After 10 years without a home ground of its own, Wimbledon football club plans to move 50 miles north of the capital to ensure its survival.
Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel has signed an agreement with a property development consortium to build a 28,000–seat stadium in Milton Keynes. Koppel said the first division club would play there from the start of the 2003–04 season.
The Football League was reviewing the application Thursday.
Wimbledon believes it has a special case to overcome the League rule which prevents clubs moving more than 25 miles from their home environment.
"This is about ensuring the survival of the club," Koppel said. "Wimbledon has been homeless for 10 years now and without a proper home ground the future is bleak.
"As chairman of the club, I have always said that we would look at all options available to us is by far the best and only immediate option for us."
Since moving out of their home ground at Plough Lane in southwest London in 1991, the 'Dons have been tenants at Selhurst Park in a sharing arrangement with Crystal Palace. Wimbledon is the only professional club in England without its own ground.
Pete Winkelman, leader of the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium which negotiated the deal with Wimbledon, said the city was delighted with the move.
"We can offer the club a warm welcome and a unique solution to its unique problem," Winkelman said.
"There is tremendous support for this locally, Milton Keynes is currently the largest urban population in Europe without a professional football team and we can offer Wimbledon the home it has been looking for since 1991."
Koppel admitted many Wimbledon fans would be unhappy with the move.
"Of course we understand that this is an emotional issue for our loyal supporters and that many people will be disappointed," he said. "As everyone knows, we currently have a very small supporter base – something not helped by the fact that we are homeless."
"There will be some people upset over this but there will be no rebranding of the club. It will remain Wimbledon FC and play in the same colors. We aim to take our history and heritage and build upon it further."
Fans are not convinced. Lawrence Lowne, chairman of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association, said the move was a "mockery."
"We have been fearing this and fighting it for a long time," Lowne said. "They are looking at the history of the club which has been going since 1889 and saying 'let's just forget it.'
"The fans will not go to Milton Keynes in a million years. We have fans who have actually moved there to live for various reasons and travel back to Selhurst Park for matches and even they don't want the club to move there."
"The football club isn't just about pounds, shillings and pence. It is about tradition, it is about fathers and mothers and children going to the matches together and they are trampling on the tradition of a lot of people."
Wimbledon, which considered moving to Dublin several years ago, joined the league in 1977. It had been in the Premier League since 1992 before its relegation last season, surviving on gates of barely more than 5,000.