Blair wanted Wimbledon to become Belfast United

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair was keen on an idea to relocate then-Premier League football side Wimbledon FC to Belfast in the late 1990s.

Previously confidential state papers include a note from 1997 described as “following up earlier informal discussions about the possibility of an English Premier League football club relocating to Belfast”.

It was described as something that would be a “significant breakthrough if Belfast had a football team playing in the English Premier League”, and “should be able to build up strong cross-community support and provide a positive unifying force in a divided city”.

It was also mooted that it would come with a principally private sector funded modern 40,000-seater sports stadium, and potentially an academy for sport, located on Queen’s Island in east Belfast or the North Foreshore site in the north of the city.

The note suggested that Wimbledon FC would undergo a name change to Belfast United.

It was leaked to the Belfast Telegraph which then published a story reporting that Secretary of State Mo Mowlam was throwing her weight behind the idea, to bring new investment to Northern Ireland and boosting its image on the international stage.

However the article also noted that local football bosses in Northern Ireland were concerned it could “kill off the game in Northern Ireland”.

As well as Mowlam, Downing Street also took an interest in the proposal, with a note by then-chief press secretary Alistair Campbell urging that Wimbledon owner Sam Hamman “had explored the possibility of moving Wimbledon to Dublin, but this seems to have come to naught”.

He added that Hamman had seen media reports of Northern Ireland’s interest, and “was keen to know whether this was serious, or speculation, leading nowhere”.

At the same time, Hamman, who remained chairman despite selling 80% of his stake in the club to Norwegian businessmen Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten in the summer of 1997, was trying to engineer a Wimbledon to move to Dublin, which was ultimately blocked by the FAI.

“It would be excellent if Wimbledon were to move to Belfast and we should encourage this as much as possible”

A memo dated 16 July, 1998 – just months after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed – indicated Blair was keen on the Belfast idea.

It recorded Blair’s view was that “it would be excellent if Wimbledon were to move to Belfast and we should encourage this as much as possible”.

However another note, dated 17 August, 1998, described the matter as being at a “delicate stage”, recording that the Northern Irish football authorities “continue to resist the idea strongly”.

It said that the three local newspapers have welcomed it, and that TV presenter Eamonn Holmes “has been active in collecting public support”.

“If the Irish football authorities are to adjust their position, it will have to be achieved by local pressure, probably with Government remaining in the background,” the note records, as well as suggested that Hamman is encouraged to visit Belfast “in order to assess the seriousness of his interest”.

A letter to Mowlam in April 1999 by a member of the Bring Premier League Soccer to Northern Ireland, detailed discussions with then-UK Sports Minister Lord Dubs and Hamman, but noted continuing opposition by the football authorities in Northern Ireland.

They wrote that “difficult, intense, open, honest debate, discussion and negotiation is required”, but said the prize is “indeed great and potentially magnificent. A situation similar to the peace process”.

The idea is not mentioned again in the file after which attention shifted to proposals to build a new national stadium for Northern Ireland for the millennium.

Wimbledon FC remained in England, and relocated to Milton Keynes in 2002, with a new club, AFC Wimbledon, being founded

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