A Young Lad from Milton Keynes
I have a confession to make. My first appearance at a Football League game wasn’t at The Valley, nor was it with the travelling away fans to watch Charlton play; Charlton were not involved at all. It was the Saturday before Kevin Lisbie waltzed round the Liverpool defence to wrap up his hat-trick on the Sunday; September 27th 2003.
I couldn’t tell you why I chose to go, I think that decision was made for me, but I’d started to develop something more than just a passing interest in the game that would come to dominate my life. Watching, alongside 400 others, Chris Dillon and Rene Howe bang in the goals for Bedford Town with a homemade bread pudding from the club’s tea hut was one thing, but this was ‘proper’ football to my 8-year-old eyes. A ‘proper’ stadium with the added bonus of seats, ‘proper’ teams that I could play with on FIFA and ‘proper’ players whose names I’d heard before.
That stadium was the National Hockey Stadium, those teams were Wimbledon and Burnley and amongst those players were Nigel Reo-Coker, Mikele Leigertwood and Jermaine Darlington. I was amongst the 5,639 who witnessed Wimbledon’s first ever game in Milton Keynes; a 2-2 draw.
I couldn’t tell you much about, apart from I remember being told off by my dad for blindly informing the referee he wasn’t very good at his job and a trip to an optician wouldn’t go amiss. But, despite my mind holding onto very few memories from the day ten years on, I clearly enjoyed it as I was back in the stands at the National Hockey Stadium just less than a month later to watch Wimbledon lose 3-1 to Watford.
I’d now seen two Wimbledon games before I’d even considered following in my dad’s footsteps and becoming a Charlton fan. The only thing I knew about Charlton was that their players’ Shoot-Out card weren’t rated very highly and they had Scott Parker, who shared a name with one of my schoolmates, which was rather cool.
In fact, I took in the temporary and unroofed stand behind the goal at the National Hockey Stadium one more time for a league game before a trip to The Valley was even mentioned. Only this was a bit different. The home team were no longer called ‘Wimbledon’, but the rather strange sounding ‘MK Dons’ and they’d ditched the blue and gold for a white kit colour. I was completely oblivious to the outrage, all I knew was that I was witnessing MK Dons’ first ever competitive game, it was far too hot and the girl next to me was very over friendly to the point of making me uncomfortable. So whilst she offered me sweets, I pretended to be so transfixed in the game, a 1-1 draw against Barnsley with Izale McLeod scoring the new club’s first ever goal, that I couldn’t hear or see her. But she had the right idea; I would have rather drowned myself in a sugar coated feast than have watched the game. It was a bit (unbearably) dull (boring).
Thankfully I was saved from the tedium of MK Dons by a trip to The Valley on a Tuesday night to watch a Francis Jeffers inspired (no, really) Charlton beat Aston Villa by three goals to nil. This was very different to my previous football watching experiences. There was a sense that this club meant a lot to the people inside the really big stadium that was even bigger to the one in Milton Keynes. The atmosphere, the passion, the experience; it was all very different to the novelty of Wimbledon/MK Dons. There was a Charlton supporting bug to be caught, and I caught it straight away. At no point watching football in Milton Keynes did I feel especially attached or connected to the home team; I didn’t really care what the result was.
And that is Milton Keynes Dons in a nutshell; a novelty. Even before I was old enough to understand the controversy behind their existence, I was able to realise that, by comparing them to Charlton, they weren’t how a football club should be. I continued to attend MK Dons games when Charlton were away, I went to plenty after their move to Stadium:MK and I even went to the JPT Final. I had an MK Dons shirt, I wanted them to win, but was I a fan? No. Was anyone, baring those who had chosen to carry on supporting the club that had replaced Wimbledon, a ‘fan’ of Milton Keynes Dons in their formative years? I don’t believe so. The majority of people in attendance, and those attendances had improved by several thousand after Stadium:MK was opened, were there for something to do in a dull town on a Saturday afternoon, a family outing or similar.
So why and when did I grow apart from the Dons, why did I start to despise them? There are two reasons for that. The first is quite simple, Charlton dropped down to League One and would now be playing in the same division as the Milton Keynes club, I couldn’t possibly have any affiliation, however insignificant, with a club that would be competing with my club for promotion to the Championship. The second reason is that I not only, as a slightly older child, had the knowledge to understand MK Dons’ situation, but, more importantly, had the experience to understand it. Despite living 70 odd miles away from South East London, I felt a part of the Charlton community. I felt like I belonged to this club and to this group of people. Even as a ‘visitor’, I knew that taking a football club out of a community would be crippling. Charlton got me through some difficult times in my life, and the thought of having the club taken away from me when I was at my most fragile was sickening.
It’s from that understanding and those bonds that I had for Charlton that I realised that my first game of league football should never have been in Milton Keynes. Wimbledon should never have been taken away from their community.
The Historical Bit
Wimbledon’s infamous move to Milton Keynes came as a result of their own success. After winning Division Four in the 1982/83 season, the club were in the top flight by 1986/87 and finished in 6th above the likes of Manchester United (11th) and Chelsea (14). Their infamous FA Cup success followed in the next season, with Lawrie Sanchez’s goal securing an unlikely win over Liverpool at Wembley, but things weren’t quite so rosy off the field.
The Taylor Report, commissioned after the Hillsborough tragedy and released in 1991,called for all-seater stadia across the country. Wimbledon’s Plough Lane was far from the standards required to meet the criteria in the report and the club were unable to finance redevelopment of the ground, meaning they were forced to make what was meant to be a temporary switch to Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park whilst a site to develop a new ground on, and financing to do so, was found.
A wonderful idea in theory, hide out at your neighbour’s base until you’ve been given the eyes for your new home, but it was far from ideal in practice. A proposed site in Merton became a car park, a recommendation to move to Beddington was knocked back, Tolworth and Brixton offered no sign of a location, whilst chairman Sam Hammam, angered with Merton Council, rejected a plan by the Greyhound Racing Association to redevelop Wimbledon Stadium and also vowed never to return to Plough Lane despite the council’s efforts to keep it in public use.
With the search for a ground going absolutely nowhere, Wimbledon’s finances were heading in reverse with attendances falling amidst the added cost burdens the Premier League brought. Selling the club to Norwegian pair Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Rune Gjlsten in 1997, in addition to finally securing the sale of Plough Lane, there was at least some hope the finances would stabilise whilst Hammam, who remained at the club in advisory role, looked further afield for a new home for his club. The Premier League gave him permission to move Wimbledon to Ireland, only for the FAI, who thankfully had a bit more common sense, to reject the bizarre proposal.
After attempting to buy Selhurst Park, Hammam eventually gave up, selling his shares in the same season that Wimbledon were relegated to the second tier, leaving the Norwegians to fend for themselves. By this time, the 1999/2000 season, the pair had already realised that the club wasn’t financially violable and a huge burden they didn’t fancy having on their shoulders, so they left the day-to-day running of the club to their colleague Charles Koppel.
South African Koppel had had success managing a powerboat racing team, but he’d never seen a game of football in his life and had no idea about the nuisances of the game that make it so much more than just a business. He couldn’t have understood my emotional attachment to Charlton Athletic, all he could understand was that the club’s balance sheet didn’t make for pretty reading. Cue a fire sale of players, a number of sackings in the backroom staff and an inevitable relegation to the Championship. But, of course, what happened on the pitch didn’t matter to Koppel. “We can’t maximise the potential of hospitality, of advertising hoardings, of anything here,” he said, completely ignoring the fact that dropping to what is now the Championship lowers potential income.
The crazy Norwegians and the clueless Koppel needed a saviour; they need the burden off their shoulders. In stepped a man with facial features created by God’s work experience understudy at 4:30PM on a Wednesday, hair that belonged to man with considerably less wealth and an unconfident stutter; not your traditional hero at the eleventh hour. But in stepped Pete Winkleman, along with his chums ASDA and IKEA, as part of the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium to offer the owners a way out and Wimbledon a way out.
The consortium, aptly, was looking to build a stadium in the new-ish city-except-it’s-not-a-city-city of Milton Keynes. But they had a problem; how do you go about justifying the building of a football stadium when the local club, the now defunct Milton Keynes City, plays its football at level eight in the football pyramid? You sit on your backside and wait for the club to rocket through the divisions, obviously. Alternatively, you can ask every club in a 100 mile radius with the slightest whiff of financial problems whether they fancy a new home. Winkleman opted for the second option.
Luton were approached, but the FA, strangely enough, rejected the proposal stating that no member club could leave its home town. Crystal Palace, Barnet and QPR all were given the chance to move to Milton Keynes and keep their name, colours and badge, but all laughed off the suggestion, as did Wimbledon initially to the back drop of some very disgruntled fans.
But Winkleman, who had registered ‘mkdons.co.uk’ and ‘mkdons.com’, along with attempting to buy the Milton Keynes City club name, moved for Wimbledon again in 2001 and didn’t get a no. After a move to merge the club with QPR broke down, Wimbledon and Koppel were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They only option they had was the offer from Milton Keynes, if that wasn’t accepted than the club would end.
Koppel announced in August 2001 that he intended to allow the club to be moved to Milton Keynes, but the FA and the Football League, not forgetting almost every fan in the country, rejected the proposal. The Football League, in possibly the most sensible thing they have ever said, told Winkleman’s consortium that a Milton Keynes club would have to move up the pyramid and that franchised football would be disastrous. However, the decision was overturned by an FA Panel in May 2002; Wimbledon were off to Milton Keynes.
Wimbledon fans were fighting a losing battle, especially when Koppel told residents near Plough Lane to actively protest against any plans the club’s fans might have to move back to their former home, so they opted for a previously unprecedented route. They formed their own club. AFC Wimbledon were born just a few days after the FA decision, and in the following season were attracting more fans than the original club at Selhurst Park, who were sliding into administration.
With AFC on the up, Wimbledon were on the verge of going out of business even after their move to Milton Keynes. Relegated from the second tier, the club’s financial problems worsened amidst reports that the stadium deal would be off if the club were to go bust. Winkleman, desperate not to see his ‘hard work’ ruined, bought the club in June 2004 and immediately took them out of administration before changing their colours, badge and name. MK Dons were born.
Do MK Have a Leg to Stand On?
Sickening. A club not only taken away from its fans, but completely destroyed. It’s why so many football fans hold a soft spot for AFC Wimbledon, whose incredible climb up the leagues has gone someway to elevating the suffering Wimbledon fans have had to endure, and despise the Milton Keynes club. It was horribly unfortunate when the two sides were drawn together in the FA Cup last season, made even worse by the face the game was played in Milton Keynes and gut wrenching by the score. I’m so glad I lost the association I had with the club in my naïve youth.
But there are those that argue AFC don’t deserve the sympathy they get, not least Winkleman himself. With the fact that MK Dons are the legal continuation of Wimbledon as his foundation, Winkleman suggested that the fans of the original club betrayed it ‘before their team left them’ and that the fans had ‘abdicated their right’ to owning Wimbledon’s trophy replicas when ‘they all walked away’.
Thankfully, Winkleman changed his tune when the Football Supporters Federation refused to admit MK Dons supporters in after the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association had objected to them and called for other teams to boycott their trips to Milton Keynes. The disagreements were somewhat resolved when Wimbledon reclaimed their history and silverware, with MK Dons renouncing any claims to history before 2004, in 2006. Hurrah for common sense.
But What Now?
Do we start to accept Franchise FC? Several opinions and pieces, in support of MK Dons, inspired me to investigate this situation further and give myself a platform with which to answer the aforementioned question of acceptance.
The novelty boosted crowds that brought an average attendance of over 10,000 for two seasons at Stadium:MK is now a thing of the past, the last two seasons have seen an average of 8,000 or so spectators per game, but the Dons are developing their own fan base. The first generation of Milton Keynes born Milton Keynes Dons fans are supporting their club like anyone else would; Like someone of a similar age from the Wimbledon area would support AFC. It’s not their fault their local team was given to them in an unethical manner, and in that regard I have sympathy.
Some credit must also be given to Winkleman, whose project has been a success. The area around the stadium is a thriving retail location which has produced 100s if not 1000s of jobs for a young, local community. The football club in Milton Keynes has worked wonders for the town of Milton Keynes.
The club also has excellent community links, with a football trust that engages with 60,000 people a year on top of affordable tickets for youngsters and a thriving academy with several youth internationals.
However, any sympathy or praise ends there. Let’s strip this down to the bare, footballing bones without the legal side of things. Football is much more than facts and documents. For starters, all of the praise that can be given to MK Dons is done so by ignoring the fact it shouldn’t have been achievable in the first place and has been achieved unethically. A bit like finding out the answers to a test before hand and getting top marks; it looks good, but it really isn’t right.
Even when disregarding the obvious injustice of a football club being taken away from a local community, a football injustice remains. MK Dons play in a higher division than AFC Wimbledon; a brand new club in MK Dons have high jacked the league position of the former Wimbledon through no on the pitch effort, whilst the new Wimbledon were forced to work their way up through the leagues over several seasons.
What you have to ask yourself is would AFC moving above MK in the league ladder make everything right? Of course not, the damage that has been done is irreversible. If AFC were to reach the Premier League, or even the Championship were their former club left off, would they suddenly forgive and accept the Milton Keynes club? Of course they wouldn’t. Would the rest of the footballing world care less about the ethics of MK Dons’ existence if they dropped below AFC? Possibly in two or three generations time, but certainly not now. MK Dons is no normal club and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Some comfort can be taken from AFC Wimbledon’s plans to return to Plough Lane. Whilst it certainly won’t feel like it to those close to club, from the outside it looks like, after they return to their former home, they’ll have everything back that they once lost except from the league they were in. As much as AFC fans will wish the situation never occurred, what they’ve got in the shape of their current club is very special.
With thanks to @harrymkdons04