DESPITE ADMITTING THAT relocating a football club was not a good idea’ MK Dons chairman Pete Winkelman insisted, in an interview with BBC Sport in 2012, that he would not drop the Dons part of the name MK Dons. He added the caveat, however, that he would consider rebranding the team if it was what the fans desired.
Five years on, the controversy regarding the name MK Dons was reignited during their 2-0 away victory against AFC Wimbledon, as the hosts refused to validate their rivals’ right to the name Dons, instead referring to their opponents as MK.
The result of Wimbledon’s protest was an official Football League charge – they were found to be in breach of EFL rule 3.5, which states that ‘no Club, shall by any means whatsoever unfairly criticise, disparage, belittle or discredit any other Club’. Even though it would not be difficult to argue that Wimbledon’s actions represent an attempt to belittle MK Dons, given the history between the two clubs, it is debatable whether their failure to acknowledge the side from Milton Keynes as Dons is unfair.
This is because the Dons nickname is derived from the word Wimbledon, which is controversial for many Wimbledon fans because they think that it is a thinly-veiled attempt to claim part of the heritage of the original club. Given that when MK Dons were first launched they claimed Wimbledon’s playing legacy, it is not too far-fetched an idea.
While some would argue that such obsessions over a name are petty – even Shakespeare, one of the most well-known figures in English literary history, seemed to think that names were largely inconsequential: ‘That which we call a rose would by any other name be just as sweet’ – I, as an MK Dons fan, believe that our use of the name Dons matters.
It is a relic of our uncomfortable past and symbolic a catalogue of errors made by Winkelman and the consortium that moved Wimbledon to Milton Keynes over a decade ago. But the fact is, barring club mainstay Dean Lewington and a handful of other members of staff, we have no connection with the original club, or Wimbledon the suburb.
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We must sever the final tie to Wimbledon that we attempt to cling onto. It is a constant reminder of the mistakes made in the creation of our club, and if we want to be respected by the wider football community, then its removal from our name is a step that we must take.
It can be argued that many MK Dons fans don’t particularly care about the respect of the English football community. One of the chants that you hear most often in the stands is ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’ – which, ironically, was stolen from Millwall – and many fans take smug pride in being the team that no one wants to see win. So while Winkelman’s claims that MK Dons fans must be the driving force in dropping the Dons are admirable, they are ultimately unrealistic. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the man who was initially responsible for the MK Dons name should also play a leading role in it being changed.
While I acknowledge many of the flaws of my own club, I do think that it’s necessary to talk about the questionable way that certain figures at Wimbledon conduct themselves. When MK Dons’ youth fixture against AFC Wimbledon was called off, those in charge neglected to tell the travelling team until they arrived at the ground. Apparently, they thought that it was OK to not do so because they were associated with the ‘franchise’. They were just kids playing for an academy with a very good reputation, trying to make their way in football – dropped off by the parents in many cases.
Furthermore, our former manager, Karl Robinson, has faced vitriolic abuse not only from fans but a member of staff working for Wimbledon when visiting the club as Charlton manager. Such immaturity is fuel for the fire of MK Dons fans, who take issue with the hostilities of those involved at Wimbledon, such as when they first came to Stadium MK and a small minority of fans vandalised the toilets in the away end, or the multiple times that MK Dons stewards have been assaulted when our clubs have met.
The animosity shown towards MK Dons fans is equally ridiculous to me – all that we are doing is supporting our local football team. We are constantly referred to as ‘franchise scum’ by fans of other EFL clubs. When I was an under-18 season ticket holder, my season ticket cost less than £50, which would purchase you a ticket for a single game at many Premier League clubs. I, like many, love football but couldn’t afford to get the train down to London every weekend and pay extortionate prices to watch a football match.
Most MK Dons fans are just like the rest of us: hard-working, regular folk who simply want to enjoy the game they love and get behind the team that they support. Criticising someone for that is completely absurd to me.
In a bizarre twist of fate, Wimbledon FC’s relocation to Milton Keynes ended up being a blessing in disguise for the original Dons. Their remarkable rise through the divisions means that they now have a fan-owned Football League club, plans approved for their own stadium, and a stronger sense of community and togetherness than they ever would have had otherwise. And I think that the inclusion of Dons in our name detracts from that, as the two-club solution has both brought football to thousands in Milton Keynes and stability to Wimbledon.
The negatives of the name go beyond football, as MK Dons – along with concrete cows and roundabouts – put Milton Keynes on the map for many outside of Buckinghamshire. You need only read the comments on articles regarding Milton Keynes, or partake in any online discussion about it, to see that MK Dons’ status as a ‘franchise’ damages the town’s reputation. If Winkelman were to publicly apologise for all the harm caused by his relocation of Wimbledon FC and decide that his team would no longer be defined by it, instead giving his team a new name reflective of their location and future in Milton Keynes, I think that he would gain a great deal of respect.
But the damage has already been done; the MK Dons name has existed for 14 years now. And during that time, a significant culture has been created at the club. MK Dons regularly feature in the top six attendances in League One and have a legion of loyal season ticket holders, all of whom have always known their club as the Dons – fans that had no connection to Wimbledon, the club or the area. It is impossible to do away with over a decade of chants, ups, downs, promotions and relegations; during that time, the fans have forged an affinity with their club, which is based on a certain identity.
It could be argued that any attempt to change the club’s name is futile – fans will continue to sing the same songs that they are used to signing, the press will continue to use the nickname that they’ve always used, and the players will still identify as being a Dons player.
A simple solution, therefore, is perhaps a fantasy – the dream of one who sees the whole saga as a storm in a teacup from both sides. Wimbledon fans will continue to harbour a great deal of resentment towards the new Milton Keynes side, and any solution would potentially serve to upset many fans of MK Dons who have been around since the beginning.
However, the renaming of a football club is not uncharted territory in English football: the majority of football clubs went through many different iterations of names before they settled on their current one. Arsenal’s dropping of the Woolwich part of their name after moving across London is strikingly similar. While many of the Gunners’ contemporary fans were rightly opposed to the name change and the removal of a football club from a community, over time they forgot. Advocates for a name change, such as myself, could, therefore, be optimistic of a future in which our rebranded club identity becomes the norm, and one where the name MK Dons – and all the anger it carries with it – is a distant memory.
By Jack Barnes @jbarnesmk