,[72] changed the club's name, badge and colours soon after.[4]

AFC Wimbledon and Milton Keynes Dons identities contrasted[edit]

The new name of the relocated club was "Milton Keynes Dons Football Club" (commonly shortened to MK Dons),[4] a name made up of the team's new location and "Dons", a common nickname of Wimbledon-based sports teams, often associated particularly with Wimbledon Football Club. Winkelman's consortium explained that the name was intended to "represent the past, present and future and place the club at the heart of its new community" as well as to retain a connection with the club's former identity.[4] The blue and yellow colours that Wimbledon F.C. players had worn were concurrently replaced by an all-white strip, while the club badge became a rendering of the letters "MK", with the "K" positioned below the "M", rotated 90° anti-clockwise and defaced with the year "MMIV" (2004).[99]

By contrast, since AFC Wimbledon regards itself as the spiritual continuation of Wimbledon F.C., thus it attempts to emulate the original's appearance in almost every way: it wears the same blue and yellow home colours,[100][101] and, like Wimbledon F.C., uses a badge based on the local municipal coat of arms.[100] AFC Wimbledon continue to use the "Dons" nickname, despite its synchronous use in Milton Keynes. They also retain the "Wombles" label formerly applied to Wimbledon Football Club.[100]

New stadium in Milton Keynes[edit]

Main article: Stadium mk

The newly renamed Milton Keynes Dons continued to play at the National Hockey Stadium while the consortium's new ground was constructed. Despite the stadium's original proposed opening time of the 2004–05 season, ground had not yet even been broken on it; this only happened in February 2005.[102] MK Dons set a new target of January 2007 in December 2005,[103] and in February 2007 revised their proposal to a 22,000-seater stadium ready in July of that year, with provision for expansion to 32,000 (it had originally been intended to seat 30,000).[104] The first match at "Stadium mk" was played in July 2007.[105]

Legacy of Wimbledon F.C.[edit]

Dispute[edit]

Wimbledon F.C. and AFC Wimbledon trophies and memorabilia, exhibited together at Kingsmeadow in 2012

The location of the history and legacy of Wimbledon F.C., as well as the honours won by the club, was disputed for five years after the relocation's confirmation on 28 May 2002. In the view of AFC Wimbledon and that club's supporters, the "identity of a football club is implicitly bound up in its community".[106] The club regards itself as Wimbledon F.C.'s spiritual continuation to this day, holding that the community maintaining and backing AFC Wimbledon is the same one which originally formed Wimbledon Old Centrals (later Wimbledon F.C.) in 1889, "and kept Wimbledon Football Club alive until May 2002".[107]

On the other hand, Milton Keynes Dons initially maintained that any debate was pointless as Wimbledon F.C. and MK Dons were legally the same entity. Matters such as name, colours and location, they said, were not relevant to the issue of a football club's history. Winkelman was unequivocal when answering readers' questions in FourFourTwo magazine in November 2004: "MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon share the same heritage, but we're the real child of Wimbledon", he wrote.[108] One reader asked if Winkelman agreed that, in light of his renaming and thorough rebranding of the relocated club, AFC Wimbledon now carried "the true spirit of Wimbledon"; Winkelman replied that AFC Wimbledon's founders had betrayed their club, and had "left their team before their team left them". In another answer, he poured scorn on suggestions that he might give Wimbledon F.C.'s trophy replicas to AFC Wimbledon, writing that the fans had "abdicated their right to it when they all walked away."[108] "The fans who have continued to support us from London—they're the ones who've had to put up with this shit for so long", he concluded.[108]

The Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (WISA), which has been affiliated with AFC Wimbledon since that club's establishment, formed the Wimbledon Old Players Association (WOPA) in September 2005, as part of its drive to "reclaim the history of Wimbledon Football Club for AFC Wimbledon and/or the community of Wimbledon".[109] Membership was opened to any former Wimbledon F.C. or AFC Wimbledon player or manager. There were 60 founder members.[109] The AFC Wimbledon-backed WOPA team competed as "Wimbledon" in the London Masters indoor football tournament in July 2006.[110] Plough Lane was replaced by a residential development comprising six blocks of flats. Representatives of AFC Wimbledon, the WISA, Merton Council, Barratt Homes and the Dons Trust attended a ceremony in November 2008 at which the development's gate and each of the buildings was named after a figure from Wimbledon F.C.'s past.[111]

2006 Agreement[edit]

Stadium mk in May 2007, soon before its official opening

Despite Winkelman's strong words in 2004, his club later agreed to hold talks with the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), the Milton Keynes Dons Supporters Association and the WISA. The FSF was refusing to admit MK Dons supporters because of objections by the WISA, which was also encouraging other clubs' fans to boycott MK Dons home games. The parties aimed to resolve this, and came to an agreement in 2006. The WISA would remove its objections with the FSF regarding MK Dons supporters, and stop calling for a boycott of MK Dons matches, and in return Milton Keynes Dons would renounce any claim to a history before 2004, and transfer the Wimbledon F.C. trophy replicas and other physical paraphernalia to Merton Borough. All of this was done in August 2007.[112] The Wimbledon F.C. trophies were subsequently put on public display at Morden Library in Merton, alongside other club memorabilia, in April 2008.[113]

Many MK Dons fans continue to relate their club's former identity as Wimbledon. At the first meeting between AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons in 2012, some MK fans wore scarves bearing the Wimbledon name, and Wimbledon F.C. shirts.[114][115]

Wimbledon Guardian "Drop the Dons" campaign[edit]

Since January 2012, the Wimbledon Guardian newspaper has run a campaign called "Drop the Dons", which aims to presuade the owners of Milton Keynes Dons to remove "Dons" from the club's name. The Guardian campaigners say that the continued use of the name in Milton Keynes serves as an ever-present reminder of the relocation to all concerned, and causes mutual ill-feeling. "Milton Keynes can show the football world, and Wimbledon’s supporters, they are sensitive to the past and willing to build bridges," the campaign manifesto explains. "[W]e ask Milton Keynes Dons to do the right thing for them and for us."[116] The WISA joined the campaign almost immediately, saying that it believed the use of "Dons" by MK Dons was counter-productive for all parties, and attached stigma to the Milton Keynes side in the eyes of some.[117]

The campaign has since been publicly backed by several former Wimbledon F.C. and AFC Wimbledon figures, including former AFC Wimbledon manager Dave Anderson,[118] and Chris Perry, a ex-Wimbledon F.C. player who grew up in the local area as a fan of the club.[119]

Most MK Dons supporters reacted to the campaign with anger. One season-ticket holder interviewed by the Milton Keynes Citizen, a former Wimbledon F.C. fan based in London, suggested that "AFC Wimbledon should drop Wimbledon from their name as they don't play in Wimbledon."[120]

The Drop the Dons campaign was joined by both Merton Members of Parliament and all 60 of the borough's councillors. The leaders of Merton and Milton Keynes Councils met in Milton Keynes in April 2012 to discuss the campaign, and agreed to differ on the matter of a name change. However, some common ground was found regarding the football clubs' mutual relations, which the councillors both said could be improved. Merton Councillor Stephen Alambritis told the Wimbledon Guardian that the parties had agreed to meet again in Merton to discuss the matter further.[121]

Fixtures between AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons[edit]

The first fixture between the two sides took place in the second round of the 2012–13 FA Cup, where they were drawn to play each other at Stadium:MK. MK Dons won the match, held on 2 December 2012, by two goals to one, with a winner scored in injury time, scored by Jon Otsemobor and dubbed by the MK Dons fans as "The Heel of God" (a spoof of the Hand of God).[122] In the second game when Kyle McFadzean scored the opening goal with his heel it was immediately dubbed "The Heel of God II".

Notes and references[edit]

Footnotes
  1. ^ a b c The name "Milton Keynes City" (MK City) refers to two different non-League clubs. The first was formerly known as Bletchley Town F.C., and was called MK City from 1974 until its liquidation in 1985. The second was previously called Mercedes-Benz F.C., and played as MK City from 1998 until its own demise in 2003.[16][17][18]
  2. ^ Wolverton Town & B.R. went through a variety of names after the founding of Milton Keynes in 1967. It dropped the "B.R." suffix from its name in 1981, then added "(Milton Keynes)" in 1987, becoming Wolverton Town (Milton Keynes). A year later the naming order was reversed, with the club now calling itself Milton Keynes Wolverton Town. Finally, in 1990, the name Wolverton A.F.C. was adopted. This remained until the club's closure in 1992.[19][20][21][22]
  3. ^ Newport Pagnell Wanderers became Newport Pagnell Town in 1972.[25]
  4. ^ The clubs Hammam named were Birmingham City, Brighton & Hove Albion, Hull City, Luton Town, Portsmouth, Watford and West Bromwich Albion.[57]
  5. ^ During the 2003–04 season, Luton Town played in the third-tier Second Division, one division below Wimbledon F.C.[50]
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Bibliography

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