Long Time Ahead of Us: The Anatomy of MK Dons
The response to the formation of Milton Keynes Dons – in fact, even to the proposals for the club – provoked a torrent of controversy and rancour for opposition fans across the country. Many felt that the newly formed club had committed a theft of the historic Wimbledon F.C., and feared that it portended an era of football franchises. On that note, the Buckinghamshire Dons gained the unflattering tag of “Franchise FC” from supporters of other clubs. Former FA chief executive Adam Crozier deemed MK Dons’ acquisition of Wimbledon’s spot in the Football League to be “appalling”.
A June 2004 article in The Guardian described the original club’s bitter, contentious changing of hands as “one of the most controversial sagas in footballing history”. Everyone has their opinion on the creation of M.K. Dons, but that’s the last I’m going to mention of controversy. Because, regardless of one’s opinion of the Bucks. club, their on-field achievements in the past year have been exceptional. So, how did Karl Robinson and his side turn League One’s perennial bridesmaids into promotion winners?
It’s worth looking first at what Robinson’s predecessors achieved at the club, or in some cases, failed to. Stuart Murdoch, the club’s first manager and inherited from Wimbledon F.C. managed barely three months in the hotseat, following a run of eight matches without a win.
Incumbent and journeyman manager Danny Wilson scraped survival with the club in the second half of the season, but the irascible gaffer couldn’t avoid the drop the following season, and the club slumped into League Two. Wilson’s squad had boasted an embarrassment of striking riches, including Jason Puncheon, Aaron Wilbraham, Izale McLeod and an emerging Sam Baldock, yet the team notched up just 45 league goals all season, and agonisingly slipped into the drop zone, never to re-emerge.
Under the steady stewardship of Paul Ince – a man also helped by having contacts at some of the country’s biggest clubs – the Dons clinched promotion to League One in the Spring of 2008, winning the League Two title and the Football League Trophy. But, after Ince’s (first) departure, the club stagnated without sliding, though with the retention of experienced talents like Dean Lewington and Luke Chadwick, and exciting youngsters, like pacy forward Sam Baldock, many expected the club to build on their first promotion sooner rather than later.
It was into this situation of solid but unspectacular League One stability that Karl Robinson – a former Non-League striker renowned for his physical strength – arrived. At the tender age of 29, Liverpool-born Robinson became the youngest manager in the Football League, and was amongst the youngest coaches anywhere to have a UEFA Pro License.
It made sense that this young and ambitious club were attempting to distance themselves from safe stability of the managerial merry-go-round’s ageing stalwarts, and in the vein of Ince and di Matteo, were again appointing a fresh, inexperienced manager, to forge a more positive identity for the club.Upon taking the MK Dons job in 2010, Robinson told BBC Sport, “it’s not got a lot of history this football club, but we are making it on a regular basis and I really want to be a part of that history”. His first two seasons in the Dons hotseat were promising but frustrating.
The Dons lost in the play-offs in consecutive years, but away from that heartbreak, there were clear signs of Robinson developing an exciting, attractive footballing side whose passing style seemed to serve them especially well away from home. In Robinson’s first season, they won 4-1 away at Rochdale and 3-1 away at Colchester, whilst the following year they served up several batterings, including a 5-0 demolition of Paul Dickov’s Oldham side in front of a jubilant crowd at Stadium:mk.
Despite this early promise, a couple of leaner seasons followed, with some fans beginning to doubt Robinson’s ability to take the club to the next level – in every sense. In 2012-13, attendances dipped and the Dons struggled for goals. The following season, they were over-reliant on the ruthless attacking prowess of a young Patrick Bamford, and finished just above mid-table.
In the face of the club’s diminishing league returns, Robinson stuck with his team’s attractive, flowing brand of football, and developed a squad which blended experienced ex-Premier League players like Luke Chadwick and Jon Otsemobor with raw young talents like Dele Alli. The club, for their part, retained their trust and backing of Robinson, and in this past 12 months, the impressive manager’s vision for the Dons has definitively clicked into place.
There have been a variety of factors which led to MK Dons taking League One by storm last season, some of them hinted at above, but others indicating a development in Robinson’s managerial nous.
A superb use of the loan system brought in devastating striking options, including Benik Afobe and Will Grigg (who to my personal dismay) teamed up to deadly effect in the 4-0 Capital One Cup triumph over Manchester United. The likes of experienced players like Keith Andrews entering on loan, also helped create the balanced squad needed in a promotion-winning squad.
Tactically, the Dons also found a successful formula in League One. They used an attacking twist on the traditional 4-5-1 system, with three slightly advanced midfielders behind Will Grigg, to excellent effect, in games such as the 6-1 humiliation of Leyton Orient and the 5-1 demolition of Yeovil Town, at the business end of the season.
The issue Robinson and his side now face, is this. They’re unlikely to find another batch of loan talent quite as influential as last season’s, especially now they’re playing at a higher level. The gung-ho attacking style of past seasons may also be tempered somewhat by playing against teams of the calibre of Derby County, QPR and Nottingham Forest.
Early signs in the transfer window are good, if unspectacular. Simon Church and Dale Jennings are both decent enough strikers at Championship level, but both lack the magic of Alli or Afobe. One thing’s for sure. Whatever happens, the focus will increasingly be on MK Dons in their exciting present, not on the murky history of their early past.