It started off with Wimbledon FC, a small, non-league club situated in South West London. In the mid 70’s, after a string of 3 consecutive southern premier division title wins, as well as their famous FA Cup run in 1975, beating 6 teams in the qualifying rounds and the 1st and 2nd round to reach the 3rd round proper, beating Burnley, making them the first non-league side to beat a top-flight team away ever, Wimbledon were invited to the football league, playing in their home ground of Plough Lane. Widely known as a ‘fairytale’, Wimbledon reached the top flight in rapid succession in 1986 and were even perched on top of the table after 4 games. 2 years later, Wimbledon beat one of the strongest ever Liverpool sides in the FA Cup, with the team known as “The Crazy Gang”. In the following years Wimbledon were a staple in the top flight with mid table finishes season after season, and also became a founding member of the Premier League in 1992, where they remained for 8 consecutive seasons.
With Wimbledon being at one of the highest points in their history, this is where it all started to go downhill.
The Taylor Report of the inquiry of the Hillsborough disaster recommended all stadiums in England to be all seater, in order for a disaster like the Hillsborough to never happen again. The Thatcher government, at the time, acted as if these recommendations were part of the law.
As a result of this, Wimbledon’s then owner, Lebanese businessman Sam Hammam, and the club’s board deemed that Plough Lane was beyond redevelopment, and began a ground share with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, which was supposed to be a temporary move until a new ground in South West London could be sort. This is where Wimbledon spent their years in the Premier League.
Many different grounds were proposed but nothing came of it. According to the MK Dons Supporters Association, Hammam had actively looked in 7 boroughs around the Wimbledon area to host a stadium site. This was when serious rumours of a move outside of London came about. Hammam proposed a move to Dublin. Yes you read that correctly, Dublin, Ireland. Where home fans would receive free flights for home games, and Sky Sports would pay for the flights of away fans. Due to fan protests and all round common sense, the Dublin move fell through, thankfully. However, at this stage, home crowd numbers were plummeting dramatically, as the league record low of 3,039 fans turned up for a home fixture against Everton at Selhurst Park, in January 1993, a record that still stands today. Hammam had sold 80% of his Wimbledon shares in 1996 to two Norwegian Businessmen Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten, and the following year Hammam had then pocketed the £10m sale of Plough Lane in 1997, “cruelly sold behind their backs” to property developers, and had maintained that no new location was feasible. He tried merger talks with all different places in the UK, stretching up to Birmingham, Cardiff, and even Scotland, but once again common sense prevailed and nothing came to fruition. Hammam left Wimbledon in 2000 to Cardiff, selling the remaining 20% shares to Røkke and Gjelsten, after Hammam had said the relationship between the partners had become strained.
Rewinding slightly, in 1997, ex-music executive Pete Winkelman had proposed plans of a large commercial development in a town 62 miles north of Wimbledon, by the name of Milton Keynes. He had led a consortium, formed in 2000, with the plan including an IKEA, ASDA and a retail park, as well as a 30,000 seater football stadium. The plan was to host professional league football in Milton Keynes, delivering the city’s 30-year ambition. The issue was, however, that the only football club in the area was in the 8th tier of English football, which was too small a club to justify such a stadium.
So, rather than progress a team the traditional way up the footballing pyramid, he sought to find another club as they believed the relocation of an established football league club would bring significant revenue to the area. Winkelman had said in a letter to Milton Keynes council that the footballing plan for the city would only be a solution for a club experiencing “serious difficulties to their home ground facilities”.
After failed attempts to lure clubs like Luton Town, Queens Park Rangers and Barnet, Winkelman had found his perfect target.
In January 2001 Røkke and Gjelsten had appointed a new club chairman by the name of Charles Koppel, and had announced in August 2001 that Wimbledon FC intended to relocate to Milton Keynes. With Wimbledon now struggling in the 2nd division and with attendances continuing to plummet, Koppel had said this was necessary to prevent the club going out of business. He had requested the relocation in a letter sent to Football League Chief Executive David Burns. The proposal was met with vast opposition, from the football league, Wimbledon fans and football fans in general. The League board had unanimously rejected the proposal. They had stated that franchise football was “disastrous” and that a Milton Keynes club would have to work their way up the pyramid traditionally. However, in 2002, Koppel and Winkelman appealed this decision, resulting in the FA setting up a judicially appointed independent arbitration panel to make a final and binding decision. The Football League board remained completely opposed to the proposal, but Wimbledon had the right to appeal the decision under FA regulations, stated by Football League spokesperson John Nagel. The panel voted 2-1 in favour of the move, and despite the FA’s strong opposition to the idea, the decision was final. For the first time ever, a club would be permanently relocated.
Having only started building the commercial development in 2001, the stadium was not yet ready to be a host. Wimbledon started the 2002-2003 season at Selhurst Park, with attendances as low as 800. Fans were boycotting games and hurling abuse at those who entered the ground. Koppel had labelled those boycotting as “no longer Wimbledon fans”, who “didn’t want to be part of the club’s future”. At this point, Wimbledon FC had entered administration.
With no stadium ready in Milton Keynes, Wimbledon FC spent the rest of the season at Selhurst Park. At the beginning of the 03-04 season, the consortium was granted permission to renovate the National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes to host football matches, and they had played there since the start of that season. Stadium MK, the new stadium built by the consortium, opened at the beginning of the 07-08 season.
In 2004 the consortium had officially bought Wimbledon FC and had changed the club colours, badge and the name, despite promises to remain true to Wimbledon’s colours. The name, MK Dons, was formed.
When the move was approved, Wimbledon fans labelled it as “the death of our club”.
Despite the strong condemnation of the FA Commission of the decision, they underlined that launching a new club would not be in the “wider interests of football”.
Unfazed, a group of Wimbledon fans by the names of Ivor Heller, Kris Stewart, Marc Jones and Trevor Williams met in Wimbledon Common to discuss the future of their club that had been stolen from them, where they had realised there was no right to appeal the decision. So, they proposed to start Wimbledon from scratch. They had contacted the London FA and they had received funding from the Independent Supporter’s Association after a successful meeting. They had launched a new club under the name AFC Wimbledon. They had arranged a ground share with Kingstonian FC at King’s Meadow, and advertised open trials for anyone who felt they were good enough for the team, with over 200 hopefuls arriving for the trials on Wimbledon common. Now with a team, and forced to start over again, they entered the Combined Counties League in 2002 until 2004, where they were promoted to the Isthmian League. Miraculously, AFC Wimbledon were promoted to the football league off the back of the 2010-11 season, after beating Luton Town 4-3 on penalties in the playoff final. AFC Wimbledon were back in the football league after being forced to start over again.
MK Dons were a staple in the Premier League through the 90s, before being relegated to division one and eventually shifting in and out of the Championship and League 1 in the 2010s. For the first time, AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons met in the league for the first time in 2016. Stupendously, they caught up with MK Dons with 6 promotions in 13 years.
As a result of a boycott by the Football Supporters Federation for the Milton Keynes Dons Supporters Association to be members of the FSF, MK Dons and Winkelman had transferred all ownership of Wimbledon FC trophies, memorabilia and copyright back to the London Borough of Merton (where Wimbledon is situated). An unusually happy ending to a quite devastating story about Wimbledon FC.
Thus supposedly ending the saga of this unique rivalry, where there are now 2 clubs doing quite well for themselves and for their respective communities, and with AFC Wimbledon now famously back at Plough Lane. MK Dons will almost certainly never hear the end of it however, forever labelled as ‘Franchise FC’.
Winkelman said, in an article written by David Conn in the Guardian in 2012: “I did a deal that was wrong and the [Wimbledon] owners were wrong”. “I’m not proud of the way football came to Milton Keynes”.