David Conn: Winkleman hints at name change after repackaging of Wimbledon

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Wimbledon Football Club look certain to change their name to reflect their controversially relocated circumstances, after the music producer Pete Winkelman's consortium agreed on Thursday to take the club out of administration using a holding company entitled MK Dons.

Wimbledon Football Club look certain to change their name to reflect their controversially relocated circumstances, after the music producer Pete Winkelman's consortium agreed on Thursday to take the club out of administration using a holding company entitled MK Dons.

As the whole rationale of Wimbledon's bitterly contested transportation was to drop a ready-made Football League club into Milton Keynes, renaming the club has always seemed a matter of time. Winkelman said that he had not yet made up his mind, but that those involved with the club were "all very conscious that [it] might happen.

"As time goes on, people are reflecting more on the real consequences of what has happened. People talk about us as the MK Dons. We had to protect the name for possible future use," he said.

The Football Association-appointed commission which approved by a 2-1 majority the club's move to Milton Keynes in May 2002, against the vehement opposition of Wimbledon's supporters, the League and the FA itself, noted that the club's then chairman, Charles Koppel, was "committed to retaining its identity", and its name. The commission expressly recommended that this should happen.

But Wimbledon supporters believed that the commission's decision was so fundamentally wrong that they have never insisted the recommendation be followed. Instead, they turned away and formed their own club, AFC Wimbledon, starting insenior football in the Combined Counties League, and publicly demanding that "Franchise FC" drop the name Wimbledon.

Kris Stewart, the ex-chair of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association, now the chairman of the supporter-owned AFC Wimbledon, received news of the likely name change with guarded relief: "I'd strongly object to them using the term 'Dons', which means something to us and has nothing to do with Milton Keynes," he said. "But yes, if they drop 'Wimbledon', it makes it clear they are a franchise, which took a club from elsewhere, then changed its name. And it will remove the confusion and ensure that we are recognised as the Wimbledon club."

The two members of the commission who voted for the move, the commercial lawyer Raj Parker and the Aston Villa director Steve Stride, did so primarily after hearing how many millions the club's owners had spent on Wimbledon. The Norwegian magnate Kjell Inge Rokke and his partner, Bjorn Gjelsten, bought the club in 1997, originally believing they could move it to Dublin, an attempt later blocked by the Irish FA.

The commission said: "WFC shareholders have made it perfectly clear they will be forced to close the club down if they see no sound financial future."

The commission's view of Stewart's evidence that the fans would form their own club was: "Resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, 'Wimbledon Town', is, with respect to those supporters ... not in the wider interests of football."

After that, but before the club moved, the Norwegians pulled out anyway. Rokke, a major shareholder in the shipping conglomerate Kvaerner, which was having financial difficulties, passed his shares and loans to Gjelsten. He continued to fund Wimbledon's massive losses until June 2003, when he told Koppel he could not go on, and withheld the £800,000 monthly payment. A day later, Koppel declared the club insolvent and applied for it to go into administration.

They moved to the National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes in September last year, limping rather than flying, without the continued backing of the Norwegians.

Crucial to Thursday's Company Voluntary Arrangement to bring Wimbledon out of administration was that Gjelsten agreed wholly to write off the £24m the Norwegians put in to keep the club going. Added to the £25m they are understood to have paid Sam Hammam for 80 per cent of Wimbledon in 1997, their losses on the plan to take the old Southern League Crazy Gang club to Dublin are close to £50m.

AFC Wimbledon, meanwhile, have put a smile on football's face by starting again, close to their home area at Kingsmeadow Stadium, Kingston, demonstrating that fans, pushed so far, can turn away and run a club for themselves.

Winkelman's Inter MK, the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, whose members he still does not name, were never supposed to own the club. Their main retail partner is Asda-Walmart, which is planning a gigantic 150,000 square feet hyperstore to suck in Milton Keynes consumer spending, and as part of the deal, they will provide much of the money to build a new £35m stadium.

The idea was that the club would own it, and own the arena, conferencing, catering and other outlets around it, but after Koppel put Wimbledon in administration, nobody else was interested in keeping the club going except Winkelman and Inter MK. AsdaWalmart wrote to the Football League confirming their interest, which gave the League assurance that money was there to enable Wimbledon to complete the season.

They are doing so in name only, the administrator, Andy Hosking of Grant Thornton, having sold the entire first team, 11 players, to keep the club alive after Winkelman's consortium refused to pay over another £1.2m to fund it in administration. They had already spent, according to Winkelman, £3.5m, including £2m to make the hockey stadium comply with League requirements, and were not prepared to write off more money without actually becoming the owners of the club. Wimbledon, playing effectively their Under-19 side, are now so deeply rooted at the bottom of the First Division that nobody even pretends they will avoid relegation.

"It has been a nightmare," Hosking said. "Nobody wants to sell a whole football team and I have had some criticism from fans, but it was the only way to finance the club in administration. I'm just very pleased they have survived."

The deal agreed on Thursday was that the Inland Revenue and VAT, owed £800,000, will be paid 30p in the pound. The unsecured creditors, £1.3m worth of unpaid bills in the shadow of Gjelsten and Rokke's lost wad, will get nothing. Hosking said Gjelsten only finally conceded 36 hours beforehand to write the money off completely. Included in the list of smaller creditors, as ever, are St John Ambulance, owed £8,000, taking the amount lost by the first aid charity from insolvent clubs in football's recent financial meltdown up to around £32,000.

The Inland Revenue, known to be unhappy that "football creditors" - the players and other clubs - get paid in full, have challenged Exeter City's Creditors' Voluntary Arrangement with court proceedings, and voted against Wimbledon's CVA. They may yet apply legally to have it revoked.

Around football, if not at Kingsmeadow, resentment of Winkelman's Wimbledon is softening a little. Koppel's vision, bought by the FA commission, that a top club would land in the new town and attract punters in droves, has not happened. The club has attracted a core support of only 3,000. Most, Winkelman says, are regular football-goers who previously went elsewhere.

He must now work very hard to build the club's credibility, and has won some credit for maintaining - at great cost - the club's academy and extending its community scheme. His consortium will now own the arena, conferencing and other facilities around the ground, which should make them money, but they have the club to fund too. Winkelman expects it to cost £10m altogether before the club makes it into the new stadium, probably for the beginning of the 2006-07 season.

"I always maintained this was about bringing football to Milton Keynes," Winkelman said. "We never expected to own the football club, and it has been an education to see how desperately hard it is to do so, but after all the chaos and upset we caused, we had to keep going."

Kris Stewart's football education as a club chairman was extended on Tuesday night when the match away at Coney Hall was abandoned because of crowd trouble. AFC Wimbledon also recently sacked the manager, Terry Eames, for disciplinary reasons, even though under him the club had won every game except one, which they drew. Stewart is in no mood for the forgiveness of Wimbledon yet: "All this drives home how wrong the commission's decision was. If the Norwegians were pulling out, we could have taken over for £1, sold the whole team, got relegated and struggled through - but done it back where the club belongs."

Time may heal. Now, there is a thriving non-league club called Wimbledon in South-west London playing to crowds averaging 2,700. Milton Keynes, by a perverse procedure, has a football club. It will always be an anomaly, and have to fight for acceptance, and part of that now looks certain to involve changing the club's name to something more reflective of its locality than Wimbledon.

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