The Football League & Wimbledon’s Nickname
It seems to be one of the more immutable rules of life that, for an organisation as hopelessly bone-headed as the “English” Football League, the old adage that it is better to remain silent and considered a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt will usually be ignored with a recklessness that borders upon being cavalier. Friday night’s League One match between Wimbledon and Milton Keynes was almost certainly difficult enough to stomach without the post-match of the body that claims to regulate the seventy-two clubs of the Football League. As it stands, we are left to ponder what on earth we should make of an organisation that seems almost pathologically unable to open its mouth without wedging a foot firmly immediately into the freshly-opened space.
The Football League’s – perhaps they’ll attempt to censure us for refusing to use their hashtag-friendly, easy to get mixed up with a far right political group moniker, who knows? – rationale for their intervention into what should really have been a complete non-story was as daft as we might have come to an expect from an organisation that considered – and continues to consider – the Checkatrade Trophy in its current incarnation to be A Good Thing. Referring back to its rules, its statement on the subject caterwauls about “respect” for other clubs, apparently oblivious is the fact that clubs routinely abbreviate those of other clubs all the time without censure, on scoreboards, in programmes, and all over other official literature. The whys and wherefores for this should be broadly irrelevant, providing they’re not gratuitously offensive. Had, for example, the Wimbledon programme for this match featured the opposition as “Milton Keynes Scumbags” – and there remains a significant proportion of supporters of many clubs who’d be perfectly agreeable with this – then it might have been understandable that the League may have wished to take issue with Wimbledon.
As things stand, however, it feels as though the League is doing little more than spoiling for a fight that precious few amongst the rest of us want them to even be having in the first place. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect any better from the 2017 edition of the Football League. It’s fair to say that Wimbledon were warned earlier this year after the two teams met in the league for the first time at Kingsmeadow, but it’s also worth pointing out that the League’s assertion that, “The failure to recognise MK Dons in the correct manner causes reputational issues for the EFL as well as creating the potential for unrest amongst MK Dons supporters” is hogwash. There’s no doubt that the Football League has “reputational issues” at the moment, but these are surely more closely related to the tinkering with one of its trophies in such a way that has completely devalued it whilst remaining completely inert on issues of appalling club ownership and soaring ticket prices than anything related to this particular non-story.
Perhaps, though, the law of unintended consequences does at least us to one interesting area for discussion. The uprooting of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes took place more than a decade and a half ago now (the name change took place more than thirteen years ago) and, whilst it seems likely that there will always be a campaigning element to the DNA of AFC Wimbledon, few would argue that the club hasn’t changed considerably over, say, the last decade or so. But why is it that, after all this time, the club that took their league position continue to use the “Dons” nickname as part of their official club name even though its connections to Wimbledon are not something that anybody rational would want much to do with? MK Dons chairman Peter Winkelman is predictably tone deaf on the matter. In 2012, at the time that the clubs were meeting for the first time in the FA Cup, he stated that:
I’ve been very clear about this. I’m a custodian of the club and the only way our name could ever change is if our supporters demanded it. I take responsibility for the club getting here, but now it’s here it’s actually the responsibility of all of us. And I think it’s incredibly clear, and clear in every conversation I have, that we are the MK Dons, we’re going to stay the MK Dons, and in the future we’re going to be the MK Dons.
Well, that’s all very well, but this doesn’t answer the question of why this should be the case. This particular club remains the nearest that English football has to a pariah club, and where that exists it’s inarguable that the circumstances surrounding its arrival in Milton Keynes is largely responsible for it. Some months before the clubs met for the first time, Merton Council retstated its request for MK to drop this suffix. If Winkelman’s comments on the subject weren’t clear enough, the MK supporters themselves chose the first ever meeting between the two clubs as an opportunity to hold up a banner with “We’re keeping the Dons… Just get used to it!” printed across it, presumably either unaware or otherwise oblivious to the extent to which this banner made them look like dreadful human beings.
There is nothing to stop the club changing its name. Stevenage dropped the “Borough” suffix from their name in 2010. Further back in the history books, Swansea Town became Swansea City and Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic became AFC Bournemouth at the beginning of the 1970s, and there are plenty of other examples, going back even further. Supporters might argue that this suffix is a part of their history and heritage, but the idea that this particular history or heritage is something that anybody would be proud of is frankly baffling. If anything, it’s reminiscent of the NFL team Washington Redskins refusal to change their arguably racist name, an act of wilful intransigence that only seems likely to prolong the club’s pariah status still longer.
BBC Sport tried to unpick it all in 2013 and came up with some telling comments from people connected to the club. Winkelman told them that “”I can’t replay what happened in the past” and that “Everyone concentrates on where we came from ten years ago. Not where we are,” without even seeming to understand that the “Dons” suffix links the two together seamlessly. Meanwhile, John Brockwell, chair of the Milton Keynes Dons Supporters Association, told them that, “It sounds like the desperate kid at school. ‘Please like me, please like me’. People either like you for who you are or dislike you”, which sounds like a slightly laughable position for an adult to take over this matter.
But even if we set moral considerations to one side for a moment, keeping this name doesn’t make any commercial sense either. We’ll never know how much money the club has lost from away supporters who’ve sat out this fixture because they refuse to set foot inside Stadium:MK or from residents of Milton Keynes who’ve never set foot inside there either, but we can safely presume that it’s more than zero. And the irony is that objectively good work that the club carries out in its community and with youth development, for example, will continue to be overlooked in favour of its status as a pariah club. Some of this damage would doubtlessly be mitigated by changing the club’s name, but this mildly daft looking “saving face” routine seems to be more important to the club’s supporters and, in turn, its chairman.
If the club’s insistence on retaining another club’s nickname is a case of trolling that is used as a form of motivation for the players and supporters, it isn’t working very well. This season is MK Dons’ fourteenth under this name. During this time, the club hasn’t reached the Premier League and has spent its time bouncing between the Championship and League One. This was clearly and evidently not, for all the bullish words to the contrary, the plan upon the relocation. As for the Football League’s comment that their rules require Wimbledon to act in “utmost good faith” and not to “unfairly criticise, disparage, belittle or discredit” any other club”, well there’s a counter-argument to that which runs that this is exactly what MK Dons have been doing for the last thirteen years by hanging on to a suffix which now acts as an apparently permanent memorial to the act of larceny that took Wimbledon to Buckinghamshire in the first place.
It’s time for MK Dons to drop this badge of identity and find one that positively reflects upon the club and the town, but when we consider the bad faith in which the club was founded in the first place and has enthusiastically continued to embrace since then, the likelihood of this happening remains slim to zero. And so it is that MK Dons will remain English football pariah club, a fact that will sit quite separately from whether either its supporters or chairman wish that to be the case. The “English” Football League, meanwhile, might want to consider to choose its interventions more carefully in the future. After all, choosing to side with the pariah club over such a relatively trifling issue may be a look that fits comfortably with other recent decisions that it has taken, but Shaun Harvey et al are advised that this is categorically not a strong look for a governing body.