Doomed plan to create Premier League team ‘Belfast United’ detailed in files

State papers: Tony Blair wanted Wimbledon FC to move to Northern Ireland but senior civil servant warned it could be ‘another focus for sectarianism’

Relocating a top-tier English football club to Belfast should provide a “unifying force in a divided city”, a senior Stormont civil servant claimed during the peace process.

Wimbledon FC was the club in question – its owner, players and managers were to move over as part of a proposal by a private sector consortium – and a new 40,000-seater sports stadium would be built in Belfast at a cost of £45 million by 1999, previously unpublished minutes contained in Northern Ireland state papers have revealed.

“There is a need to bring matters to a head quickly, not least because Wimbledon is still exploring a possible move to Dublin,” wrote Ronnie Spence, permanent secretary at the North’s Department of the Environment, on November 24th 1997, in a detailed letter making the case to colleagues.

But the idea was rounded on by a permanent secretary who questioned how the new team could command cross-community support when Northerners could not even “unite” behind the Northern Ireland football team.

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Yet British prime minister Tony Blair gave the project his full backing, with his private secretary writing on June 30th, 1998, that the Blair “thinks it would be excellent if Wimbledon were to move to Belfast”.

“We should encourage this as much as possible,” he said.

The London football club was to be renamed Belfast United to “reflect its new location” and according to minutes from November 1997, the project attracted the interest of former Dutch international Johan Cruyff at a meeting with financiers the previous month.

In a note marked confidential, Spence said the team “should be able to build up strong cross-community support and provide a positive unifying force in a divided city”.

Much like the current row over the choice of Casement Park in west Belfast to host Euro 2028, concerns were raised about the new stadium’s location.

Contained in the file marked “National Stadium”, Gerry Loughran, the Department of Enterprise permanent secretary who would go on to become the first Catholic head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service in 2000, was scathing in his response to Spence’s November 24th, 1997, note:

“Why is it assumed that both communities would unite behind a Belfast United team? They do not unite behind the Northern Ireland team,” Loughran wrote.

“It is at least as possible that Belfast United will attract only one side of the community and thus become another focus for sectarianism, even if the stadium is not located, as proposed, in east Belfast.”

Referencing Fever Pitch, published five years earlier, Loughran acknowledged that the new team “could capture people from here who travel to watch Manchester United, Liverpool, Celtic and Rangers” but added that he believed fans’ allegiance to their teams meant they “will continue to travel”.

“These bonds are life and the passion never dulls (for further reading, see Nick Hornby).”

He added: “You suggest Wimbledon (Belfast United) would perform ‘at the top level in English and European competitions’. This is a brave predication.

“This is a very shaky business proposal. It appears to depend on many IOUs and a dose of taxpayer’s funds.”

An intervention by secretary of state Mo Mowlam in December led to the project’s temporary shelving; a note by her private secretary David Kyle on December 1st, 1997, stated that she “does not think the proposed project is particularly ‘safe’” and “agrees… that no public expenditure under her direct control would be expended on the project”.

It was resurrected a year later but fiercely opposed by the Irish Football Association and Fifa after details were leaked to a newspaper.

The discussions took place when Wimbledon FC were competing the English first division – now the Premier League – but they were lacking a home stadium. Their form later slumped and the club was relegated in May 2000. It collapsed two years later and AFC Wimbledon emerged from its ruins, and is now competing in the fourth tier of England’s football league system.

By the spring of 1999 – a year after the signing of the Belfast Agreement – Northern Ireland office minister John McFall announced a working group to “consider issues around the development of a national stadium”.

Minutes from a meeting of the “national stadium working group” in June 1999 single out “neutrality” of its location as “the problem”.

The file also contains a letter written by the chief executive of Craigavon Borough Council, T E Reaney, on August 5th, 1999, who suggested that Craigavon would be an “ideal location” for a national stadium.

The correspondence was sent to the Labour government’s recently appointed minister for sport Kate Hoey.

Hoey, born on a small farm in Co Antrim, has been one of the most vocal critics of Casement Park’s redevelopment to host the European competition in 2028, tweeting after the story broke in October that the Andersonstown Road GAA grounds “must not get the huge extra money needed from government to develop stadia. Football clubs in Northern Ireland need investment first.”

Sinn Féin First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill described Casement’s proposed Euro revamp as “the opportunity of a lifetime” for west Belfast.

The extensive national stadium file in the Public Records Office in Belfast also features a briefing dated March 27th, 2001, prepared for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister, Michael McGimpsey, ahead of a meeting with Linfield Football and Athletic Club.

Linfield’s home ground is Windsor Park in the heart of unionist south Belfast, where in November 1993, a notorious World Cup qualification game between Northern Ireland and the Republic became mired in unprecedented scenes of sectarianism.

The 2001 note states: “At the soccer strategy conference workshop in Newcastle in February, considerable support emerged for a multi-sports national stadium to provide a new venue for staging international football matches as well as other events. It was generally agreed the current venue for international games, Windsor Park, is unsuitable on the grounds of poor facilities and its location being unattractive to the community as a whole.”

In October 2016, former DUP first minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness opened the redeveloped national football stadium at Windsor Park. Almost £29 million had been awarded by the Stormont Executive towards it.

Amhrán na bhFiann was played at Windsor for the first time earlier this month when the Republic of Ireland women’s team overcame Northern Ireland 6-1 in a Uefa Nations League game before 9,000 fans in what was an incident-free night.