• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Files reveal ex-PM Blair wanted Premier League team in Belfast


Dec 28, 2023 #Sports


Previously classified documents have revealed that former UK prime minister Tony Blair was keen on an idea to relocate a Premier League team to Belfast, Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.

Wimbledon FC were in need of a new stadium after the Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster recommended that football teams in the UK have all-seater stadia.

The south London club’s home stadium, Plough Lane, was deemed unfit for redevelopment, forcing the club to search for a new home.

The BBC has reported that newly released documents include a note from 1997 described as “following up earlier informal discussions about the possibility of an Premier League football club relocating to Belfast.”

The notion was described as a possible “significant breakthrough if Belfast had a football team playing in the English Premier League.”

The note said that the idea of moving relocating Wimbledon FC to Belfast “should be able to build up strong cross-community support and provide a positive unifying force in a divided city”.

The UK government at the time was keen to find ways of securing peace in Northern Ireland, which had experienced violent ethno-nationalist, sectarian conflict from the late 1960s until the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 which created a peace between parties that holds to this day.

It is estimated that around 3,500 people died during the conflict, known as The Troubles.

The note suggested that Wimbledon FC would be known as Belfast United if the club had moved.

Then-Wimbledon owner Sam Hammam had previously explored the idea of relocating the team to Dublin, Republic of Ireland, but failed to have the idea accepted by League of Ireland clubs in 1998.

Downing Street’s interest in the proposal to move the team to Belfast was evident in a note from then-chief press secretary Alastair Campbell which said that Hammam “had explored the possibility of moving Wimbledon to Dublin, but this seems to have come to naught.”

It added that the owner was aware of reports linking the team to Belfast and “was keen to know whether this was serious, or speculation, leading nowhere”.

A memo from July 16, 1998 — three months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed — indicated that Blair was keen on the idea.

The former PM’s view was recorded as being that: “it would be excellent if Wimbledon were to move to Belfast and we should encourage this as much as possible.”

The Irish football authorities were said to “resist the idea strongly.”

Wimbledon FC, who were relegated from the Premier League in 2000, eventually relocated to Milton Keynes in 2004 after an FA arbitration hearing in 2002 and were renamed as MK Dons.

A large proportion of supporters of the old Wimbledon FC formed a new club known as AFC Wimbledon who have since moved up from the ninth division of English football to where they now play in League Two in a stadium close to the original site of the old Plough Lane.


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