MK trip gives QPR a glimpse of what might have been – opposition focus
Friday, 6th Jan 2012 00:21 by Clive Whittingham
It was 2001 when QPR last won a match in the FA Cup, the same year the club was approached by Pete Winckleman about a move to Milton Keynes. As Jim Bowen used to say, here’s what we could have won.
It has now been almost 11 years to the day since QPR won a match in the FA Cup. In January 2001 QPR from the First Division took on Luton Town who were about to be relegated from the Second. The R's were 2-0 down at half time in the first match at Kenilworth Road and playing about as badly as I can ever remember but they somehow clawed it back to 2-2 and then, having fallen behind again, 3-3 in injury time from the penalty spot. In the replay at Loftus Road they laboured again, finally scraping through by the skin of Chris Kiwomya's teeth in extra time to set up a home fourth round game with Arsenal that they lost 6-0.
Winning that FA Cup tie was just about the only thing that 2000/01 QPR team got right. It was a truly dreadful outfit, led manfully by a teenage Peter Crouch but otherwise devoid of quality and robbed of too many good players through serious injury. Those that were fit to play were not very good and, as they were almost without exception out of contract at the end of the season, not very committed either. By May QPR had been relegated and were in administration – the club was on its knees.
Since that day it has been rebuilt into a Premiership team once more, though few football clubs have endured a road quite as rocky as Rangers in that decade. Strangely, for everything that's happened, an FA Cup win has never been achieved again. How ironic therefore that the eleventh anniversary of the last one should see us paired with MK Dons. Never has there been a better case of 'There but for the grace of God…' than MK Dons v QPR.
The disastrous 2000/01 season concluded with a hastily arranged meeting of the QPR 1st Supporters' Trust at The Adelaide pub in Shepherds Bush. Members of the trust, and around 50 supporters, convened to hear a Milton Keynes based music producer called Peter Winckleman put forward an option for the seemingly destitute Queens Park Rangers Football Club. Winckleman wanted to move the club, American Football franchise style, just under 50 miles north up the M1 to Milton Keynes, a large centre of population without a professional football club within 30 miles.
The presentation he put forward was amateurish. Done with a broken microphone in a run-down Bush pub with the aid of a three minute video showing some fields where he thought he might be able to build a stadium and £2.5m to back him up – QPR's debt was five times that at that point and ten times as big within two years. When asked why he didn’t invest in a London club and leave it in London he said it wasn’t an option. When asked why he didn’t simply bankroll the existing Milton Keynes non-league side up the ladder he said that too wasn’t an option.
The idea to move QPR to MK met with absolutely no support whatsoever, and was quickly followed by an equally ridiculous suggestion that we could retain our First Division status by merging with cash strapped Wimbledon. Winckleman seemed like an impatient dreamer – proposing an impossible idea that nobody would go for that he didn't have the money to back up anyway.
Of course our cup tie this weekend shows that he did indeed succeed with not only moving a London team to Milton Keynes, but also in building a giant new stadium on the fields that featured in his grainy video. The team that moved was Wimbledon, a club in almost as bad a state as QPR at the time. Turfed out of their inadequate Plough Lane home while still in the top flight they'd held their own for several years playing at Crystal Palace 's Selhurst Park but relegation from the Premiership under Norwegian ownership and management had seen the club become completely unsustainable. It was dying long before Winckleman arrived – homeless, pot-less, with tiny average attendances and a poor team on the field.
That is used as justification by the supporters of what is now called the MK Dons – a club that was, at least in part, created to help ASDA get a superstore in the town as part of a new stadium development. This, as opposed to the club starting again at the bottom rung, was more in the "wider interests of football" according to the three man FA Commission that scandalously approved the move. What followed was a bitter period in history where the fans of Wimbledon abandoned their team, a midweek game with Rotherham at Selhurst Park still holds the First Division record for lowest ever attendance of 849 which included the staff on duty, as it played out its final games in South London and then decamped to the adapted National Hockey Stadium in a particularly soulless part of a soulless new town.
AFC Wimbledon formed in South West London out of the Ashes and has become one of the game's great success stories as it has climbed from the bottom rung of non-league football into League Two for the first time this season. MK Dons are now only one division away. Whether MK Dons can be classed as a success story yet is a point open for debate. The club was initially relegated two levels to League Two but has developed a reputation since then for attractive, progressive football overseen by bright, up and coming managers. Roberto Di Matteo and Paul Ince both had impressive teams here and were subsequently picked off by West Brom and Blackburn respectively. Now Karl Robinson, the youngest manager in League One, is performing similarly well alongside former QPR man John Gorman.
In 2006 QPR, shorn of a pre-season friendly with Brentford at short notice, arranged a trip to the Hockey Stadium when Gary Waddock was preparing for his first full season in charge, The reaction from a section of the QPR support was fierce and chairman at the time Gianni Paladini swiftly cancelled the game, apologising profusely to MK Dons and accusing some QPR supporters of being the "enemy within" in the process. Paladini claimed he had received death threats over the fixture.
As time has gone on anger about the whole situation seems to have subsided – rekindled only briefly this time last season when a quirky FA Cup draw almost paired AFC Wimbledon with MK Dons in a match neither side would have looked forward to. After initially adopting Wimbledon 's history and list of achievements, MK Dons eventually handed them back to AFC Wimbledon and declared themselves as a completely new club founded in 2004. Wimbledon have been a success in South West London, MK Dons have done reasonably well too, and sooner rather than later the clubs are likely to share a division. Had QPR pulled this tie six years ago there would have been talk of a boycott, now they've sold more than 5,000 tickets for it.
For me MK Dons are a curiosity. You'll notice a longer than normal interview with an opposing supporter to follow because I really don't understand how this concept can work. When QPR were promoted last season I cried. In fact I cried repeatedly. There was 20 years of my history, 50 years of my family's history and 125 years of the club's history in that promotion and every other QPR fan felt the same. How is it possible to feel that way about a club formed seven years ago as part of an ASDA development? Apart from local school children with heavily discounted tickets or casual football fans nearby who fancy a game who would come and watch a team like this play? I'm not writing this in an accusatory way, more out of genuine curiosity.
The problem with these artificial clubs is when the going gets tough, is there that hardcore there to sustain it? Rushden and Diamonds was at least formed by the merger of two clubs from the area it played in but this summer the club folded, and no replacement AFC Rushden type organisation stepped into the breach. It just disappeared. A similar story with Gretna – a tiny club inflated artificially high by a rich man, and then just abandoned and killed because nobody really cared. Football is about history, loyalty and belonging. It's about a club in an area and that being your club and your area. It’s about standing on the same bit of the terrace your dad stood on and talking about the great players he remembers seeing.
I've never really hated, or even disliked, MK Dons that much but I've wanted them to fail because I don't think what happened was good for football and if they succeed it will encourage other similar attempt to be made on the lives of vulnerable clubs. In the long term I don't see how a club without the history and hardcore can survive, the first really tough time will kill it off like the first frost of winter, but for now I'm just grateful that it wasn't us that went.
The staff at Vital MK (click the banner to visit) kindly took time out for our longer than usual opposition supporter interview this week, and for that we thank them. Play nicely.
How long have you supported MK Dons and, more importantly, why did you start? Did you support anybody before they were formed?
I was brought up by my dad as a Man United fan, then when I reached my early teens I started to go watch Oxford United on a weekly basis with friends. A couple of years ago I moved to MK, I love going to football every week home and away and Stadium MK was down the road so I popped down one week and the football they played was simply amazing for the league they were in. I was a great ground with some great people and since then I have been home and away every week. I always like to follow a local team as I love going to matches every week.
Seven years on, how do you feel about the way your club was formed? Do you agree with it? Do you understand why people were/are angry about it?
I can completely understand why people are angry, but a portion of that anger comes from misguided information. The simple fact is that Wimbledon would have gone bankrupt and vanished had they of not been bought - with Merton Council offering no scope for a stadium for the club, moving was left as the only option. I am a business man and you do what you have to do to survive. Would my business move to remain in business? Yes it would. Many argue that AFC Wimbledon fans are the real problem, abandoning their club because it moved and setting up another club that in matter of fact isn't even in Wimbledon anyway.
How do you find the attitude of other club's supporters towards the Dons and their supporters? Do the Dons have a big travelling support and how are they received at away games? What sort of fans do the Dons attract?
Away games are where the real banter lies, whether its chants about us being a franchise or plastic, opposition fans love to give us the banter. The trouble for them is that we accept it all we join in their chants and make them our own. Our away support is growing and recently we took 1000 to Barnet away in the FA Cup. Many opposition fans accept our team for who they are, we regularly get comments and praise on how strong our team is and how well the club is run. I would say a majority of fans accept us, the real problems are the keyboard warriors who hide behind blogs about the franchise.
Can Winckleman's venture be counted as a success yet? Is it a failure? What would constitute success over the next decade? What are the club's medium and long term aims?
Winkleman is an asset to the club - the club is well run, the fans are looked after and with the current form, squad and threat the Dons have I would say it is very much a success. The next decade I would expect us to be a very strong top half of the table Championship club.
What are your feelings towards AFC Wimbledon? Do you now recognise them as Wimbledon as was and MK Dons as a separate entity or do you still think of your club as Wimbledon re-named and re-homed?
MK Dons are the original Wimbledon, facts and legalities prove that. AFC Wimbledon are just a club formed by fans who didn't want their club to move to survive, not to mention didn't want to travel to see their club. Seven years on I think it is safe to say neither team are actually Wimbledon as neither are in Wimbledon. MK Dons changed their name to start building their own history, I think many football fans would be more angered had we of kept the name Wimbledon. The bottom line is I don' really care what AFC are doing because they are their own club. I do have a lot of respect for them for climbing the ladder and now entering League 2.
Do you think the Wimbledon/MK Dons situation will ever happen again in this country? Should it be allowed to?
It's a battle for survival, with player wages rising and agents’ fees through the roof clubs will always find it a struggle to survive. I can safely say it will happen again - who to I don't know, but if it means as a business the club survives then why would you want anything against that? I should also add MK Dons aren't the only club to be moved and 'franchised'. A very famous Premier League side were actually the first to take this approach a very long time ago. A lot of people don't realise that clubs move all the time when they build new grounds, clubs change crests and badges every season, not to mention there have been a fair few name changes over the last 100 years. It's just a case of people only knowing what they want to know and not doing their research.
On the field, things seem to be going well under Karl Robinson. What have you made of the job he's done?
Robinson has been great for the club, he's brought a fresh approach with great tactics and the Dons are playing some of the best football I have ever seen. We are a strong threat to any opponent and Robinson is behind that. He is very pro-active with fans and is not afraid to say what he thinks, he has taken some punts and risks and they haven't worked out but this game is all trial and error. He is constantly linked with every vacancy that comes up at other clubs.
John Gorman was well regarded during his short spell at QPR. Teams he's involved with always seem to play nice football. Is he popular at MK?
John is a very popular face at the Dons, Robbo’s right hand man. Gorman offers a lot on and off the pitch and it is clearly evident he is very well respected whatever club we travel too. Without John we certainly wouldn't be in the position we are in now.
What do you think of Angelo Balanta?
Angelo Balanta was a key player for us last season, this season he has been a little slower at getting up to scratch. He has given us some great goals this season and it is a shame to see him go back, but in honesty I do believe a handful of our own players offer more on the pitch within our squad than Angelo did at this current time. However in the last few games he was starting to pick the pace up and now returning to QPR I think Warnock would be mad to not give him a few starts
Who is your star man, weak link, promising youngster and unsung hero?
Star man has to be Spurs loanee Adam Smith, never out of position, manning the wing from right back and not afraid to thump it in the top corner from 40 yards. With the unity and strength in our squad right now there are no weak links, our strike force could be stronger but we aren't short of goals. Promising youth is what MK Dons is all about and one being George Williams, the 16 year old lad scored in the FA Cup second round and is a bright spark. Finally unsung hero has to go to Jabo Ibehre, adding so much to every game with his strength, vision and power.
Karl Robinson is latest of three young managers given a chance to cut their teeth at MK Dons. Roberto De Matteo and Paul Ince before him had at least enjoyed distinguished playing careers, but Robinson spent his entire time as a player knocking round the non-league circuit with the likes of Marine, Prescott Cables and Warrington Town.
He went into coaching at an early age though, working in the Liverpool Academy and at Blackburn Rovers before joining MK Dons as an assistant to Paul Ince. Jose Mourinho's success has opened the doors to young coaches in Europe who are now being given managerial jobs despite their youth and lack of top level playing experience – Andre Villas Boas is obviously the most high profile case in point but Rochdale appointed Steve Eyre this season as well and there are plenty of other examples besides.
Havign assisted Ince at MK Dons Robinson took over 18 months ago when Ince decided to walk away from his second spell with the club after being asked to work with a smaller budget for his playing staff. Robinson got on with the job and despite it being his first senior management position, starting at the age of just 29, and with the same restraints Ince had walked away from he finished fifth and was unfortunate to lose to Peterborough in the play offs. He now finds himself regularly linked with vacant posts elsewhere and with a win percentage of more than 50% it’s not hard to see why.
Robinson is assisted by John Gorman, who spent a short time with QPR two seasons ago as an assistant to Jim Magilton. It’s rare for an assistant manager to get any recognition but the way Gorman spoke, and they way his teams have always played attractive football regardless of whether he has been the manager, assistant or coach meant QPR fans warmed to him very quickly. A softly spoken, likeable, gentleman and a fine coach to boot. Robinson couldn’t have picked anybody better to assist him in his first managerial role.
I’ve never really understood the QPR fans’ obsession with Angelo Balanta. My thoughts on the prospect of anything half decent coming out of our “centre of excellence” while it’s still playing Barnet Youth on a park pitch every week have been written for this site often enough and while Balanta has done well to crawl out from under that rock and make some sort of impression, far too many QPR managers have seen him and subsequently ignored him for much faith to placed in him.
Balanta, who has just returned to Loftus Road after a six month loan spell with the Dons who had him for the whole of last season, has four goals in ten starts this season for Karl Robinson’s men, but has been by no means a regular. I saw the Dons at Oldham in typical weather for that part of the country earlier this season and having made light of the difficult conditions for 20 minutes he then vanished from the game completely until well after the hour. I also saw them recently at home to Preston when he came on as a second half sub. They play an excellent brand and style of football, regardless of the conditions, for the level they’re at in a formation not that dissimilar from our own 4-2-3-1. They didn’t get a positive result either time I watched them this season but I was reasonably impressed on both occasions.
I mention Balanta, now returned to W12 and shortly to head out on loan again to Wycombe, merely to illustrate what sort of a standard we’re up against here. The Dons play a system not that dissimilar to our own, with Balanta occupying a wide role in support of a striker when he was picked. That he hasn’t been first choice and they’re not looking to keep him says a lot about him and the quality of the other players they have to select from.
Two of their more senior attacking players will be familiar to QPR fans. Dean Bowditch once scored for Ipswich in a 3-1 win at Loftus Road when Gary Waddock was in charge, his first goal for the Tractor Boys in nearly two years and 40 appearances at that time – God we’re good to these people. Charlie McDonald, signed recently from Brentford, scored his first goal in professional football for Charlton against QPR in an FA Cup Third Round tie back in 2000.
Jobo Ibehre, once of Leyton Orient, adds a physical and quintessentially lower league feel to an attack which is supplied by Luke Chadwick who is remembered for his teeth more than anything else from his days at Norwich and Man Utd. Other familiar names include Matthias Doumbe who played for Plymouth in some of the battles we’ve had with them in recent times and the ex-Sheff Wed duo of Mark Beevers and Darren Potter who have both lined up against us recently.
Adam Smith has impressed as an attacking full back since joining on loan from Spurs while fellow defender Dean Lewington, who I have to say always comes across as a ref baiting clumsy oaf whenever I see him play, is the last remaining player from before the move – he has made 409 appearances for Wimbledon and the Dons since graduating from the youth set up in 2002.
Photo: Action Images
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