Former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair was keen on an idea to relocate then-Premier League 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 said to be something that would be a “significant breakthrough if Belfast had a football team playing in the English Premier League”.
The note also said such a move “should be able to build up strong cross-community support and provide a positive unifying force in a divided city”.
Another suggestion was that the move would come with a principally private sector-funded modern 40,000-seat 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.
The club had needed to move from their Plough Lane ground after the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster was published in 1990, recommending clubs move towards all-seated stadia.
Plough Lane was deemed unfit for redevelopment and in the following year the club moved to ground-share with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, but owner Sam Hammam had also looked at relocating the club to Dublin – a move that was rejected by League of Ireland clubs in 1998.
Wimbledon were relegated from the Premier League in 2000 and an FA arbitration hearing in 2002 gave the club permission to relocate to Milton Keynes in 2004 and they were renamed as MK Dons.
Supporters of the old Wimbledon FC formed a new club, AFC Wimbledon, who started in 2002 in the Combined Counties League Premier Division – then in the ninth tier of English football – and reached the Football League in 2011.
They are now playing in League Two out of a stadium close to the original Plough Lane.
Details of the note regarding Wimbledon were leaked to the Belfast Telegraph which then published a story reporting that then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam was in support of the idea, which was hoped would bring new investment to Northern Ireland and boost 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 Ms Mowlam, Downing Street also took an interest in the proposal, with a note by then-chief press secretary Alastair Campbell explaining that Wimbledon owner Hammam “had explored the possibility of moving Wimbledon to Dublin, but this seems to have come to naught”.
He added that Mr Hammam had seen media reports of Northern Ireland’s interest and “was keen to know whether this was serious, or speculation, leading nowhere”.
A memo dated 16 July, 1998 – just months after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed – indicated Mr Blair was keen on the idea.
It recorded Mr 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 Irish football authorities “continue to resist the idea strongly”.
It said that 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 suggesting that Mr Hammam is encouraged to visit Belfast “in order to assess the seriousness of his interest”.
A letter to Ms Mowlam in April 1999, by a member of Bring Premier League Soccer to Northern Ireland, detailed ongoing discussions 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.”