This article was first published in August 2015 in Issue 9 of The Football Pink
IAN CUSACK debates whether it’s time for us to ease up on the fans of MK Dons – after all, they’re supporting their local club just like so many of the rest of us.
In late Spring, when John Carver – the self-styled ‘Best Coach in the Premier League’ – was seemingly piloting Newcastle United over the cliffs of footballing destruction towards a relegation that was both inevitable and utterly preventable, I made the crack that if the Magpies did go down, I’d only attend one match at St. James’ Park in 2015/2016; against MK Dons, so the two sides could battle it out for the specially commissioned Moral Bankruptcy Trophy. It got a bitter series of laughs in the pub after a banal 1-1 draw at home to West Bromwich Albion, but thankfully, I won’t have to address this particular issue just yet as Newcastle fans were spared the indignity of demotion to a lower tier that would have been entirely merited following the performance of the club hierarchy and the vast majority of the playing squad in the season just ended. However, on a wider football level, the promotion of MK Dons to within one step of the Premier League, with the chance of subsequent SKY-endowed riches provided by any future elevation to such exalted company, leaves fans of all clubs needing to address the elephant in the Championship. Are MK Dons really the pantomime villains of the contemporary game that many observers who comment on the sociological rather than tactical aspects of the sport insist they are?
Ever since then-Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel announced his desire to relocate the club to Milton Keynes in 2001, barely half a decade after Sam Hamman’s half serious attempts to move from Selhurst Park – not back to their original home in the borough of Merton, but to Dublin – the accepted and seemingly unchallenged narrative among many fans and those writing in fanzines and blogs is that MK Dons are the embodiment of all that is wrong and evil about modern football club owners and the influence they have over the game. Supporters of MK Dons have been demonised, pilloried and scorned since the club moved to the (now demolished) National Hockey Stadium back in 2003, with levels of derision racked up further by subsequent events including the adoption of the club’s current name the year after and the move to the purpose built Stadium MK in 2007.
Presumably now the club will have an increased media profile on the back of both promotion and SKY’s contract to show 112 football league games from next season onwards (the vast majority of which will undoubtedly be from the Championship), then levels of enmity on social media and in the pages of independent publications will presumably increase from snide sniping to all out condemnation of the club and fans. It’s time for some perspective here; this is not the Miners’ Strike and MK Dons are not the Nottinghamshire branch of the NUM undermining King Arthur from within. This is football and we need to remember that.
It has to be stated in unequivocal terms that the relocation of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes was wrong on every level; it caused the death of a club that you simply had to admire for their spirit and pluck. I first recall them as a Southern League club, holding then-League champions Leeds United to a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup fourth round in 1975, when impressively bearded keeper Dicky Guy saved a Peter Lorimer penalty. I visited the astonishingly ramshackle Plough Lane ground in 1987 to see Newcastle lose 3-1 to a muscular Crazy Gang enjoying their debut top flight season. The year after, I cheered their FA Cup win over Liverpool. In all of those incidents and in the years following, it was the collective ethos of the club and their small band of supporters that deserved the respect of the whole football world for their achievements against all the odds. Everything seemed to unravel after relegation from the top flight in 2000. Changes of owners, changes of personnel, dwindling crowds; the usual problems suffered by clubs in decline, though rarely are they terminal as in this case. Wimbledon’s metamorphosis into MK Dons wasn’t a case of assisted suicide, it was involuntary euthanasia; identity theft rather than a fresh start. However, we’ve seen it before and nobody seems to have complained too loudly about other clubs who had the rug pulled out from under them by unscrupulous and ambitious administrators who transgressed not the rules of club ownership but any moral justification they could claim for their actions.
On Good Friday 2005, Spennymoor United of the Unibond Northern Premier League, beset by financial difficulties and marooned at the bottom of the table, went out of business after losing 5-1 away to Gateshead, calling time on 128 years of history after 33 games of the very epitome of a season to forget. It was very sad, but it wasn’t the end of the story. Two steps lower in the national pyramid were Evenwood Town of Northern League Division 2; playing in the smallest centre of population in the Northern League, with a miniscule support and an ageing committee, they were taken over that summer by a consortium that renamed them Spennymoor Town and moved their home from Evenwood’s Welfare Ground to the Brewery Field in Spennymoor, effectively ending their 115 year existence in the process. Nobody complained that much; Spennymoor Town attracted crowds of over 500 immediately, won the Northern League four times in five seasons, as well as the FA Vase in 2013, before taking promotion to the Northern Premier League. Bankrolled by local businessman Brad Groves, they are a club clearly on the up. On the surface, it seems like an unqualified success, but try telling that to the family of Gordon Nicholson, Evenwood stalwart for 50 years, who died of a broken heart less than six months after his team merged with Spenny, in the same way that Austria ‘merged’ with Germany in 1938.
Think that’s bad? Consider the case of Clydebank and Airdrie United. In the summer of 2002, Airdrieonians finished runners-up in the Scottish First Division but their financial situation was bleak. With debts totalling £3m, the club folded and Gretna (there’s a whole other tale to be told about that club!) were elected to fill the vacancy, starting in the bottom division. However, second division Clydebank, who had assumed East Stirlingshire’s identity in 1964 to gain admittance to the Scottish League, a move that saw the clubs forcibly demerged the year after by the Scottish FA, were on their last legs following decades of mismanagement. The club had lost its ground and were itinerant tenants at a succession of west of Scotland lower league sides, while proposed moves to Carlisle and Dublin (we’ve been there before, haven’t we?) fell through. Clydebank were massively in debt and run on a shoestring budget by unsympathetic administrators. When a consortium of Airdrieonians fans sought to buy the club, the few remaining Bankies fans were powerless to object and the club were forcibly moved to Airdrie and had its name changed to Airdrie United, with the blessing of the Scottish FA. Not many voices were raised in support of Clydebank, though my mate Neil remains a lifelong devotee of the Bankies and one of those who keeps the reformed club going in the Scottish West Juniors League, the equivalent on non-league north of the border.
Looking at the cases of Evenwood and Clydebank, it seems that the only difference between them and Wimbledon is the level of publicity engendered, with the supporters being wholly innocent victims and the ones made to suffer in the long term. The fabulous achievement of AFC Wimbledon in reaching the Football League cannot be understated; nor can the superb successes of FC United of Manchester, who recently opened their splendid new ground. However, what can we say to the fans of Spennymoor United or Airdrie United? Are they in any way responsible for the venal sleights of hand that obliterated Evenwood and Clydebank? Of course they’re not; as fans, they want to have a club to support and, faced with closure and oblivion themselves, they reacted to the good fortune that maintained a link with their club with great glee. It may be schadenfreude by proxy, but I can’t blame them for revelling in their good fortune. Of course, this is not the case for followers of MK Dons, as they didn’t have a club to support in the first place. However, if the main argument about moving Wimbledon to Buckinghamshire was that football should be related to the community where clubs spring from, could we not counter this by saying it is far better that those who live in the environs of Stadium MK support their local side rather than Chelsea or Manchester United from a sofa or bar stool?
I’ve seen MK Dons in the flesh; a dire 0-0 draw away to Doncaster Rovers where about 150 of them kept up an irritating nasal whine for the whole game, repeatedly enquiring “shall we sing a song for you?” However, these are predominantly young lads doing what young lads do; having a few beers and travelling up and down the country, supporting their team. To classify them as scabs or collaborators is plain wrong and opposed to the ethos of supporter commonality. MK Dons fans are entitled to support their team and should be afforded the respect we give to fans of all other sides. Mind, I think their manager Karl Robinson, successful though he undoubtedly has been, can almost match Alan Pardew for smarmy, vacuous arrogance, but let’s not go there.
IAN CUSACK – @PopularSideZine