MK Dons: moving story or franchise folly?

Wimbledon reborn: Strong turn-out expected in Milton Keynes for the arrival of an old club with a new fan base
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Milton Keynes, a thousand roundabouts in search of a sense of location, seems to have found what it has been looking for with Friday evening's ruling by the Football League permitting Wimbledon FC to move there in time to entertain Burnley next Saturday and Sheffield United three days later.

If the decision could be the making of MK, it is beyond doubt the salvation of Wimbledon (or MK Dons, as they are about to be redubbed), who have been in administration since June and are bumping along on the bottom of the First Division. There were no celebratory fireworks on Friday; MK isn't that sort of place. But one local paper took a flier in its Friday- morning edition with the banner headline "Game On!", and another has printed a cut-out-and-keep chant guide. Sample: "It's MK, MK Dons FC - we're by far the greatest team MK has ever seen." They are, actually, the only team MK has ever seen, which should ensure a strong turn-out on Saturday at the 9,000-seat National Hockey Stadium, rented from the Hockey Foundation until a planned 28,000-capacity purpose-built arena arises in Denbigh, near Bletchley.

On Friday, cranes, bulldozers and a squad of hard-hatted workers were putting the final touches to Wimbledon's temporary new home. One hard hat was hand-mowing the turf, so newly laid that you could still see the joins in the grass. A bearded man limped into reception seeking assurance that he would be able to buy six tickets for a bunch of chums travelling from Gothenburg, and was assured by Pete Winkelman there would be no problem.

The sorting of problems is the forte of Winkelman, a music entrepreneur and the chairman of Stadium MK, the group who have been working flat out since 1997 to deliver what he calls "a 30-year ambition to bring professional football to the city". Winkelman, who says he was "brought up on the terraces of Molineux in the era of Derek Dougan", was a mite apologetic about his reaction to the news he has been working so hard to achieve. "I am sorry I can't be more ebullient. It has been a surreal time the last couple of weeks, the passion is overwhelming. But next Saturday I will be ready. Everything will be ready.

"What has been done here is fantastic, a 12-week building programme executed in four weeks. I very rarely drink, but when the first ball gets kicked in MK it will be a time for celebration."

Restrained celebration was the order of the day for Wimbledon's manager, Stuart Murdoch, who had missed Friday's team-training session to be at the hockey stadium. He cannot wait to get away from the echoing emptiness of Selhurst Park and the bitter boycott by the club's former followers, and joked that he had twice tried to swim the Channel to escape those problems.

"This is the first good news we have had for a long time," he said. "It will be a relief to come here and exciting to see how we handle it; another new challenge, but a better challenge. It will be good for morale and give everybody a lift. But until we walk out there and kick a ball I am not going to let myself get too excited, because we have been disappointed too many times.

"We got through last season, the players were magnificent, they worked very hard and we blanked out our situation as much we we could. But that was because we had been told we would be in Milton Keynes for the start of this season. When that didn't happen it had a very demoralising effect, and while we can still try to be professional the disappointment was too great. I am not using that excuse for being bottom of the table, though it would be easy to hide behind that. We lost five players, including two strikers [David Connolly and Neil Shipperley] who scored 48 goals last season. Any team losing that sort of quality are going to struggle to replace it.

"Other matters affected us. The fact that we went into administration, that we can't bring any players in, that the players weren't paid for a time. I didn't get paid either, but I don't have to go out and play."

The bitterness and argument over the ethics of this first franchise switch in the English game have largely been glossed over at Milton Keynes in the excitement. "We are getting a homeless club," Winkelman insisted. "When you look at the accounts, it is miraculous how the club have survived the last two years. I am disappointed about how the move has been perceived in some quarters, and though we are not loved by everybody at the moment, in the long term greater benefits than harm will come out of it.

"It is very important to stay in the First Division this year," he added, pointing out that Milton Keynes, with 250,000 people, is the biggest population centre in the south-east outside London. "This is a Premiership city, and I am thrilled about what a difference football will make here over the next 10, 20, 30 years. That's why I'm not in a panic when I see we're at the foot of the table. If you are going to write the book, where would the team be when they move here? It has to be at the bottom of the table, doesn't it?"

Winkelman is also upbeat about the administration, calling it "a hugely adventurous position to be in", though he says he would be "massively disappointed" if this wasn't sorted out by Christmas. A planning application for the new stadium has been with the council since May, and the go-ahead is expected soon.

The sooner the better for the MK Dons, since losses will continue at their temporary home. "Running the club at the hockey stadium is not sustainable," said Winkelman, even though 2,500 people bought, and held on to, season tickets during the summer despite the uncertainties.

That total even includes a few die-hards willing to make the 65-mile trip up from south London and learn a few new chants.