Ahead of historic match, Pete Winkelman admits initial idea was to ‘steal’ a club, but denies doing that to Wimbledon. AFC fans disagree

Evening Standard

Getting MK Dons owner Pete Winkelman to give a straight answer even to a very simple question is not easy. We are in the bar of the hotel that fronts Stadium:MK and I have asked the former music entrepreneur whether he now sees himself as a football owner with property interests.

I have to ask five times before he agrees to that description but then adds: “We’re in a very unusual position and I don’t think it’s easy to put me in a normal thing.”

Normal is the last thing you associate with MK Dons, the only League club to uproot from one city to another. However, Winkelman’s elusiveness has a deeper purpose than merely refusing to be typecast.

History will be made on Sunday when MK Dons play AFC Wimbledon for the first time since the latter were formed by fans outraged that their club were moved 60 miles up the M1. For Winkelman, the FA Cup second-round tie is an opportunity to correct what he considers to be a distorted football history.

The commonly accepted version is that Winkelman moved Wimbledon to Milton Keynes and that in turn led to the creation of AFC Wimbledon. For many, he behaved like a masked man who stole a football club but Winkelman claims this is a tabloid version which misses out important details.

“When I started I was prepared to do that,” he says. “So is it fair for people to paint me in that light? Probably. But that is not actually how it happened.

“I didn’t invent the idea of moving. Wimbledon were going to Dublin. It is when they couldn’t move anywhere else that I went and agreed the original deal with the Norwegian owners. And they got permission from the FA [in May 2002]. Then the world erupted.

“And the supporters, by forming their own club, put so much pressure on the owners they decided they weren’t going to go through with it. The club were still playing as Wimbledon FC two years after AFC were born. And, when the owners put the club into administration, we just went, ‘Phew, thank goodness we’re out of that.’”

This is when the 55-year-old comes to the heart of his defence. He claims: “Andy Hosking [the administrator] phoned me one fateful Thursday night and said, ‘I need half a bar tomorrow or I’m liquidating the club.’ We were all asking, ‘What’s half a bar?’ He meant half a million pounds. Hosking also said, ‘Look, you’ve got permission. If you don’t move it you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’ So it wasn’t my original deal that moved Wimbledon, it was the administrator who moved it in September 2003.”

Winkelman then challenges the AFC Wimbledon fans. “The one question I have to all the people that lambast me is why didn’t they buy the club? I absolutely thought the supporters would buy it back. I was more surprised when they actually used the money they raised to buy [the lease to] Kingstonian’s ground. When push came to shove in administration, when the supporters haven’t bought it, no one else has come in to save the football club, I did.”

Winkelman is technically right in saying the administrator, rather than he, moved the club. But it is hard to disagree with AFC chief executive Erik Samuelson that Winkelman’s explanation is “just sophistry”.

Or, as former Wimbledon director Peter Miller says: “Mr Winkelman is suffering a serious memory loss. The Dublin option had long died before Mr Winkelman appeared on the scene.”

It had been killed five years previously by the Football Association of Ireland. Winkelman, in proposing the move to Milton Keynes, revived it in a form that made it possible.

As for AFC supporters not buying Wimbledon, Samuelson says: “We weren’t offered anything. That is absolute nonsense.”

Another former Wimbledon director told me of a bid backed by Quinton Estates that failed due to lack of support from Milton Keynes Council.

This is where the real Winkelman “sophistry” appears to lie. At the heart of the move was a property deal backed by the council. Winkelman has often waxed lyrical about how Milton Keynes, whose population has more than trebled during 40 years to 245,750, did not have a football club. “It was a place that was concrete cows and roundabouts.”

However, buying one of the many non-League clubs in Milton Keynes and doing what AFC have done — rising up into the Football League nine years after their launch — might not have served his property development ambitions. When pressed, he admits: “My priority was to get a Football League club to Milton -Keynes because I was trying to build a stadium and that needed football at a certain level.”

The complex his consortium built, complete with hotel, arena and shops, might have seen World Cup matches had England’s 2018 bid been successful but it could still stage games for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Winkelman’s version of history would be more acceptable had he argued that several others should also hold up their hands for bringing an American-style sporting franchise here. They include the FA Commission, who authorised the move on a 2-1 vote, the Premier League, who gave Wimbledon permission to relocate to Dublin, and previous Wimbledon owners, in particular Sam Hammam, who made an estimated £36m from selling the club to the Norwegians and Plough Lane to Safeway.

But Winkelman, having got his deal, is not much interested in this history and he is soon telling me what he sees as his “real mitigation”.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything pariah-like other than originally to think it was better that Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes than to Dublin. My actions over the last eight years, none of them are pariah-like. We run a really good football club.”

The average gate this season of 8,389 is at less than half the stadium capacity of 22,000 and may suggest Winkelman overstated Milton Keynes’s supposed hunger for League football.

But this figure is the fifth best in the division and he says defiantly: “Football in Milton Keynes is a lot more than just playing games on a Saturday afternoon. We have the fastest growing charity in the region. Our sports and education trust employs more than 50 people.

“Last year, it was actually the Football League community club of the year for the south-east of England and works with more than 55,000 kids. The stadium development has brought nearly a quarter of a billion pounds of inward investment to Milton Keynes.

“We’ve produced England internationals at Under-21, Under-19, Under-17 and Under-16 level. We have an Under-16 and two Under-17 England players in our academy. We gave Paul Ince his second job and Roberto di Matteo his first. We had the youngest manager in the Football League [Karl Robinson was 29 when he was appointed in 2010].

“We have more season ticket holders now [5,500] than Wimbledon FC at their peak in the Premier League [5,300]; 35 per cent of them are below the age of 18.”

So why not give up the name Dons? After all, he has given back the old Crazy Gang trophies including the most prized, the 1988 FA Cup.

“What’s that got to do with it? This club are the direct descendent of Wimbledon FC. Look at our supporter lists and see the non-MK postcodes [15 per cent are from outside the area].”

In a claim AFC fans will find hard to agree with, he adds: “Those supporters absolutely believe they’re still following the club that’s Wimbledon. The supporters sing, ‘Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon’. On Sunday the biggest cheer won’t be for AFC or for MK Dons, it will be for Wimbledon. The only people who could change the name of this club are the supporters and they want it to be MK Dons.”

And then, in a comment likely to infuriate AFC supporters, he presents himself almost like a godfather to them.

“As a direct result of Wimbledon becoming homeless and having to make a radical decision to move as far away as Milton Keynes, it created the opportunity for AFC Wimbledon.”

AFC’s view of Winkelman is so far removed from this that Samuelson will not be in the MK Dons boardroom on Sunday or shake Winkelman’s hand.

“I completely understand that,” says Winkelman. This may be an attempt to diffuse the tension but he recognises the problems the match poses. “For the first time, we’ve created a neutral’s area as well as home and away areas. It will give people the opportunity that perhaps don’t support either club but want to come and see what it’s all about.”

While Winkelman admits that “I don’t think I will ever be accepted by AFC”, he claims he has learned from his ¬experience.

And amazingly “the most important lesson” is that he does not want anyone to do a Pete Winkelman.“Do you think I’d take Milton Keynes Dons and go somewhere else now I’m an owner and chairman of a football club? Have I learned that the English football tradition is different to American football?

“I now accept it was probably pretty crass to go and do it the way I did. I wasn’t so involved in football that I understood all the nuances.”

But this education of Winkelman has come at a heavy price and is of no consolation to the many who believe MK Dons should never have been born.


Share |



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo