The announcement of England's 17 preliminary World Cup venues was supposed to get the stuttering 2018 bid back on track. Instead, the inclusion of Stadium MK has caused yet more controversy

England’s 2018 World Cup bid has not been going well. Members of the organising committee have squabbled repeatedly and it has been suggested that the government want FA chairman Lord Triesman to step down as the bid leader. Meanwhile, some of the FIFA voters who need to be wooed have complained about the high-handed manner displayed by members of the bidding team.

This is supposed to have been rectified somewhat by frenetic networking in South Africa last month when the 2010 World Cup draw was being made, with David Beckham shuttled back and forth to clasp hands and pat shoulders. The new positivity was then undermined when the animated film shown in support of England’s bid was said to resemble an outtake from South Park.

Nonetheless, Triesman and co will have been anticipating a blitz of positive headlines last month when the preliminary list of venues for 2018 was announced. But that went horribly wrong too. The 17 stadiums on the shortlist, set to be whittled down at the end of the bidding process, include Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield or its successor and, “last but not least” as Lord Mawhinney put it when making the announcement, Stadium MK in Milton Keynes.

The uprooting of Wimbledon from South London to Buckinghamshire was the single most contentious decision made by English football administrators in modern times. It’s inconceivable that the 2018 bidding team could be unaware of the strong aversion that many football supporters feel for MK Dons and what they represent. So the decision to include Milton Keynes looks like an attempt to retrospectively justify the team’s creation, not least when the Midlands, a region representing one sixth of League clubs, only has two venues on the list.

One of the main selling points of England’s 2018 bid is the fact there is deep-rooted interest in football at all levels throughout the country. Yet there was no such enthusiasm in Milton Keynes until they acquired a League club less than a decade ago, previous attempts to develop a team having foundered on local apathy.

Then again, the notion that MK Dons deserve respect has been growing for a while in football circles. One example came last May when John Still, the manager of Dagenham & Redbridge, was interviewed by Sky prior to the final round of matches in League Two. If his side went up through the play-offs, Still said, they could potentially face five trips to big clubs next season. He then ticked off the names – the three sides relegated from the Championship, plus Leeds and MK Dons. In the event, Still was to be denied his wish as Dagenham lost their vital final game to Shrewsbury. It could be that being the manager of Dagenham & Redbridge, an entity assembled from the parts of four clubs, may give you an odd perspective on what constitutes a proper football team. But Still’s outlook is far from unusual.

Scunthorpe acquired temporary fans around the country when they played MK Dons in the first leg of the League One play-off last May, just as Shrewsbury did when they faced the team widely known as “Franchise” at the same stage, but one level further down, three years ago. Shrewsbury’s then manager, Gary Peters, had played for Wimbledon in the 1980s and spoke out against the club’s relocation in the build-up to the match.

This was a rare case of a football insider expressing their opposition to the Dons’ existence. When Peters’s team went on to win the tie, some optimists may have wondered if it would be the beginning of a slide into obscurity for Milton Keynes – surely the local interest in the club, whipped up by an expensive PR campaign, wouldn’t be sustained over a long spell at the fourth level? Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to find out as Paul Ince’s side easily won promotion in 2008.

It may still be the case that the club will go into decline if they get stuck at the third level but now that the FA have a vested interest in promoting their cause, we can expect to hear a lot more about MK Dons being a club in their own right. Members of England’s bidding team have wittered on about the “legacy” that will be left by staging the World Cup. In Milton Keynes’ case this will involve a 44,000-capacity stadium, a white elephant towering over the famous field of concrete cows. Actually, that sounds about right.

From WSC 276 February 2010

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