As the final stage of the absurd reinvention of Wimbledon in Milton Keynes moves closer, Ian Pollock points the finger at those who failed to protect football in south-west London
It’s nearly two years since the Football Association’s infamous three-man commission approved the move of Wimbledon Football Club from south-west London to Milton Keynes. After staggering around like a zombie in a graveyard for most of that time, the club now appear to have overcome the main hurdles to establishing themselves in their new home and springing back to life. The acceptance by creditors on March 18 of a company voluntary arrangement means that WFC may finally come out of administration on April 6, subject to final approval by the Football League.
That will be a momentous event. For the first time a club will have completed the novel process of becoming a franchise. A large town in the south Midlands will have leap-frogged the entire pyramid structure of English football. All that is now needed is for the club to change their name to something such as MK Dons and the transformation of WFC will be complete.
The plans of Pete Winkelman, the music promoter who has been the main mover in this project, have led a charmed life. The move has taken place despite the FA and Football League both claiming, ineffectually, that they didn’t like it. Their failure to uphold their own rules set an example that has now been followed by the local and national planning authorities.
Last December Milton Keynes council approved the plans of the Asda supermarket group to build a stadium for the club in Milton Keynes in return for being allowed to build a huge regional superstore there. That’s despite the very obvious fact that the plans are a gross breach of the government’s much trumpeted policy of opposing the development of out-of-town shopping centres.
Then in February John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, did the same thing. He openly acknowledged that the proposal may be in breach of several planning policies. However, his main consideration was that Milton Keynes is one of his four areas in England designated for expansion and the building of new homes. So the stadium and supermarket were waved through.
So, that’s all right then? Not quite. The whole project has been based on assumptions that so far have turned out to be completely wrong. Two years ago the FA’s commission was persuaded by the claims of the then chairman Charles Koppel. He told them that if WFC moved it would be able to play in its own stadium in front of larger crowds and make lots of money. That was the only alternative to going bust at Selhurst Park. And at least 1,000 Dons fans would go to MK each week to watch their old team as part of what Winkelman publicly called a footballing frenzy waiting to happen.
In fact the new stadium, when built, will be owned by Winkelman’s consortium. The club became insolvent in Milton Keynes anyway. And the crowds have been smaller at the temporary home of the hockey stadium than for the equivalent fixtures two seasons ago, when Wimbledon fans were still watching. Meanwhile the club are plummeting out of Division One, on course for a record low number of points.
The local council in Milton Keynes said one reason for supporting Winkelman’s plan was that it would provide a better class of football for local people to watch than at nearby clubs such as Luton, Rushden & Diamonds and Northampton. But Wimbledon are now certain to join two of them in Division Two.
One of the most insulting pronouncements of the FA’s commission was that it would not be in the wider interests of football for a new club to be set up by WFC’s former fans. But the club they did form – AFC Wimbledon – look certain to finish their second season in existence as runaway winners of the Combined Counties League. They are already one of the best supported non-League teams in the country.
So far the football authorities have failed to fulfil their promise to change their rules to stop any other club moving. The FA and Football League have shown themselves unfit to run the game. They are just trade associations for whichever group of chairmen happen to own clubs at any one time. We can vote out councillors, MPs and governments. But football fans can’t get rid of the FA or Football League. The government should do it instead, stripping the authorities of their regulatory role and imposing a football commissioner instead, with the explicit job of driving shysters out of club ownership, upholding traditions such as clubs representing their home towns, and of making sure that clubs aren’t driven to the verge of destruction by owners trying to make a profit on their investment.
From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month