Football Cities: Milton Keynes
Haters are gonna hate and my goodness, this website has expounded a lot of column inches putting the boot into MK Dons in its six and a half years of existence.
At times, we’ve attempted to raise the level of acrimony to an art form – much as When Saturday Comes have refused to include the Dons in its annual season previews, we have declined to let people forget about the grubby way the club was conceived – springing fully formed out of the ashes of Wimbledon in a short cut echoed by the elevation of one of its favourite sons, Dele Alli to the status of England squad member just 4 months after a season in League 1.
But this second post in our series analysing the footballing landscape in a wide range of cities won’t dwell on the past – not too much anyway – for we’d certainly include ourselves among the ranks of those fascinated to see where the MK Dons project is headed. Having just reached the Championship for the first time in their short time on this earth, the Dons’ rise is threatening to revel that of their immediate ancestors in its quickness. How sustainable is this level of progress?
In short, what is the future for MK Dons? More importantly, what is the future for football in the town of Milton Keynes? These are quite different things.
The Milton Keynes Cityscape
There is a new Odeon cinema right next door to Stadium: MK, flanked by a Chiquito and, handily given footballers’ tastes, a branch of the all-powerful South African chicken purveyors, Nandos. Nearby, you can treat yourself to meatballs or a billy bookcase at Ikea while an Asda the size of the QEII is bedecked in orange and pumpkins are stacked up next to the entrance in readiness for Hallowe’en.
It doesn’t cost anything to park at this alternative retail facility to the city centre, access is easy, you can break from shopping to take in a coffee at the M&S café or stay a night at the Doubletree Hotel situated within the stadium itself. Across town, the ‘old’ centre of the city does things similarly – marketing executives at Costa, Nero and Starbucks vie to see who can open the most branches, adventure shops huddle in the shadow of the XScape indoor ski run and you can see Inside Out at the cinema for the fourth consecutive month.
It’s easy to sneer – of course it’s the kind of ‘non-place’ described by French cultural commentator Marc Augé, the only pubs are Wetherspoon’s – three in total – and the restaurant chains at the centre of the recent tipping scandal are present and correct. There is of course also a stand in the shopping centre displaying MK Dons merchandise.
But that rather misses the point. Approaching its fiftieth anniversary, Milton Keynes is beginning to emerge as nothing short of a huge success. Apolitical, uncomplicated consumerism is what people want. They don’t want to stand for half an hour in a bus queue in the teeming rain and they want choice – large branches of John Lewis, two Waterstones and those aforementioned mountain and surf shops indicate that this is a population with a very good level of prosperity.
This quiet but nonetheless extraordinary growth is borne out by a recent study – the Centre for Cities’ 2015 Cities Outlook. Milton Keynes has witnessed population growth of 16.5% between 2003 and 2014, amounting to 32,600 new inhabitants and bringing the overall number of people living in the city up to 255,700, higher than Southampton.
The town has the highest growth in jobs of any of the 64 largest cities in the UK with 24,400 new positions created; while 1,825 new businesses were set up in the aforementioned 11 year period. Gross value added per capita – a measure used to calculate the value of goods and services in a city or regional economy – is running at 62.6%, the fifth highest in the UK and while the average wage of £28,600 a year trails London by almost £4,000, the cost of living in Milton Keynes is only half that of the capital, with the average house price at £204,600.
I’ve written before of the spillover benefits to a city and its football team in having a successful local economy. Just as the denizens of the city’s estates are happy to spend money visiting Xscape’s parachute simulators, enjoy one of Europe’s largest go-karting tracks and attending gigs at the National Bowl, so, theoretically, should they be able to afford a season ticket at Stadium: MK and have Diego Poyet’s name printed on their new replica shirt.
Cities that are shrinking tend to struggle in maintaining performance on the pitch so those on the rise are taking an opposite trajectory. Indeed, it could be said that MK is part of what could rightfully be labelled a London ‘city-region’ – a unit of geography that has achieved much critical attention in recent times.
London as a city has exploded in recent years, scarcely breaking stride as a result of the 2008 financial crisis and reaping the benefits of globalisation and an interconnectedness with other global cities as it goes. Exceedingly large, this trend has brought with it disadvantages, not least in making it unaffordable to live in – so the orbit of London can now be seen to have extended way beyond Haverhill, Ealing and Croydon.
Reading, Watford, Brighton and yes, Milton Keynes, would, to an economic geographer, now seem to be part of this London city-region. With that, comes prosperity and with that, comes a new prominence on the football field.
Transport links to MK are rapid. The mooted HS2 railway has promised to cut journey times from London to Birmingham to 49 minutes and Milton Keynes is slap bang in the middle. The Oxford-Cambridge varsity line is being revived and the M1 skirts the edge of the city cheek by jowl. Well within breach of the London exile fans that most English football clubs possess, an away fixture at Stadium:MK of a Tuesday night will now be within reach with all the attendant spending that brings for the host club.
There are also detailed and ever changing plans to increase the size of the Milton Keynes itself. 68,000 new homes are to be built, both within the city boundary but also on adjacent green field – the twin opposing forces of nimbyism and environmentalism negated by a population made up largely of newcomer motoring enthusiasts. That’s a lot more people to follow the Dons, a lot more people to spend money in stadium and the city as a whole.
However, Dons’ long-serving manager Karl Robinson has recently complained of the difficulty to of competing in the Championship – why is not so much of the wider municipality only slowly benefiting the football club?
The immediate answer would seem to lie in that stick supporters of ‘big’ clubs like to wield when attacking interlopers. Crowds at Stadium:MK remain unimpressive and averaged 9,452 in 2014-15 – lower than Barnsley, a part of the country with deep and long standing economic problems. Only 10,189 turned up for the visit to Southampton in the Capital One Cup.
Bigger crowds are coming – as witnessed for the recent match against Leeds when 19,284 arrived – but the Dons are still heavily reliant on the large supporter bases of the visitors – it is still proving to be an almighty struggle to attract fans from the city itself to the stadium.
Like many places, the majority of Milton Keynesians are not native to Buckinghamshire – as a new town once grouped together with other ‘cockney siberias’, the large London teams attract strong support while Liverpool, Manchester United and others also find strong favour. You’re also pretty likely to see a Barcelona shirt on a stroll around Willan or Caldecotte Lakes and the attractions of Sky Television are obvious.
Then there is the oval ball – not just via the current staging of Rugby World Cup matches on local soil – but also in the strong affinity for Northampton and Bedford. Fenny Stratford’s excellent local boozer, The Red Lion, the thinking fan’s watering hole before any visit to Stadium:MK, is actually more of a rugby pub than a football one and people take their rucks and mauls seriously around the town.
There’s also a myth that MK people like nothing better than to stick two fingers up at their critics, a ‘no-one likes us’ attitude pilfered from Millwall, a constant refrain of ‘we’re here, get used to it’.
But that’s not really the case. Many a pub conversation with people resident in the city has revealed not only indifference to MK Dons, not to say downright loathing – there is resentment here towards the way the club was created just as there is in any UK town or city. That’s especially evident among the decent cross-section of the local populace who support Luton Town, a club whose territory this should rightfully be. At one of the conurbation’s biggest employers, The Open University, Dons’ fans are rare than hen’s teeth.
That’s leaving aside a non-league scene that hardly registers on the local scene with the way the new town grew up to engulf the original communities of north Buckinghamshire having little impact on the likes of Wolverton Town and Newport Pagnell Town.
The exception was Bletchley Town to the south east of central MK. Under the name of Bletchley and WIPAC FC and as a struggling team in the lower reaches of non-league, an attempt was made to kick start the club by changing its name to Milton Keynes City in 1974. Often whipping boys in their Southern League days, local interest was always minimal and having folded, MK City were succeeded by Bletchley Town.
Having competed in the South Midlands League in 2012-3, Bletchley Town themselves withdrew from the competition and the area is now represented by Buckingham Town, exiled to nearby Fenny Stratford’s Manor Fields and competing in the South Midlands League.
Stadium improvements at Manor Fields perhaps hint at a desire for a different type of football in the borough and a question on a number of people’s lips must be how to generate interest in a football club the city can be proud of, one not besmirched irrevocably by the identity theft perpetrated by the Dons?
With multinational firms such as Argos, Domino’s Pizza, Santander and Mercedes-Benz enjoying a significant presence in the city, one wonders if a sugar daddy with principles might fancy setting up a rival club to MK Dons? Better still, could a supporter owned organisation make this happen? Might Volkswagen, another local presence, decide to get behind a new club in a bid to offset recent public relations disasters? – they have bankrolled Wolfsburg after all.
The irony is that a way forward has been displayed by AFC Wimbledon and that club’s thrilling return to the Football League. Trials could be held at Campbell Park and only a modicum of money could be required to launch such a team from the lowest level of non-league through the divisions. Once established, the town authorities’ favourable attitude towards the construction industry and ample land to build upon could provide room for a stadium and one that could be expanded over time.
There are naysayers in MK for whom the presence of the current football club is a blot on the town’s reputation. At the edges of a city that is a temple to bland consumerism, you’ll find Wolverton’s Craufurd Arms pub, a magnet for those who don’t wish to conform; Fenny Stratford’s gargantuan gay club, Pink Punters, the survival of independent businesses in Bletchley and, in the shadow of the city centre itself, a small scale street market run by central European immigrants. In the same way that non-league clubs such as Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton have found favour among those outside the mainstream, this city of over 250,000 includes a section of its population that could well feel the same way.
A true grassroots, community venture to found a brand new club could sweep away much of the hostility the wider football world feels towards the city and restore its reputation in footballing terms. As a burgeoning metropolis reaching adolescence and in serious need of credibility, this is what Milton Keynes needs.