“No one likes us”: How Milton Keynes gave a hated team a home

Words by Robert Kidd Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 16, 2018
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‘No one likes us, no one likes us, we don’t care, we don’t care.’

Supporters of several clubs – from Millwall to Leeds – wear their unpopularity as a badge of honour, but there is perhaps no team for whom the song is more apt than MK Dons.

The made-up team earns as much scorn as the made-up town which adopted it in 2003. The history of Wimbledon’s move 55 miles from South London to Milton Keynes is well-known, and derided, among British football fans.

A brief recap: in 2001, after a fruitless search for a new ground and deep in financial trouble, Wimbledon’s Norwegian owners announced plans to relocate to Milton Keynes. Pete Winkelman, a music executive, had been looking for a league club to fill a stadium as part of a new commercial development in Milton Keynes. He had attempted to lure several other clubs. The Football League rejected the plan but, after an appeal and surprise 2-1 vote in favour from an independent panel, it was approved in May 2002.

The move, and notion of ‘franchise football’, was so despised that the Dons’ relegation from League One this season came with a large dollop of schadenfreude. Asked for his reaction, Vinnie Jones, the face of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ of the 1980s and 90s, said: “Good riddance”.

The revenge is even sweeter given AFC Wimbledon – the phoenix club already with their own remarkable history – survived. Next season AFC Wimbledon will, for the first time, play in the level above MK Dons.

I grew up happily in Milton Keynes, but for outsiders the place best-known for its concrete cows, sprawling shopping centre and roundabouts is – like the MK Dons – hard to love. Established in the late 1960s to cater for London overspill, the ‘new town’ in Buckinghamshire was supposed to represent a new era of urban planning. Instead it became a caricature to those who only see the concrete jungle city centre and miss the canals, parks and – don’t laugh – historical parts of town. Wimbledon’s move was another reason to sneer.

Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes in September 2003, eight matches into the season. My dad spent his teenage years in Wimbledon and followed them closely in the 1960s. He and Mum moved to Milton Keynes soon after I was born, before, by coincidence, his old team turned up at his new home. His response when I asked about the ethics of the move was something like: “they need to play somewhere”.

I had long before pledged allegiance to Spurs, apparently in the misguided hope they would bring a lifetime of happiness. But for a 15-year-old not used to regular ‘live’ professional football, a £60 season ticket for a Championship team was too good to pass up.

Wimbledon’s first match in Milton Keynes was against Burnley on September 27, 2003. About 5,500 fans sat in the surreal surroundings of the National Hockey Stadium, unsure what to sing or how much they cared. Of the Burnley fans who weren’t boycotting the match, most scowled and some carried signs: “say no to franchise football.”

At half-time the hosts were two-nil down. They had lost seven of their opening eight matches and looked destined for relegation. After 66 minutes, Dean Holdsworth scored the first Wimbledon goal in Milton Keynes – a historic footnote to a chapter most would prefer wasn’t written. When Patrick Agyemang equalised, there was a roar and an understanding that the new fans would get behind the team their town had clumsily adopted.

Most AFC Wimbledon fans are probably still angry. Their original club was ripped from its roots. Winkelman has admitted he was “wrong” in the way he brought professional football to Milton Keynes.

Wimbledon finished bottom, 23 points from safety. But it was a season filled with memories. Watching famous clubs – West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Sunderland – in my home town was strange and thrilling. It was a privilege seeing, in real time, Premier League-quality players like Nigel Reo-Coker, Jobi McAnuff and a young Jason Puncheon. I remember taking my grandfather to his final match – a wonderful, ridiculous 3-3 draw with Preston. I remember missing one of only two ‘home’ wins because I’d persuaded Dad to take me to White Hart Lane on the same day to see Spurs lose to Bolton.

The Wimbledon of that bizarre first season in Milton Keynes is now MK Dons, having undergone a suitably awkward transition in keeping with a town that has struggled with its identity. The Dons now play in the sparkling Stadium MK, capacity 30,500. The average attendance this season was 9,200. In League Two next season, Winkelman’s Premier League dream will be even further away.

But the club have weaved themselves into the fabric of the town. It is not Wimbledon. It was a mistake to try to claim the history – and trophies – of their predecessors and it would not be surprising if, one day, the Dons was dropped from MK.

Most AFC Wimbledon fans are probably still angry. Their original club was ripped from its roots. Winkelman has admitted he was “wrong” in the way he brought professional football to Milton Keynes. Unlike AFC Wimbledon, the MK Dons did no time on the lowest rungs of English football’s ladder. AFC fans, and many others, may never accept MK Dons as a ‘real’ club.

Yet in the 15 years since the move, a generation of fans have grown up with MK Dons as their local team. The club does excellent community work and have started to tap talent in the area. Dele Alli, the homegrown star of MK Dons’ brief history, will play for England at this summer’s World Cup.

I moved away, first from Milton Keynes and then the UK. But when I go home, I often get to a Dons game with Dad. He has renewed his season ticket for the 12th consecutive season. He probably doesn’t still think of them as Wimbledon and I suspect he just loves watching football.

Your first love is hard to shake in football and I could never seriously support anyone but Spurs. But I still look for MK Dons’ results and enjoy the updates from Dad. I can’t help but feel a fondness for Britain’s most hated team.

A football truism is a club doesn’t exist without its fans. And as long as people from the unusual place keep following their unusual team, MK Dons will survive – even if no one else likes them.

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