Concrete cows, grid planning, roundabout hell – the London overspill New Town of Milton Keynes was a hard sell even before a moneyed music producer-cum-property developer moved a 114-year-old football club 60 miles here in 2003.
It wasn’t so much Pete Winkelman’s game plan – ‘naïve’, in his own words – as the principle. US sports franchises are bought and sold at will, moving American football teams from St Louis to LA at the drop of a helmet. But in the English game, tradition and local pride are sacrosanct, surely? Shouldn’t Wimbledon, 1988 FA Cup winners, play in Wimbledon?
No, said Winkelman and his consortium, who brought the ailing Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes. And, more than a decade on, with MK Dons, successors to Wimbledon FC, and breakaway club AFC Wimbledon both in the third flight, it has all worked out pretty well. There’s enough grudge left that even the occasional cup tie – such in 2012, decided on stoppage-time back-heel for MK – still rankles.
In their last promotion season of 2014-15, MK Dons attracted an average crowd of 9,500. And in a contemporary, multi-sport stadium used for the Rugby World Cup of 2015 and proposed for football’s big global bash of 2018. Milton Keynes can be seen as a more than modest success story. In fact, given the accomplishments of the MK Dons youth academy – embodied by locally born Dele Alli of Tottenham and England fame – the future looks bright.
And, still at the helm, is Winkelman, whose achievements have recently made him the fourth recipient of the Freedom of the Borough – right up there with jazz singer Cleo Laine and the Infiniti Red Bull racing team, also based in Milton Keynes.
It was Winkelman, after all, who personally took on the huge costs of running a football club in limbo when Wimbledon FC went into administration in 2003.
Wimbledon had enjoyed a special status in the English game. Formed in 1889, by ex-pupils of Old Central School, right on Wimbledon Common, home of eco-friendly children’s characters the Wombles, the Dons were a leading but little-known amateur side.
Until 1974-75. At the height of Womblemania, with the spin-off pop band the UK’s most successful chart act, non-league Wimbledon performed near miracles to beat Burnley and hold the mighty Leeds to a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup. A nation willed the Dons to beat Leeds in the home replay, heartbreakingly decided on a deflected own goal.
Hero of the day was bearded keeper Dickie Guy. Fast forward 13 years and Wembley penalty heroics from another Wimbledon keeper, Dave Beasant, against league champions Liverpool, sent the FA Cup to dilapidated Plough Lane. Manager of the so-called Crazy Gang was former Dons player Dave Bassett – whose knee had deflected Leeds their winner in 1975.
In between, the Dons had entered the Football League, achieved in those days by lobbying and invitation. Soon after, chairman Ron Noades briefly investigated the possibility of moving the club to Milton Keynes.
By 2001, Wimbledon were broke and had been groundsharing Selhurst Park with Crystal Palace for ten years.
At the same time, celebrity resident Pete Winkelman had gained the secret backing of two large retail firms keen to open in burgeoning Milton Keynes. Long part of the plans for the New Town was a top-level football stadium. Winkelman’s team had the site – in Denbigh, halfway between the centuries-old communities of Fenny Stratford and Bletchley, of Enigma fame. The stadium would centrepiece a business park part-funded by the retail giants.
In 1974, non-league Bletchley Town had become Milton Keynes City, who folded a decade later. In 1998, a Mercedes-Benz works team also became Milton Keynes City, who folded in the chaos of 2003.
With a stadium already planned, and with no local side to speak of, Milton Keynes now needed a football team. Winkelman provided one: second-flight Wimbledon FC. Still based at Selhurst Park as 2003-04 began, the Dons soon moved to the Milton Keynes National Hockey Stadium, whose rapid conversion was funded by Winkelman’s consortium.
In 2004, Winkelman renamed the club the Milton Keynes (MK) Dons.
At the same time, breakaway club AFC Wimbledon, formed by disgruntled fans of the old club in 2002, were on a record, 78-game winning streak, the start of a journey from the very lowest rungs that would lead to full league status in 2011.
Over in Milton Keynes, the sleek new stadiummk, of ambitious 30,500 capacity, was unveiled by the Queen in 2007. Built by Winkelman’s Inter MK Group, in its first season it saw the Dons rise back to League One – and stay there until promotion in 2014-15.
As for AFC, since 2002 they have been based at Kingsmeadow, 4,850-capacity ground of Kingstonian in Norbiton near Kingston. In December 2015, AFC received planning permission to develop a new, 11,000-capacity stadium on the site of Wimbledon’s forlorn and forgotten greyhound stadium. The plan has been named ‘The Plough Lane Project’ in honour of the original club’s old ground, now a housing development. Venerable Kingstonian, meanwhile, were kicked out in the spring of 2017. A current groundshare deal with Leatherhead ends in 2018, when the rootless club moves to Tolworth.
Wearing Wimbledon blue, AFC gained promotion to League One where, in 2016-17, they met MK Dons as league equals for the first time.
Luton is the nearest airport to Milton Keynes 40km (25 miles) away. National Express coaches (singles £8-£10) run every 30min-2hrs to Milton Keynes Coachway (40min journey time), on the eastern edge of town by the M1 motorway.
There’s no direct rail link between Luton Airport Parkway and Milton Keynes Central train station, on the western edge of town. Regular trains from London Euston (singles £20) take 30min. For the stadiummk, Fenny Stratford is closer. Get the hourly train from Euston to Bletchley (35min), then change (3min).
From Luton Airport to Milton Keynes, a local Skyline Taxi (01908 222 111) quotes £30.
Several bus companies serve Milton Keynes – an MK Moove day pass (£5) is valid for all.
The stadiummk actually has a hotel built into it: the DoubleTree by Hilton Milton Keynes. With 230 guestrooms, this business-friendly establishment contains the Pitchside Bar & Restaurant. Pitch-facing suites must be vacated during match time.
Also convenient but more wallet-friendly, the The Swan is a sport-focused pub with 11 en-suite rooms, just behind Fenny Stratford station. Don’t miss out on breakfast.
In central Milton Keynes (‘The Hub’), on Midsummer Boulevard close to the train station, Jurys Inn comprises 279 bedrooms often available with seasonal discounts. A bit further along, the Holiday Inn Milton Keynes has a gym, sauna and heated pool. Note that the Ramada encore has changed hands to become another Travelodge.
Even closer to the station at Grafton Gate, you’ll also find a local Travelodge, the Milton Keynes Central.
Chain bars dot the grid-patterned streets of the Theatre District, the nightlife and dining quarter near the major hotels.
Here the main Wetherspoons is called, as if in keeping with the surrounding functionality, Wetherspoons. Nearby, in the same family, are the David Garrick and the Moon Under Water. Note that the central Secklow 100 closed in 2016 – it’s not yet clear what will happen to the venue.
You’ll also find a Browns and most other high-street chains in the vicinity.
Bizarrely, the only sports bar, Cheerleaders, opened just in time for the 2010 World Cup, has recently been converted into an art space, nine HD screens and all.
Just south of the central zone, on the same side of town as the stadium, The Cricketers is a handy find, a Greene King pub dotted with TVs for sport and a terrace overlooking a green patch of Oldbrook. Hulking great burgers, too.
For any pubs of any character, you’ll have to head to either Fenny Stratford, and the Swan Hotel (see above Bed), which has a dedicated sports bar, or Bletchley. As these two stations allow quickest access to the stadium, details of these pubs are given in the MK Dons section.