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World Cup 2018: Date with destiny for Milton Keynes

Pete Winkelman (left) and Stadium:mk
Winkelman is eager to see World Cup matches staged at Stadium:mk

By Sam Sheringham

MK Dons chairman Pete Winkelman is trying hard to remember what he was wearing on 16 December, 2009.

On that fateful day, he was hosting a gathering of about 100 people at the club's stadium when Milton Keynes learned it was one of 12 candidate cities included in England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

This Thursday, as Fifa's executive committee prepares to decide whether England, Russia, Spain/Portugal or Netherlands/Belgium has won the right to host football's showpiece event, Winkelman is determined to do his bit to influence events in Zurich by recreating the scene from almost a year ago.

Eccentric? Maybe. Superstitious? Certainly. But then Thursday could be a life-changing occasion for both Winkelman and Milton Keynes.

"We're inviting all the people that have been part of the bid to the stadium and we'll all be watching the TV with our fingers crossed," Winkelman told BBC Sport.

"Having been in football a few years, it's incredible how superstitious you get. The year we won the Johnstone's Paint Trophy [2008] I had to wear a certain pair of shoes and a certain shirt.

I think there will always be a question mark, certainly in my time, over the way Milton Keynes Dons came into being

MK Dons chairman Pete Winkelman

"I don't know if I can remember what I had on a year ago but we will try to recapture the spirit of that day because that was a momentous one in the history of Milton Keynes.

"Wouldn't it be amazing if it was another spectacular day that actually affected the whole country?"

It is hard to disagree with Winkelman's hyperbole. After all, Milton Keynes did not even exist when England hosted the World Cup for the first - and so far only - time in 1966.

The town was founded the following year as an amalgamation of villages in a 22,000-acre area of Buckinghamshire with the modest intention of relieving housing congestion in London.

With its American-style grid system and countless roundabouts, Milton Keynes remains a dreary 1960s 'new town' for many.

It has been the butt of jokes about concrete cows, while contrasts have been unkindly drawn between the town and yoghurt - only one of which has culture, the saying goes.

Slowly but surely, that image is changing. The town is now host to one of the biggest theatres outside London, one of Europe's largest shopping centres, a concert venue that can hold 65,000 people and has played host to Bon Jovi and Take That, as well as professional ice hockey and basketball teams.

Now, with a place alongside the likes of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds in England's 2018 bid, Winkelman senses an opportunity to plant Milton Keynes firmly on the footballing map.

2018 BID CANDIDATES
Birmingham (Villa Park)
Bristol (New Ashton Gate)
Leeds (Elland Road)
Liverpool (Anfield or new Anfield)
London (Wembley, Emirates & Olympic Stadium or new Tottenham stadium)
Milton Keynes (Stadium:mk)
Nottingham (new Forest ground)
Manchester (Old Trafford & City of Manchester Stadium)
Newcastle (St James' Park)
Plymouth (Home Park)
Sheffield (Hillsborough)
Sunderland (Stadium of Light)

"For us, it's uniquely important," he said. "Some cities have a thousand years of history to lay claim to. Milton Keynes is brand new and we're still forming our identity.

"To be host for something as incredible as a World Cup would have an impact on the cultural history of Milton Keynes, so it would forever be remembered as a very major moment."

The city's journey from a footballing backwater to the world stage began in 2002, when Wimbledon FC were given permission to move 56 miles north to base itself in the town.

The transfer was made early in the 2003/4 season after the club had been taken over by administrators and most of its best players sold.

In June 2004, local businessman Winkelman bought the club out of administration and changed its name to Milton Keynes Dons, introducing a new club badge, an all-white kit and, in 2007, a state-of-the-art 22,000-seat stadium.

While the club's fortunes on the pitch have been mixed - one relegation, one promotion and a Johnstone's Paint Trophy - off-the-field growth has been impressive.

The club's average attendances have risen from just under 5,000 to nearly 11,000, with a third of their fans aged under 21. Meanwhile, Stadium:mk has become a regular venue for England Under-21 internationals and staged international friendlies involving Nigeria, Colombia, Ghana and Latvia in June.

If England's bid is successful, 17 stadiums from 12 cities will be submitted for approval, with Fifa making the final decision on venues in 2013.

606: DEBATE

Winkelman, who has funding in place to increase the capacity to the World Cup requirement of 44,000, is determined to ensure Milton Keynes makes the final cut.

"We are very focused on what we need to do," he said. "What Milton Keynes is very good at is delivery. If we set ourselves a task for something, we do it well. We want to develop football at the core of the growth of the city.

"Milton Keynes has an objective to be an international sporting city and we want to continue to develop world-class facilities. I'm working very hard with my partners in Milton Keynes. We will be going forward whatever happens."

Not everyone is happy about the inclusion of MK Dons in England's bid.

AFC Wimbledon, the breakaway club formed when Wimbledon FC made its controversial departure from south-west London, have made their opposition clear.

Ivor Heller, the club's commercial director, described the decision to make Milton Keynes a candidate city as "hideous", saying it had "opened up all the old wounds".

A supporters' petition calling on the government to withdraw the city from the list of host venues gained more than 1,300 signatories in the two months it was posted on the Downing Street website.

Wimbledon win the FA Cup in 1988
Wimbledon beat Liverpool to win the FA Cup in 1988

Winkelman, who has returned all Wimbledon's trophies including the 1988 FA Cup to the London borough of Merton, does not expect the ill-feeling to go away.

"I think there will always be a question mark, certainly in my time, over the way Milton Keynes Dons came into being," he said.

"But I am a glass half-full person and I look at the situation a few years later where there has been a massive investment in football in Milton Keynes, a stadium capable of supporting a World Cup bid and a league football team with a very young fanbase.

"I look down to south London and I see AFC Wimbledon at the top of the conference having fought their way up the leagues as a unique club and I think of Wimbledon spawning both of these babies.

"Whereas it still feels very sore now, when history judges it, I think they will see Wimbledon as an amazing story."

Almost as amazing as Milton Keynes hosting a World Cup match.



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see also
Milton Keynes picked for 2018 bid
16 Dec 09 |  Internationals
Reaction to 2018 bid cities announcement
16 Dec 09 |  Internationals
Cameron visit boost for 2018 bid
23 Nov 10 |  Football
Dein calls for 2018 bid support
23 Nov 10 |  Football
The World Cup in their hands
02 Dec 10 |  Football
World Cup bids head-to-head
17 Oct 10 |  Football


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