Dons place faith in the odd couple
Milton Keynes Dons enter their third year in League One off the back of a play-off finish two years ago under Roberto Di Matteo and then disappointingly missing out last season when expectations were high under the returning Paul Ince. Ince left amidst talk of disputes over playing budget cuts and a slump in form, particularly away from home.
The club appointed 29-year-old Karl Robinson, Ince’s former assistant, to the role of manager this summer, making him the youngest manager amongst the Seventy Two.
Always a controversial club due to the relocation of Wimbledon F.C to Milton Keynes and the establishment of a new “franchise” in the area, this season is crucial. Dons have a superbly appointed stadium, a growing fan base with last year the seventh highest home attendance in the division and clear ambitions to move through the leagues.
Chairman Pete Winkelman has handed Robinson, a former Blackburn coach, a 12-month rolling contract at stadium:mk and he will now concentrate on assembling a team to lead the Dons to promotion next season.
Robinson has appointed the former England coach John Gorman as his new assistant manager, with Alex Rae retaining his position as first team coach.
So much depends on Robinson. He inherits the core of a squad that has been in the top half of League One for two years in experienced goalkeeper Willy Gueret, talismanic captain Dean Lewington, playmaker Peter Leven and strikers Aaron WiIbraham, Sam Baldock and Jemal Johnson alongside the mercurial Luke Chadwick.
This is a team known for playing good football but which nevertheless scored twenty goals fewer last season than the promotion near-miss of the year before. It also conceded nearly double the number of goals on its travels last season compared to 2008/09.
Robinson can either retain the team’s footballing principles or become more pragmatic in what, this year as much as any, looks to be a hard, competitive division in which teams have to be able to roll their sleeves up week in, week out. At times last season, Ince’s side went missing. In League One, that makes a huge difference as was demonstrated by Dons’ final league placing of 12th.
As hinted at in the behind the scenes disputes in spring, Robinson has to reshape the squad against a background that dictates the playing budget is no longer a step above most of the division. Despite that, there have been some eye-catching summer signings, most notably the 35-year-old Dietmar Hamann.
The German will protect the back four, assuming prolonged fitness, while also assisting the relatively youthful Robinson in his new role of heightened responsibility. Winkelman’s hopes of success for his team rely on a successful working relationship between his newly-installed young manager and newly-recruited veteran star.
Dons have also drafted in two strikers: Lewis Guy from Doncaster and, on a season long loan from QPR, the talented Angelo Balanta. Robinson has also hinted at several “high profile” loan moves from Premiership clubs to come. These will be needed because Robinson’s current first team squad, comprised of 18 players, looks a little thin to withstand the rigours of a long campaign.
As it stands, MK Dons look to be a “top half” team but not one likely to be challenging for automatic promotion alongside the big guns of Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton and the like. A shot at a play-off place is likely to be the sum of realistic ambitions for the new man at the helm in the new city.
Written by: Rich Prew