Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Unquiet flow the Dons

... we need to find the stars to wear the cow-suits. Chairman Pete Winkelman said: "These are key members of the team... It will be hard work, but a lot of fun."

Candidates should be around 5ft 10ins - 6ft 2ins tall and be fit. They will need to entertain the crowd and be available for home matches and other club events... Auditions will be held, and you can apply in writing to The National Hockey Stadium, Silbury Boulevard, Milton Keynes. MK9 1FA, marking your correspondence as 'MK Dons Mascot'.

From the pre-launch publicity for the MK Dons' official mascots, Donny and Mooie, back in 2004  More than seven years and a shiny new stadium later, some disgruntled Wimbledonians are still resisting the relentless progress of the MK Dons' branding juggernaut:

The Wimbledon Guardian is calling on MK Dons FC, which was Wimbledon FC until it was relocated to Milton Keynes and rebranded, to drop the Dons nickname to respect fans of AFC Wimbledon, which returned to the Football League this season.

Hours earlier, Mitcham and Morden MP Siobhain McDonagh, had raised the issue in the House of Commons, calling on the Government to support our campaign and take steps to prevent similar franchise deals in which football teams leave their communities. 

The Wimbledon Guardian, on their "Drop the Dons" campaign (now endorsed by Ken Livingstone). Karl Robinson, the Manager of MK Dons is not amused:

It's left to a journalist at the Milton Keynes Citizen to try to develop Robinson's belligerent grunting into something approaching a coherent defence of the "MK Dons" brand:
The ‘Drop the Dons’ calls come despite:

The Citizen's first point is, like Bill Clinton's assertion that he'd never had sex with Monica Lewinsky, true only if you take a ridiculously narrow view of what happened, ignoring obvious questions, like what those affected (Hilary and Chelsea, or your average Wimbledon fan) would have called the goings-on in question.

What did the club's previous move involve? Plough Lane, in Wimbledon was the home of Wimbeldon FC from September 1912 to May 1991, when the club moved and started sharing Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park stadium. The Wimbeldon FC board decided to move to Selhurst Park after the Football League's post-Taylor Report decision that all clubs in the top two divisions must have all-seater stadiums. The board had decided that it would have been too difficult and expensive to bring Plough Lane up to the necessary standard (the local council had also approved plans for a new 20,000 seat stadium in the London Borough of Merton in 1988, but these never went ahead, presumably due to cost considerations). The move to Selhurst Park was only intended to be temporary.

Having to travel about nine miles to Selhurst Park to attend home matches that used to be just round the corner might have inconvenienced local fans, but it wan't the end of the world. It's another thing altogether to see your local club moved to a location sixty-odd miles away by road or a four hour round trip away by public transport (once you've factored in local transport links to and .from the main train / coach station at either end of the journey).

As for the second point, WISE spokespeople may well have referred to MK Dons by their brand name. So what? Using the words hardly constitutes something akin to formal diplomatic recognition. They call the re-branded club "Franchise FC", too, but I don't see The Milton Keynes Citizen making anything of that.

Yes, some season ticket holders still travel from Wimbledon to MK. Now imagine that the local football team that you've supposed all your life is suddenly re-branded with the name of a town you've no connection with and moved to a ground sixty miles away. What you gonna do? If your club means so much to you that you're not prepared to give up your season ticket, or switch allegiance, you might decide to suck it up and make the journey to MK. All that means is that you've got no alternative. It doesn't mean you like it.

If the Milton Keynes Citizen is so confident that former Wimbledon-based MK Dons fans are just fine with the move, maybe they should commission an independent polling organisation to ask them how they feel about their team's relocation and squash, once and for all, any baseless rumours that they're not entirely delighted with the move.

Pete Winkelman may have spent money maintaining the Wimbledon youth sides and employing staff members from that club. Maybe that's what they call a "sweetener", or maybe it's just because he's a nice bloke. Who knows?

Wimbledon AFC, Wimbledon's recently-formed local club do have their ground in Kingston Upon Thames. Which is less than five miles from the centre of Wimbledon. Five miles. Not sixty. See my rebuttal of the Citizen's first point. With knobs on.

It's the corporate pretence that fans have somehow bought into a move that was driven by commercial imperatives that they had no knowledge of, and no control over, that makes the MK Dons saga so interesting and so dispiriting. It's all part of the modern ideology of "free choice" which, when you look more closely, turns out to be an incredibly narrow range of unpalatable options on offer from powerful vested interests, who will spin the most grudging acquiescence to look like enthusiastic endorsement of their self-interested plans. Ignore the PR and follow the money if you want a clearer idea of what's going on:

The stadium would not exist without the enabling powers of Wal-Mart, the monolithic American retailer and now the parent company of Asda, famed for denying its staff union rights and killing off small family businesses wherever it sets up shop. The deal for 73 acres of land was done between the owners – the council and regeneration agency English Partnerships – and prospective tenants Asda and Inter MK, the holding company that took Wimbledon FC out of administration three years ago.

Asda/Wal-Mart wanted a foothold in Milton Keynes but needed the Trojan horse of a football stadium to dodge planning laws restricting out-of-town retail development. A third tenant, IKEA, was soon on board to complete a holy trinity worthy of our consumerist age...

Cynics might suggest that the ideal core business for Inter MK is events and concerts, which is certainly a business Winkelman knows. He made his money in music, some of it promoting 1980s cartoon girl punks We’ve Got A Fuzzbox & We’re Gonna Use It, and now hangs out at his manor-house recording studio and his football club. It is easy to sneer at Winkelman. For starters, there are his many style crimes and gushing platitudes. Yet if he was a slick corporate clone he would be loathed for who he is, rather than simply for what he has done. It is not necessarily his fault that he cannot convince genuine fans of football who trust their own eyes that the whole Milton Keynes Dons project is actually about the club.

When Saturday Comes

At this point I'll have to declare a lack of interest. I represent one of the UK's quietest minority groups - straight blokes who aren't really that interested in football. But I live in the MK area and I'd like to feel, if not pride, at least a lack of shame, about my local team. Heck, I might even summon up enough interest to go along to a game, if only the "local" team wasn't such an outrageous manufactured monstrosity (even MK-based fans who feel that Wimbledon should get over it and move on, feel more than a bit defensive). As things are, I have to agree with Ken Livingstone that the "Dons" tag is a bit of a joke.

Without getting too thin-skinned and parochial about it, I would take issue with one of Ken's comments, though. 'Who in their right minds would leave London to go to Milton Keynes?' I've lived in London and I've lived in Milton Keynes. There's more of a buzz about London, more to do, but there's more access to space and peace and quiet in MK. Both places have things going for them.

I lived in London up to the late 1980's (when it was still a vaguely affordable place to live on a modest salary) and gradually moved further away, via Watford, Leighton Buzzard and Milton Keynes, ending up in Newport Pagnell, on the outskirts of the MK conurbation. This isn't entirely unconnected with the boom in property prices that's underpinned much of the economic havoc blighting the economy here in the UK and elsewhere. London, at the epicentre of the UK's property bubble, is now an insanely expensive place to buy or rent a place to live.

'Who in their right minds would leave London to go to Milton Keynes?' A lot of ordinary people who can't or won't pay a fortune to live in a shoebox, Ken.

Milton Keynes is OK. Hardly the planned earthly paradise promised by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation but it still a reasonable place to live. Nowhere's exactly thriving at the moment, but MK is weathering the current economic downturn better than many places and, on the whole, it's a lot nicer than most outsiders imagine. It would be improved by having a football team that wasn't such a total embarrassment, though.