Merton, not Milton
Will Wimbledon FC be based in Wimbledon much longer? Kris Stewart doesn't seem the think so, unfortuantely
On May 4, 1991, Wimbledon lost 3-0 to Crystal Palace at Plough Lane. It wasn’t until after the game that I knew for certain we were moving to Selhurst Park. Plough Lane had done us proud since 1912, but the demands of the Taylor Report, we were told, made a “temporary” move inevitable. Since then, we have played 486 consecutive matches away from home. As soon as we moved, we started hearing rumours linking us to all sorts of places, the worst being a plan to take us to Dublin.
Having successfully fought that idea, there were mixed feelings when we heard that two Norwegian businessmen, Kjell Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten, had bought into the club. Some hoped for new investment, others worried that they were just looking to cash in on the football explosion in England. After buying the rest of Sam Hammam’s stake, the Norwegian owners talked in vague terms about the need for a home ground. Then on January 3, a Milton Keynes newspaper claimed Wimbledon would soon be moving there. The story included a quote from Gjelsten saying “Milton Keynes looks like the most realistic option”.
Milton Keynes council leader Norman Miles said: “It could be Southend or Blackpool I suppose, but as a city we would welcome a major football club.” Phyllis Starkey, MP for Milton Keynes, added: “I’m sure that when they arrive people will support them rather than travel to football as they do now.” While these people obviously know nothing about football, it was worrying to see politicians throwing their weight behind the idea. The Football League confirmed they knew about the stadium plan but had had no approach from any club hoping to play there. Such a move would need the permission of the League, who have told the consortium that any club in Milton Keynes would have to progress through the pyramid.
A statement from Merton Council said: “There is too much history and passion surrounding the club to let it become extinct in this borough. We would be delighted to talk to the club about any option in the future.” The club issued a bland statement saying they were “evaluating various opportunities”.
There was a sit-in after our next match at Selhurst Park with around 1,000 fans protesting against the proposed move. With Gjelsten and deputy chairman Charles Koppel abroad, chief executive David Barnard addressed the crowd. He had nothing to add to the official statement, but promised he would pass on our feelings to the club’s owners.
Gjelsten agreed to meet fans’ representatives on January 24 to discuss the search for a stadium. A second demonstration, supported by even more fans, went ahead after the game with Preston. We also petitioned the club and the League, asking them to rule out the move.
The Norwegian freely admitted that a proposal to move to Milton Keynes had been looked into but nothing had been agreed with anyone. The active search had been delayed by relegation but would “start here”, meaning straight away. Ideas would be welcome from supporters, but it should be understood that a “gift” stadium wasn’t on offer– a partner would probably be required and any stadium would need to provide extra revenue streams. He stressed the urgency of having our own stadium– there are four and a half years left on the Selhurst Park lease, and while it could probably be extended, every year without our own ground is bad for the club. The search would start in Merton and work its way outwards– the target would be “in, or as near as possible to Merton”.
Gjelsten ended the meeting by stressing that he saw this as the start of a dialogue with fans. We were further encouraged by a press release from Wimbledon MP Roger Casale, a long-standing supporter of our return to Merton. Casale also encouraged Phyllis Starkey to say that “the best solution would be if Wimbledon FC were able to find and finance a new ground within its home borough.” Fine words, but so far we do not seem much closer to the reality.
From WSC 169 March 2001. What was happening this month
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