Grounds for optimism in Dons' crusade

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The Independent Football

Wimbledon fans determined to keep the club closer to their south London roots than Milton Keynes are undismayed by last week's ruling that the Football League must reconsider their original decision refusing permission for the move. Supporters believe that a return to Plough Lane is more feasible than ever, while Merton council report good progress in the search for investors prepared to purchase the now-derelict site and even the club.

A certain amount of confusion has been caused by the fact that so little information was made available about the independent arbitration panel's verdict last Tuesday. The ruling was initially interpreted as Football Association backing for Wimbledon's case. What actually transpired was that the three wise men – David Dein of Arsenal, Douglas Craig of York City and the QC Charles Hollander – agreed in principle that the club had not had a full and fair hearing the first time.

They were presented with a lengthy document from Wimbledon's solicitors, backed up by statements from the club chairman, Charles Koppel, the leader of Milton Keynes council, the chairman of the Milton Keynes stadium consortium and, more unexpectedly, Gerry Boon of the accountancy firm Touche Ross, who produce the annual Survey Of Football Club Accounts.

The club's case for relocation, in summary, was that they are unique in having no ground of their own; that there is no site in or around Merton that meets the necessary criteria; and that an enabling development at Milton Keynes (paid for by the surrounding commercial development) is the only way forward for a club losing £7m each year. Emphasising the "uniqueness" of their case, they insist that relocation would not set a precedent.

The more legalistic part of the argument accused the Football League of restraint of trade, abuse of a dominant position and failure to obtain an exemption from the 1998 Competition Act from the director-general of Fair Trading.

Koppel insists he was not given the opportunity to present evidence directly to the League's board of directors, which turned down the original application for a move on 16 August last year. The other main point at issue is the League regulation that clubs must play in "the conurbation from which the club derives its name or with which it is traditionally associated". Wimbledon's lawyers argue that 10 years ago they were allowed by the League to move to Selhurst Park, which does not fulfil either criteria.

So the whole case will go back to the League and the same board of directors who unanimously vetoed it before. They will not rush into it – a League spokesman said the matter is unlikely to be discussed at the next board meeting on 14 February – and while board members will eventually have to give greater consideration to the legal arguments in particular, Merton council's leader, Andrew Judge, is not alone in believing it will be rejected again.

A council official has described the Norwegian owners' decision to pay Sam Hammam £28m for Wimbledon five years ago as "probably the worst investment in the history of football". Opponents of relocation believe that if the Football League stick to their guns, the Norwegians will be sufficiently disenchanted to consider selling up; to that end the council are "looking for investors to form a consortium to purchase a ground and possibly the club". Any such consortium is likely to include the supporters' trust that will shortly be set up.

The key to returning to Plough Lane is the role of Safeway, who paid the fortunate Mr Hammam (not the club) £8m for it but have regularly been refused planning permission for a superstore. If they agree to sell to a consortium at a realistic price, the club will be tested on their submission that staying in Merton is the "preferred choice if possible".

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