Newly released state documents show former Prime Minister Tony Blair supported proposals to move Wimbledon FC to Belfast, but his Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam was more skeptical.
Previously confidential state documents include a 1997 memo described as “following earlier informal discussions about the possibility of relocating an English Premier League football club to Belfast”.
It was described as something that would be “a significant step forward if Belfast had a football team playing in the English Premier League” and “should be able to build strong cross-community support and provide a positive unifying force in a divided city” . .
It was also mooted that it would include a modern 40,000-seat sports stadium, funded mainly by the private sector, and potentially a sports academy, located on Queen’s Island east of Belfast or at the site from North Foreshore to the north of town.
At the time, Wimbledon shared land with Crystal Palace, who had an all-seater stadium, and were looking for a site to build one. After the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 97 Liverpool fans lost their lives, the Taylor Report recommended that top-flight clubs remove standing areas from stadiums.
State newspapers indicate that the possibility of a Don move to Belfast was discussed at the highest levels of government in 1997 as part of proposals for a national stadium in Northern Ireland.
At the time, the Blair government was trying to stall the peace process ahead of the Good Friday Agreement the following year. It has been suggested that the club could be renamed Belfast United.
Ronnie Spence, then permanent secretary of Northern Ireland’s Department of the Environment, hoped that a team based in Belfast “would be able to build strong cross-community support”.
He also believed that the city’s reputation would grow if the team “performed at the highest level in English and European competitions”.
This view was shared by Blair, who thought “it would be excellent if Wimbledon moved to Belfast”.
But the proposal faced opposition from Mowlam and other officials. Mowlam in particular did not think the proposal was “particularly safe”.
Gerry Loughran, who was permanent secretary in the Department of Economic Development at the time, pointed out that Wimbledon was a mid-table Premier League club. He thought he was unlikely to play in Europe and thereby improve Belfast’s reputation.
Loughran was also skeptical that local supporters would transfer their loyalty from English and Scottish clubs to the Belfast United project. These were “bonds for life” in which “passion never fades,” he wrote.
He also suggested that Spence read the writings of Nick Hornby, the author of Fever Pitch, to understand the passions and loyalties of football fans.
Wimbledon FC eventually moved to Milton Keynes, despite opposition from supporters. In 2002, most supporters transferred their allegiance to a new local club, AFC Wimbledon.