Mike Rowbottom: Dons must sever ties with past to forge new sense of identity

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The Independent Online

A sell-out crowd of 9,000 is expected at the National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes today to watch Wimbledon FC take up their new temporary lodging. Theoretically, the occasion is a home First Division fixture against Burnley, although the match will be taking place more than 60 miles away from south-west London.

A sell-out crowd of 9,000 is expected at the National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes today to watch Wimbledon FC take up their new temporary lodging. Theoretically, the occasion is a home First Division fixture against Burnley, although the match will be taking place more than 60 miles away from south-west London.

Of course, it is more than 12 years since Wimbledon operated in their traditional stamping ground of Plough Lane, during which time the club's dogged supporters have already grown accustomed to being lodgers in the Crystal Palace homestead of Selhurst Park.

The first cut may have been the deepest for the Wimbledon faithful, but this latest severing of geographical ties hacks away at the very notion of what a football club means.

It used to be simple - didn't it? You'd turn up, every other week, at your local ground to watch a team including a good number of local lads take on ... Well, yes and no. Memory can sometimes be unreliable in these cases.

I came across an old souvenir supplement the other day celebrating the achievement of Watford - my local team when I was young - in winning the 1968-69 Third Division title. Their early-season home defeat by Stockport County - 1-0, thanks to a goal from a balding striker named Jim Fryatt - was the first proper football match I ever saw. The following season, Watford reached the FA Cup semi-final before losing 5-1 to a Chelsea side which went on to defeat Leeds United in the replayed final.

Local heroes indeed. Yet, looking at the Watford Observer's special tribute, I realised that of the 19 first-team squad members, only one regular player, Brian Owen, was a local boy.

At Premiership level in recent years it has not even been possible to assume that the team you support will be predominantly composed of English players, never mind local ones.

It is shared history, rather than shared upbringing, which binds the supporter to the player nowadays. The perfect example is that of Gianfranco Zola, one of the first foreign arrivals at the European staging post of Stamford Bridge, whose inspirational performances for Chelsea earned him the status of a much-loved adopted son by the time he returned to Italy at the end of last season.

But players come and go. Nicknames get altered - when did you last hear Everton described as The Toffees other than in a crossword puzzle? Badges get altered - the Seventies switch perpetrated by Leeds United may have started this trend, when their traditional motif was replaced by a bright yellow LU badge which looked like a Smiley Face that had been faultily stitched. Team kits get altered - as parents testify every season when their offspring clamour for the latest expensive replica shirts.

The only constant for the supporter is location. Obviously, as the years go by, teams shift around a bit in their area, head off to new locations on the edge of town where the car parking is better and the terraced houses don't hem in any further plans to expand. But by and large, teams stick to the same territory.

If Arsenal uproot, the move up the road to Ashburton Grove is hardly going to disorientate their supporters. If Everton and Liverpool ever agree to share a new stadium, it is not going to be in Manchester or Nottingham. Or Milton Keynes.

Once you lose location, being a football follower starts not to make sense. With that constant gone, what exactly is it you are supporting?

The team's belated emergence in Milton Keynes will doubtless be roundly jeered in Kingston-upon-Thames, where the rump of long-standing Wimbledon supporters, outraged at the club's evacuation of its traditional stamping ground, have established what they regard as the authentic brand - AFC Wimbledon, operating in the Combined Counties League.

The "home" team which turns out today on a pitch which has been laid over the artificial surface originally established for hockey - it is an additional irony of the situation that the arrival of Wimbledon FC has meant exile for the England hockey team - includes at least one member of the old Crazy Gang in Dean Holdsworth. But the club Holdsworth returned to this season after a six-year absence bears no resemblance to the one which forced its way into the Football League. That team, which regularly turned the ramshackle Plough Lane stadium into a cockpit that left visiting players bloodied and disorientated, is rooted not just in the past, but in the area.

The new incarnation, informally known as MK Dons, may end up establishing a new generation of supporters in its new location as it builds up a shared history. Come the end of the season, players and fans could be bound together in the struggle against relegation. But for the club to regard itself as Wimbledon now makes no sense. Keep the MK. Drop the Dons.

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