David Conn: Winkelman joy fails to move Wimbledon's former fans

Home debut in Milton Keynes today means First Division club's long-running saga draws to unconvincing conclusion
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The Independent Football

On a patch of newly laid turf at the unlikely venue of Milton Keynes' National Hockey Stadium, the most bitterly opposed and derided stadium move in English football history will finally kick-off today, when Wimbledon host Burnley in their new home town. A few former Wimbledon fans are expected to protest, some Burnley supporters to boycott what they deride as "Franchise FC", but Peter Winkelman, the irrepressible salesman and public face of the Milton Keynes Consortium, Inter MK, which has financed the move, is sure of a full house. "It's a wonderful day. The biggest city in Europe without professional football has finally got a club." Of the hockey stadium, he added: "I have my field of dreams."

Most old Wimbledon fans will do what they have done since the move was sanctioned last year by an FA-appointed three-man commission: stay away. Instead, they will be at Bedfont, Middlesex, watching the club which they formed for themselves, AFC Wimbledon, play an away game in the Seagrave Haulage Combined Counties League, seven levels lower in the football pyramid than their old club.

"It will be a difficult day," AFC's chairman, Kris Stewart, said. "We said the move would be the death of our club, which is why we formed our own, and are calling on the Milton Keynes team to drop the Wimbledon name. We're thoroughly enjoying supporting our thriving community club back in south west London, but it will be painful to see our old club paraded about in Milton Keynes."

Winkelman and his Inter MK consortium, whose members he does not name, are planning a £100m, 72-acre development in Milton Keynes, including a huge Asda Walmart hypermarket, fast food outlets, a hotel and offices, which will fund a new 30,000-seater stadium, to be owned by Inter MK and occupied by Wimbledon.

Nicole Hammond, of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association, has derided the scheme for "using our club as a pawn in a property deal" - the Government discourages out-of-town supermarkets but Asda expects to gain planning permission because its money will build the stadium, which is only happening because Winkelman has found a club willing to move into it.

Over his six-year campaign to pull off the project, Winkelman previously talked to Wimbledon (when it was owned by Sam Hammam), Queens Park Rangers, Barnet and Luton, all of whom turned it down before Wimbledon (by then owned by the Norwegian business stock magnates Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten) made it their mission. Winkelman, however, is angered by the suggestion that huge profits will be made: "Completely untrue. The profits will fund building the stadium. Yes, at some time in the future there may be a return for me, but it is a huge risk. The main aim, genuinely, is to bring football to Milton Keynes."

But nobody in the city expected it to arrive in quite the bust and battered form that Wimbledon present, limping into the city bottom of the First Division and in administration, with debts of £25m, including £22m ploughed in by Rokke and Gjelsten.

Andy Hosking of Grant Thornton, the administrator, said this week that the club had been days from liquidation before Winkelman agreed in the summer that Inter MK would fund the club's ongoing losses. Some 20 non-football staff were made redundant, and several players moved on, a process Hosking described as "brutal at times". The players - the goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, strikers Neil Shipperley and David Connolly and midfielders Trond Andersen and Damien Francis - are believed to have been on wages of between £25,000 to £35,000 per month.

"I had to force one or two out," Hosking said, refusing to identify which ones. "I told them we would put them on the bench for the reserves, so that when their contracts ended and they could go on free transfers, no club would offer them much. It seems harsh but my job is to cut costs and gain the best return for creditors."

That will mean coming to a settlement on the £22m loans made by Gjelsten and Rokke, as well as £700,000 of unpaid tax and VAT, £500,000 from football creditors and £2m from other creditors. Rokke, one of Europe's richest men, made his fortune in fish processing in Alaska, and now owns half of the shipping conglomerate Kvaerner, of which he is chairman. Gjelsten, an old friend, was formerly the chief executive at Rokke's main company, Aker RGI.

The pair, known for flamboyant lifestyles including a penchant for powerboat racing, bought Wimbledon from Sam Hammam in 1997, paying a reported £25m because, as the FA commission noted, they "were led to believe [rightly or wrongly] that the English football authorities" would not block a move of the club to Dublin. But the Irish Football Association refused to sanction the move and the pair were stuck with the club, losing money and ground-sharing at Selhurst Park because Hammam had sold the club's old Plough Lane ground at his own personal profit in 1994.

Charles Koppel, a South African businessman brought in by Rokke and Gjelsten to salvage something from Wimbledon, met Winkelman and decided that Milton Keynes represented the club's only viable solution. Wimbledon supporters are still dumbfounded at how, despite declared opposition to the move by the Football League and the FA, Koppel steered the club through all available football procedures and into the FA's commission, which voted 2-1 to allow the move. It is an irony that the two law firms, Kennedys and Olswangs, which conducted the arguments on behalf of the club - that Milton Keynes represented Wimbledon's only chance of solvency - are now owed six figures in unpaid legal fees.

Perhaps the saddest feature of the proceedings was the argument that Milton Keynes could not develop their own local club because it would be too expensive. Instead, they have Wimbledon, which itself embodied English football's "dream factor", a non-league club which did clatter its way through the pyramid to the top level of the professional game.

In 2001, Kvaerner ran into severe financial difficulties, losing 4.96bn Norwegian Krone (£428m), and were rescued from going bust only by a last-gasp merger with Rokke's company, Aker. His struggle to turn Kvaerner round is thought to be behind his decision last November to cut his Wimbledon losses, passing his shares and loans to Gjelsten. But in May, Gjelsten said he could no longer continue and the club sank into administration.

Hosking said this week that Wimbledon's unhappy saga has wider implications: "A billionaire takes over, but circumstances change, and he leaves it with huge debts. You don't need much imagination to see a warning there for other clubs."

With Wimbledon again playing to pitiful crowds at Selhurst Park this season - 1,054 watched the club's last home game in London, a 4-2 defeat by Wigan, Winkelman has worked frantically to bring the hockey stadium up to Football League standards, work which cost £1.6m. The last two months' losses have been over £500,000 and Winkelman now has to consider how to buy Wimbledon out of administration; Hosking is waiting for offers. Altogether, Winkelman said Inter MK will need up to £10m to see Wimbledon, as a solvent club, into the new stadium, assuming planning permission is granted.

This week, he was euphoric: "It's a huge challenge and a huge project, but we've made it this far. We've proved the can-do-ness of Milton Keynes. We're sorry for the pain it's caused, but it is all for the good in Milton Keynes."

Back in south west London, seemingly a world away from the problems of Kvaerner, billionaire Norwegians, the plans of Asda Walmart and the financial niceties of a massive commercial development, AFC Wimbledon are top of their league with a 100 per cent record, and on Wednesday thumped Chessington & Hook 6-0 in front of 2,500 fans. This summer, the club raised £1.1m from a share issue, while the democratic, supporter-owned structure has been maintained by preserving for the Dons Trust 75 per cent of the voting rights. The club has bought the Kingsmeadow Stadium, the home of Kingstonian, who were then in administration and have become AFC's tenants.

Kris Stewart, the chairman, said the supporters were still thrilled to have their own club, and are enjoying their football, like the old days of the old Wimbledon. "Our aim is to get into the League and do it there, as a club owned and run by and for the supporters. It is great to run our own club, not spend all our time angrily campaigning against the machinations of owners trying to salvage their financial investments. We've built something truly precious here, which I do not believe Wimbledon's former owners, or anybody else involved with the franchise in Milton Keynes, can ever really understand."