This hasn’t been a plum week in the history of MK Dons. Their dumping out of the cup at the hands of Premier League QPR on Tuesday night followed a weekend of sincere apology from all involved at the club after the farcical cancellation of their League One match with Carlisle. The game was the only weather casualty in the entirety of the professional game across England and Scotland – a mind blowing situation that owed much to bad planning and which was unbecoming for a stadium which was one the England 2018 bid’s chosen host venues.
To their infinite credit the Dons behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the game and in the days hence has been nothing short of exemplary. Club chairman Pete Winkelman delved into his own pocket to feed the 500 or so Cumbrians who had made the journey to Buckinghamshire, recognising the special sacrifice of a 6am start in his many obsequious appearances across sports media over the course of the day. On Tuesday they took the further, unparalleled step of offering all Carlisle ticket holders not one, but two free entries for the rearranged fixture and footing the bill for the travel of 100 or so Blues supporters.
And yet there remains lingering talk of a conspiracy amongst Carlisle fans, and the wider football community – that the lost game kept MK fresh for the cup tie. However tongue in cheek it begs the question whether such accusations would stick to other clubs.
A Carlisle supporting correspondent of mine who had the misfortune of attending the ‘game’ on a corporate junket dropped me a line on Monday morning to detail Winkelman’s rounds and proffer an unflattering comparison to the Dickensian villain Uriah Heep – it seems somewhat ironic that he was kowtowing on behalf of his own ‘umble abode’.
But it’s something that he seems to feel the need to do often – apologise. So does the entire outfit. Doomed to a lifetime’s discontent by their own Faustian pact with the devil, their name is seemingly fated to be prefixed with a ‘but’ for time in memoriam. Such is the perpetuity of their perceived woe that one even wonders if their collective morning alarm call were the strains of Sonny and Cher’s ‘I’ve Got You Babe’; if Saturday’s pitch problems had been caused not by staffing oversight but by a celebrated rodent – Bucksatawny Phil, the MK groundhog – one wouldn’t have been surprised.
Take their approach to management for example. The club’s rise to League One and JPT Trophy success came at the hand of one of the UK’s only black managers; the vibrant, young and forward thinking Paul Ince. His replacement is a no less laudable appointment – Karl Robinson is exactly the type of coach who has historically had little chance of hooking a top job in the UK. An average non-league player whose career was ended by injury he became the Football League’s youngest gaffer upon appointment in the summer of 2009.
His installment, along with the gnarled backroom operator John Gorman, has been revelatory – transforming a formulaic mid-table outfit into perennial play-off jousters. He is also clearly an intelligent man – erudite, gracious and well spoken, his manner is that of a student of the game rather than an old school motivator. This has been noticed in footballing circles yet his potential as an English Arsène Wenger or Arrigo Sacchi or even as the next Eddie Howe hasn’t yet gathered the head of critical steam it deserves. Nor has the MK board’s outstanding judgment drawn praise. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why.
The short history of the Dons is littered with similarly puzzling examples. Their reputation as the outstanding community club in the English leagues; past master in engaging with their captive audience, with offering a newly vibrant product and reaching out in support of local good causes stands chided as the actions of guilt. Philanthropy forever tarnished by THAT back story.
Indeed there even seemed a reluctance to accept that the club hierarchy were able to produce a homegrown product of the obvious quality and talent of West Ham’s Sam Baldock and yet more head scratching as the forward passed up a ‘proper club’ in Peterborough United to remain at Stadium:MK. How could the ‘plastic club’ possibly contribute to the future of English football – even to those of empathetic bent like myself an element of that still sticks in the craw. I surely can’t be the only one who mouths ‘pity’ when the Wikipedia entry of a big summer capture reveals a 5 game loan spell with the Dons in 2007?
If you asked a random sample of football fans to state the first word that sprung to mind at mention of the Dons I’d wager that ‘hate’ would figure high on any list compiled. I’ve never hated MK:Dons. I’ll forever hate elements of their inception and facets of their existence. Before considering the reaction to this week’s proffering of a gigantic olive branch to their rivals fans I’d spared little emotional thought for them at all – their stadium was a nuisance to get to but was lovely inside was about the sum of it. But this week I pity them – their timeless anguish, their wailing but ignored positivity and the fact that every one else disdains them – that kind of makes me sad. And I can’t help wondering if they’d prefer my hate…