From Plough Lane to a green field of nightmares

The nomadic fans of Wimbledon are faced with another odyssey. Julie Welch joins them
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The Independent Online

"Milton Keynes? It's full of Tottenham and Arsenal wideboys and it's got more roundabouts than anywhere in the world, more even than Swindon," says Tony the Dons fan gloomily. He is alluding to yet another surreal sounding move that has been proposed to supporters of Wimbledon, football's best-known nomads. There was Dublin, there was Cardiff, and now it might be the Buckinghamshire new town famed for its concrete cows. "You don't find many of them on the South Circular," says Tony.

MK, as its citizens call it, is 70 miles from Selhurst Park, for 10 years the reluctantly accepted home of displaced Dons. It's reached pretty quickly by train from Clapham Junction, but once beyond the maelstrom of London, the traveller is treated to a rural landscape of grazing horses, beet fields, farm machinery and duck ponds. If Charlie Koppel, the South African who became Wimbledon's chairman, has his way, these landmarks may soon be as familiar to the Dons fan as the Crystal Palace radio mast and the Selhurst Park Sainsbury's.

"It's not anonymous," protests Pete Winkelman, the music entrepreneur behind MK's bid to offer Wimbledon a new billet. "It's as good as it gets. I know we're upsetting a lot of people in Wimbledon but I don't apologise. I'm a Milton Keynesie and I love the place."

Winkelman is standing at the gateway to what he hopes will become New Plough Lane – 55 uncontaminated acres of England's greenest and most pleasant land, nestling in trees and fields. It is a perfect venue for a stadium, with excellent road links and no residents to be disturbed or annoyed by crowds. At present, the only building on the site is the modest clubhouse of the Milton Keynes Irish Club and it takes a bit of an imaginative leap to visualise the proposed £30m, 28,000-seat development.

But imagination and enthusiasm are clearly what Milton Keynesies have in abundance. It has already brought them the National Hockey stadium, the Xscape (boasting the largest artificial ski slope anywhere in the world outside Japan), a celebrated art gallery and theatre, a shopping centre that when it was built was the biggest in Europe and The Point, the United Kingdom's first multi-screen cinema complex. However, one jewel is missing from the crown. It is the largest conurbation in the UK without a big-time football club to call its own.

"All the clubs here are Buckinghamshire League teams, local, non-League. We've got a lot of people who moved here with their allegiances. Wimbledon could be their second team – but it will be the one they come and watch. And for their kids, Wimbledon will be their first allegiance. We are looking at the next one hundred years. There's 250,000 people here without football for 20 miles," says Winkelman, almost pleadingly.

A gentle breeze stirs the treetops around the Milton Keynes Irish Club, and for a moment you can almost see the decrepit portable cabins at the entrance to Plough Lane, and a ghostly Harry Bassett crouched in the dugout, shouting: "Get some snow on the ball!"

It's Friday night and outside the gates of Griffin Park four men are unrolling a banner that says "Save Our Club". But they are in the red and white strip of Brentford, whose chairman Ron Noades is the object of fans' odium for wanting to move the club away from its site near Kew Bridge to a new ground in Surrey. Wimbledon, and some 500 of their fans, are here for a friendly. On the away terrace, the No To Woking banners compete for attention with Wimbledon banners that use Charlie Koppel's initials to provide an interesting new take on the "fcuk" logo of French Connection. There are the usual chants and war dances, but the atmosphere is more of mutual sympathy than rivalry.

Jed Belcher, a Dons fan, is handing around lapel stickers that say "Womble 'Til I Die" and "Save Our Dons". The Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association are used to rolling into action, and two websites, no2mk.co.uk and mknoway.co.uk have been up and running since the start of the year. "If you're a club outside London, the council will help you develop," says Jed. "There's nothing like that in London, clubs have got to fight." He is armed with leaflets announcing Walk For Wimbledon, planned to take place on 25 August before the Wimbledon v Norwich City. It will start at 10am at Wimbledon Station and the route goes via Plough Lane, which is now boarded up and decrepit but is still Wimbledon's spiritual home.

"Moving to Selhurst Park was horrible but we were told it would be temporary," says Jed's comrade-in-arms Chris Stewart, who started watching Wimbledon in the 86-87 season when they won promotion to the old First Division ("I'm a bit of a glory-hunter"). Even now, he knows people who refuse to cross the London Borough of Merton borders to visit Selhurst and will only attend Wimbledon's away games.

"It's not just a matter of how long it takes by train, it's about certain areas that belong to you. I've got nothing against Milton Keynes itself. I went shopping there once. But there's a perfectly good club there already, Milton Keynes City. They should do what we did, start at the bottom and work their way up. Charlie Koppel isn't talking about moving the club, he's talking about closing it and starting a new franchise. It's killing a club, stealing our history and traditions, stealing our place in the First Division.

"We're saying to people, 'Please hang on to your season tickets now. We want you in the ground making a noise. But please cancel your player sponsorships, don't buy a match-day programme, don't give Charlie Koppel any more money'. This is a man who thought Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday shared a ground. He is not a football person."

Dusk is descending over London and on the terrace, somebody raises his hands as if conducting an orchestra. "All together now! Show me the way to Plough Lane... I'm tired and I wanna go home..."

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