MK Dons striker Benik Afobe celebrates the team's third goal against Manchester United. Photo: Getty
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Why MK Dons’ 4-0 victory over Manchester United didn’t cause universal joy

How would you feel if the club you supported had been stolen from you, relocated, renamed, made into something entirely different?

When a team from football’s third tier knocks one of the game’s giants out of a cup competition, it’s usually seen as a good thing by all but fans of the vanquished and embarrassed losers. Unless the team doing the giantkilling is MK Dons.

The fact that this week’s 4-0 victory over Manchester United by MK Dons did not spark universal joy prompted some to ask whether too many football fans were stuck in the past; whether begrudging the side dubbed Franchise FC their achievement was a little mean-minded. MK Dons won the game fair and square and, what’s more, say the pragmatists, they are a club with an impressive youth policy and one which does a lot of good work in local schools. Surely it’s time to forget about a dispute that happened ten years ago?

It seems a reasonable point. But making the point risks underestimating the resonance of what one football industry insider described to me as “the biggest single governance failure in English football” – the decision in 2004 to give the old Wimbledon FC’s place in the league to a newly-formed club. A decision which then-Football Association chief executive Adam Crozier described at the time as “appalling”.

To understand the strength of feeling over the issue, imagine how it would feel to have the club you support stolen from you, relocated, renamed, made into something entirely different. Talk to most fans of the old Wimbledon FC and they will describe what happened in exactly those terms.

Wimbledon FC was relocated from south west London to Milton Keynes against the wishes of a large majority of its fans in 2002. The move was also opposed by the FA and by the Football League, which said any new club in Milton Keynes would need to gain league status by progressing up the pyramid just as other clubs did. But the FA then set up an independent – but hand-picked – three-man commission to decide on the move, and it was approved to general astonishment on 28 May 2002. The decision was final and binding.

It’s important at this stage to understand the background to why a football club was needed in Milton Keynes. Asda, the world’s largest supermarket chain, wanted a presence in a Tesco stronghold and wanted to build Europe’s largest supermarket there. Planning rules meant that development on greenfield sites was not supported, but the proposed MK Asda would not work on a brownfield site.

The only way the greenfield site restrictions could be got around was through what’s called “planning gain” – in plain English some demonstrable benefit to the local community that would come from allowing development. A football stadium would be one example of a civic amenity that would do the job. But Milton Keynes did not have a team that needed a stadium on the scale required. And with no team, there would be no stadium, and therefore no development.

And so the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, led by pop music entrepreneur Pete Winkelman and supported by Wal-Mart subsidiary Asda and furniture giant Ikea, began to look for a football team that could occupy the 30,000 capacity stadium needed to enable the development of the retail, hotel, stadium and conference centre development they wanted to build.

Luton Town, Crystal Palace, Barnet and QPR were approached, along with Wimbledon. At one stage, a merger of QPR and Wimbledon was mooted, prompting fierce opposition from fans of both clubs. The consortium appeared to be getting nowhere. Then, in 2001, Wimbledon FC owner Charles Koppel announced the club would be moving to Milton Keynes, setting in motion the process that eventually led to a decision opposed by almost everyone concerned, including the bodies that were supposed to run the game but which could apparently not enforce their own wishes.

Most fans of Wimbledon FC viewed this as the theft and destruction of their club, and founded their own team, AFC Wimbledon, which began to work its way up from the bottom of football’s pyramid system. Wimbledon FC, meanwhile, struggled on and off the pitch, being relegated and going into administration at the end of the 2003/04 season. With the club out of business, the property development project was threatened. So Winkelman brought Wimbledon FC out of administration in June 2004, renamed the club Milton Keynes Dons, and changed the colours and badge. But the choice of Dons, the nickname of the old Wimbledon FC, the basing of the new badge on the old crest, and Winkelman’s insistence that the new club was the “real child of Wimbledon”, rankled.

The ensuing dispute became bitter. Winkleman responded to criticism by accusing AFC Wimbledon’s fans of “betraying” their former club, and said they “abdicated their right” to the club’s history “when they walked away”. In 2006, after prolonged negotiations, MK Dons renounced any claims to the history of Wimbledon FC before 2004. In return, the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association agreed to drop calls for a boycott of MK Dons games.

And that, say the pragmatists, is that. Surely it’s time to let bygones be bygones. But, as one AFC Wimbledon fan told me: “It’s grubby, and what sticks most is that MK continue to deny all of that ever happened. In their narrative, Wimbledon was dying, the fault of the fans in south west London, and they saved it. In their narrative, they’re the good guys and we’re the bad guys. It’s hard to feel equanimous towards people who think they’re the victims.”

And in response to the point that, now AFC Wimbledon have gained a place in the league the proper way, on playing merit, surely it’s time to let it all drop, he says this. “That’s like saying that a person who has the car they build themselves nicked should get over it because they managed to build themselves a new car instead, despite the person who nicked their car having pimped it, blamed the person who built it for the theft and then driven all over town with the sunroof down like the big I am.”

It may be easy to dismiss such arguments as emotional, but football trades on emotions, and the issues raised by the murky story of the origins of MK Dons strikes at the heart of valued notions of community, continuity and fair play. And there are important considerations beyond those no less important emotional ones, too.

The industry insider I spoke to said the decision to allow the relocation “was the high water mark for attempts to paint football as some sort of free market” which “made it possible for others to do similar things”. The current goings on at Coventry City provide a good example. That 2002 decision also “chipped away at part of the foundations of what clubs are” and puts the consortium of private companies behind MK Dons into the middle of football’s decision-making process.

It’s legitimate to ask why, if you are an ambitious manager, a young player, or even a young fan in a town wanting to support your local team, you should be expected to atone for sins committed a decade ago indefinitely. Outside of the complex emotions of football, it must seem rather curmudgeonly to perpetrate the resentments of yesteryear.

But football is what it is because of those complex emotions. The existence of MK Dons remains a challenge to the values that make the game the emotional and therefore commercial property it is – the result, let’s remember, of “the biggest single governance failure in football” in one insider’s opinion. So what would move things on? Perhaps acceding to the demands of the Wimbledon Guardian’s campaign calling for the Dons part of the MK club’s name to be dropped would help. Better still, a genuine recognition of what was wrong with the process that led to the establishment of the MK club and a proper commitment to stop anything like it happening again.

It is possible to look at the achievement of MK Dons’ manager Karl Robinson and his team this week and salute the achievement, to recognise a famous victory achieved fair and square. But already there are signs of the club’s hierarchy using the platform the victory has provided to normalise a situation that many believe should not be normalised, to gloss over the past and to entrench the victim-blaming that has so enraged fans of the real Wimbledon over the years.

And that’s why this week’s giantkilling has not prompted universal joy.

Martin Cloake’s latest book, Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars, includes a selection of his writing from the New Statesman website

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.