To many football followers Pete Winkelman is football’s Fagin, the man who pickpocketed Wimbledon from south London and moved the club 50 miles away to Milton Keynes.
More than a decade on the condemnation still rages in many quarters. But Winkelman, the club’s chairman, was a man with a mission: to give big-time football to the fastest-growing place in England.
Tonight he will be dewy-eyed as he looks around the £100m stadium he masterminded and sees it full for a Milton Keynes Dons match. It will be the first time that has happened for the League One club and the reason, of course, is that Manchester United are in town for a League Cup second-round tie.
“Will I feel vindicated? It’s not about feeling vindicated, I’ll feel pleased,” says Winkelman. “I would like to have done something that could be respected rather than upsetting. But it was always about a stadium for Milton Keynes. I knew that and being able to fill the stadium for this match shows other people that the idea of top-flight football in Milton Keynes is still alive. It’s been worth all the personal [criticism].”
Winkelman admits to being naïve when he planned the introduction of league football to Milton Keynes. “Do I still feel the same way as I did 10 years ago? No,” he says. “I understand the culture of English football much more, so I have many different feelings about how we got here.
“But what is clear is that there had to be football here. Milton Keynes is still the fastest-growing place in the UK. It has been for 30 years. There are 265,000 people here – it was 180,000 when I moved here. What a game like Man United proves is that if you can deliver something exciting people are going to respond.”
United are more used to the Nou Camp than the Moo Camp, as the locals have dubbed the stadium thanks to Milton Keynes’ legendary concrete cows, and that is why it sold out so quickly. “It’s phenomenal,” says Winkelman. “We have had a queue of people 100 metres long outside the ticket office.”
As if to rub salt into Wimbledon’s wounds, AFC were the team MK Dons knocked out in the first round. That win was only the second meeting between them, the first being an FA Cup tie in 2012.
“There is an irony about that,” says Winkelman. “It was more of a normal game against AFC this time and I was pleased to see that. The first time was just a heavy day. I have great respect for what they have achieved. What I want to do is concentrate on my own club, go through the leagues and have some promotions ourselves.”
To that end Tuesday’s game will generate £500,000 which, after the league’s cut, he will have to share with United. “Not that United need it as much as we do,” he says. “ But what it gives us is a cushion. We run our budgets to the absolute maximum.
“Tonight is a dream come true. I watched the draw and all the way through I didn’t expect it to happen. When it got to the end, it was Milton Keynes at home and No 11 [Man Utd] hadn’t come out. We all went, ‘Oh my God’. But it is real – they’re coming here.”
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