Developing a complex

After three years in Milton Keynes, the Dons still don't have a proper ground and are facing up to League Two football. Graham Dunbar looks at the state of Pete Winkelman's bastard brainchild

The line-up of talent playing in Milton Keynes this year is surprisingly expensive and all thanks to a stagnating stadium-building project. Why else would Robbie Williams spend five September nights in Britain’s fastest-growing urban centre, were it not for the continuing and ludicrous unavailability of the new Wembley? The part-owner of Port Vale seems to have no further need to visit football grounds.

Other ticket-shifters forced to switch from the Neasden construction site to the grassy Milton Keynes Bowl include Bon Jovi and Take That (reunited but minus Robbie, for those too embedded in their World Cup sofa to notice).

Those visits were a welcome bonus for the civic leaders who, with next year’s 40th birthday celebrations for their new city in mind, could still consider “If you don’t build it, they will come” as their new motto. Let’s face it, the average leisure consumers of MK need all the entertainment they can get.

Supporters of franchised football, once Wimbledon FC were ripped out of south London and dumped in north-east Buckinghamshire in September 2003, have seen a hopeless plummet from the Championship, last-gasp survival in League One a year later then, again on the final day, relegation to League Two. For the romantics, that’s just three levels above AFC Wimbledon in the Isthmian League Premier Division.

A fourth season at the gusty National Hockey Stadium was never intended, but the new ground next to the A5 at Denbigh North is overdue and over-budget. Delays, denials, disputes with contractors – the similarities with New Wembley suggest Denbigh North has not been rightfully acknowledged as a monument to the woeful state of British project management.

The design by HOK, the people who devised the Sydney Olympic Stadium and Arsenal’s new sci-fi spectacular, is quite attractive. It’s an enclosed bowl to UEFA four-star standards, seating 22,000 – with an option to increase capacity to 30,000 – under an elevated roof that allows more light through the back of the terrace. A 6,500-seat indoor arena is being attached to one end and will stage concerts, exhibitions and home games of the MK Lions (a basketball team).

So much for the where and what; the how and why is more intriguing. The stadium would not exist without the enabling powers of Wal-Mart, the monolithic American retailer and now the parent company of Asda, famed for denying its staff union rights and killing off small family businesses wherever it sets up shop. The deal for 73 acres of land was done between the owners – the council and regeneration agency English Partnerships – and prospective tenants Asda and Inter MK, the holding company that took Wimbledon FC out of administration three years ago.

Asda/Wal-Mart wanted a foothold in Milton Keynes but needed the Trojan horse of a football stadium to dodge planning laws restricting out-of-town retail development. A third tenant, IKEA, was soon on board to complete a holy trinity worthy of our consumerist age.

IKEA duly opened last Christmas with reindeer, ice sculptors and an Abba tribute band to entertain the lunatic early arrivers who were greeted at the door by Pete Winkelman, football club chairman and Inter MK frontman. Winkelman it was who promised that his stadium would host football by the summer of 2004, then Christmas ’05, then June ’06. Now it’s full steam ahead for August next year which, even then, might beat the first chorus of Abide With Me heard inside New Wembley.

The first delay was blamed on the football club being in administration before a war of attrition ensued with preferred contractor McAlpine. Inter MK wanted the job done for £35 million; McAlpine stuck to its £44m quote and was ditched.

That was in November 2004, with Winkelman insisting “there is absolutely no problem whatsoever” meeting the August 2006 deadline. Local firm Buckingham Group Contracting signed a deal at £42m, although the project is routinely valued at £50m. The stadium still has no name, though a working title of the New National Bowl hints at a broader business plan for Inter MK, which was rebuffed in a bid to turn the original Bowl into a training ground and Olympic village.

Cynics might suggest that the ideal core business for Inter MK is events and concerts, which is certainly a business Winkelman knows. He made his money in music, some of it promoting 1980s cartoon girl punks We’ve Got A Fuzzbox & We’re Gonna Use It, and now hangs out at his manor-house recording studio and his football club. It is easy to sneer at Winkelman. For starters, there are his many style crimes and gushing platitudes. Yet if he was a slick corporate clone he would be loathed for who he is, rather than simply for what he has done. It is not necessarily his fault that he cannot convince genuine fans of football who trust their own eyes that the whole Milton Keynes Dons project is actually about the club.

From WSC 235 September 2006. What was happening this month