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World Cup 2018

Milton Keynes England's 2018 weak link

December 29, 2009
By Andy Brassell

Sunderland, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, Plymouth, Liverpool, Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes? "Last but not least," was Lord Mawhinney's trail for the surprise name among the candidate locations, announced this week, which will form the fulcrum of England's bid for the 2018 World Cup. The new town amongst a raft of established football cities stands out, either as a ray of freshness or an affront to tradition, depending on your point of view.

MK Dons stadium
GettyImagesStadium MK was the surprise choice for England's 2018 World Cup bid.

Firstly, I have to come clean - I'm an AFC Wimbledon fan. So you will understand that not only is Milton Keynes hardly likely to feature in my favourite UK weekend break destinations, but I wouldn't open the curtains to view Stadium:mk, were it opposite my house. However, my opposition to its inclusion in the bid comes from the head rather than the heart.

History and prestige is a big part of what makes English football the object of such affection all over the world. The presence of Bristol and Plymouth among the selected is welcome too. A great (and understated) strength of our national game is the fervour with which the game is followed at levels below the top flight - a proud tradition distinguishing us from our European neighbours, and inspiring awe in those nations.

This is a passion, of course, that simply doesn't exist in Milton Keynes. Talking about comfy seats, great transport access and a UEFA 4* endorsement doesn't change the fact that the town couldn't muster the enthusiasm to keep non-league Milton Keynes City FC alive in either of its incarnations - the first closing in 1985 and the second shutting up shop in 2003 after a brief revival. England's strength, particularly on a world scale, is that of its football heritage. Nobody doubts the quality of the facilities at Milton Keynes, but so many other stadia in the UK offer the same. If the selection was based solely on logistics and the modernity of facilities, then Europe may as well put forward Germany as its candidate every four years.

England's bid comes at exactly the right time, with the rampant commercial success of the Premier League globally giving it a huge profile and prestige. However, it would be naïve to overlook the jealousy that this inspires in some quarters. Some will scrutinise intensely to pick holes in the bid, and Milton Keynes is a loose thread.

If it has escaped FIFA's notice up to this point, it can only be a matter of time until someone points out the parallels between the Milton Keynes and the Granada 74 situation, which incurred the wrath of the world governing body and UEFA alike in 2007 explained in more depth here by ESPN Soccernet's own Phil Ball). FIFA took Granada 74 all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent them from competing in the Segunda A, after president Carlos Marsa bought Ciudad de Murcia and merged the clubs under the Granada name, effectively buying a place in a higher division. FIFA said at the time that the move "violates one of the fundamental principles of football".

This is important because fair play - one of FIFA's favourite themes - is a key tenet of England's global image and appeal. In contrast, football in Milton Keynes is firmly against those principles. In 2002 FA chief executive Adam Crozier called the Milton Keynes move "appalling" and insisted it was not a good thing for the game. Following the decision to allow the MK move, Wimbledon FC had pledged to maintain its relationship with the local area. Instead, chairman Pete Winkleman (who had already registered the internet domain name back in 2000) changed the name and colours of the club, and in 2007 relinquished all claim to Wimbledon's trophies and patrimony, defining MK Dons as a new club founded in 2004.

You would think that the FA would want to distance themselves as far as possible from this but Stadium:mk has been an England Under-21 venue since 2007, and it looks increasingly like the FA are simply trying to justify one of the more unedifying episodes in recent English football history.

Even the expansion of Stadium:mk to 44,000, finishing the original project idea floated by Winkelman and company and bringing the stadium to World Cup standard, evokes a moral dilemma, with much white elephant potential. This debate is still germane in Portugal following Euro 2004. Valuable public resources were spent on stadia at Coimbra, Leiria and Faro, none of which have come close to being filled since that summer.

People are understandably angry that money that could have spent on schools and hospitals went on a venue to house the 666 people who attended the Portuguese top flight match between Leiria and Belenenses in 2008, for example. Sustainability is important, and the idea that MK Dons could regularly fill an expanded home ground in domestic competition is laughable. In Portugal, interest outside the big three of Porto, Sporting and Benfica (and the freak of nature that is Guimarães) is limited, but this isn't the case in England.

Paul Gascoigne Euro '96
GettyImagesHosting Euro '96 stoked the footballing flames in England.

Unlike some fellow Wimbledon fans who (understandably) feel the reopening of old wounds with the news, I have no wish to see the bid fail. I still marvel over footage of the 1966 World Cup, and have wonderful memories of the heady delirium that was Euro 96. It's because I so want the bid to succeed that I believe MK should have no part of it.

Of course, this may not matter as the 15 chosen ones should be whittled down to 10 in 2013 should England get the nod. But we have to get that far first, and to do that we have to have a bid that is unbeatable in terms of all our key strengths. England ticks all the boxes, but the selection of MK begs the question - does it really have the competence at executive bid team level to make it reality?