Milton Keynes

New Town takes to footballina as Dons find identity

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

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 often found 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.

Welcome to Milton Keynes/Jens Raitanen

In the promotion season of 2014-15, MK Dons attracted an average crowd of 9,500, while nearly 21,000 witnessed the decisive fixture of 2018-19, which took the club back to League One from League Two. And all this 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 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 FC monument/Matt Walker

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.

Welcome to Milton Keynes/Krisztián Mányi

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.

Holiday Inn Milton Keynes/Peterjon Cresswell

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 Stadium MK, 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 even play a season in the Championship in 2015-16. The stadium confirmed its status as a major venue within easy reach of London and the Midlands by hosting four games of the Women’s Euros in 2022, nearly filling to its 30,000 capacity for the Germany-France semi-final.

As for AFC, theirs is a well-deserved fairytale story. Based at Kingsmeadow, 4,850-capacity ground of Kingstonian in Norbiton, near Kingston, from 2002, the Dons developed a 11,000-capacity stadium on the site of Wimbledon’s forlorn and forgotten greyhound stadium. Opened in 2020, the new Plough Lane is named in honour of the original club’s old ground, now a housing development. Venerable Kingstonian, meanwhile, were kicked out of Kingsmeadow in the spring of 2017. After a season-long groundshare deal with Leatherhead ended in 2018, the rootless K’s moved to Tolworth. If ever there were victims in this whole saga, it’s this amateur club dating back to 1885.

Wearing Wimbledon blue, AFC gained promotion to League One where, in 2016-17, they met MK Dons as league equals for the first time. But not the last.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Luton is the nearest airport to Milton Keynes 40km (25 miles) away. National Express coaches (advance singles £8-£10) run every 30mins-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 £10-£20) take 30mins. For the Stadium MK, Fenny Stratford is closer. Get the regular train from Euston to Bletchley (advance singles £20, 35mins), then change (3mins). Adding a Milton Keynes/Bletchley PlusBus supplement (£3) to your ticket allows you to use local buses for the rest of the day.

From Luton Airport to Milton Keynes, a local Skyline Taxi (01908 222 111) quotes £30.

Several bus companies serve Milton Keynes – an electronic MK Move day pass (£5.20) is valid for all, registration required.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Chain bars dot the grid-patterned streets of the Theatre District, the nightlife and dining quarter near the major hotels on and off Midsummer Boulevard.

Here the main Wetherspoons is called, as if in keeping with the surrounding functionality, Wetherspoons. Nearby, in the same family, is the Moon Under Water. The local branch of Browns sits by the Jurys Inn hotel, with most other high-street chains in the vicinity. 

Alongside, BrewDog features 20 taps of craft beer. At the park end of the boulevard, Midsummer Tap right by Milton Keynes Theatre focuses on TV sport and craft drinks. Also here is the Brewhouse & Kitchen, with house ales such as Mechanic Black IPA and Style Council Tropical IPA.

Further up, on the other side of the park overlooking the Grand Union Canal, Wharbler on the Wharf makes best use of its spacious terrace.

East 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.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the ground and around town

Destination Milton Keynes has a hotel database and booking service.

The Stadium MK actually has a hotel built into it: the DoubleTree by Hilton Milton Keynes. With 230 guest rooms, 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. Also well-located near Milton Keynes Central station at Grafton Gate, you’ll find a convenient Travelodge.

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. Alongside on Avebury Boulevard, Moxy is the Marriott chain’s funky, urban range (‘Stay, Play, Party and Discover’) with a bar to match.

Over in the Theatre District, the local Premier Inn is handy for nightlife options while La Tour at Marlborough Gate exudes sophisticated style, its Fourteen Sky Bar and Restaurant basking in views across Buckinghamshire.