The great unloved – opposition focus
Friday, 25th Jan 2013 00:01 by Clive Whittingham
For the second time in as many seasons, QPR find themselves facing MK Dons in the FA Cup – the club Rangers could have been turned into themselves if things had gone slightly differently.
There’s plenty to admire about MK Dons the football team.
Playing the trendy new 4-2-3-1 formation that has quickly infiltrated the British game having long been popular in Spain, they’re unfailingly good to watch. They pass the football well and they play to win even when - particularly when I saw them away at league-leaders Tranmere - they would not be blamed for keeping things tight and looking for a draw. They field three quick supporting attackers in support of a lone striker and they run everything through deep lying midfielders rather than playing long balls over the top.
They have a habit of spotting a good young manager. Paul Ince had given an indication that he may have plenty to offer a bigger club with the job he did at Macclesfield prior to two reigns at MK but Roberto Di Matteo was hired as a rookie and has gone onto win promotion with West Brom and the European Cup with Chelsea. Now Karl Robinson – the league’s youngest boss at 32 and not even somebody who could bring an impressive playing career CV to the interview – has a burgeoning reputation that recently drew an approach from Championship side Blackpool for his services and is sure to tempt others in the future.
Despite only being in existence for a decade, the club has a prospering youth set up that has already graduated Sam Baldock to the first team (sold to West Ham, now with Bristol City) in the past and has also produced the raw, unpredictable Daniel Powell for the present team along with full back Adam Chicksen and a smattering of others. What QPR would have given for three first team graduates from their rotten youth set up in the same period of time.
But, for 99% of people, there is nothing whatsoever to admire about MK Dons as a whole.
Had the previous round of this competition gone as the league ladder suggested it should then QPR would have been facing Sheffield Wednesday this weekend. Now there’s a proper football club: founded originally as a cricket club in 1820 before switching to football in 1867 as a means of keeping fit during the winter; playing in the colossal and unfailingly impressive old Hillsborough stadium since 1899; Football League champions in 1903 and three times since; three times FA Cup winners; League Cup winners in 1991; Community Shield winners in 1935. MK Dons were formed in 2004 when they finally got round to changing the name of Wimbledon, a club they found at death’s door in South London and moved 65 miles north because Asda and Ikea needed a community stadium to gain planning permission for their latest giant money printing presses and couldn’t afford to wait for the existing non-league team in Milton Keynes to get good.
But, hang on a moment here. Didn’t Sheffield Wednesday also repeatedly stage FA Cup semi-finals at a ground with no safety certificate during the 1980s, ignore the warnings posed by a crush at a game there between Spurs and Wolves in 1981, dismiss police fears about the safety of the Leppings Lane stand as “bollocks” (quote chairman Bert McGee in post match briefing after that Spurs game) and therefore play a big part in the death of 96 football fans? Haven’t Sheffield Wednesday repeatedly borrowed money they didn’t have to buy players they couldn’t afford and subsequently had to strike x amount in the pound credit agreements to avoid administration?
Sheffield Wednesday are currently in twenty first position in the Championship, attempting to stay in the division playing a truly awful style of football with a team made up of five players borrowed from other clubs under the (poor) management of a thoroughly dislikeable individual, Dave Jones, who can be found after each game blaming match officials and pretty much anybody but himself for the latest dismal failure.
When they lost 2-0 to MK Dons in the previous round not a single one of their starting 11 or three used substitutes on the evening was a graduate from a youth set up that has a massive South Yorkshire conurbation steeped in football history to scout. After the match – Sheffield Wednesday’s second failed attempt to beat the team from the division below them - Jones said: "The referee had a shocker. He allowed Alan Smith to run the game. At the end of the day he might as well have given the whistle to Alan, because he ran the game. My players weren't going to tell him so someone had to tell him. He's booked people but all credit to Smithy because that's what a senior player will do if he's allowed to do it. I just thought it was too big a game for him. He lost it somewhere along the line and that can happen, so he's had a bad day at the office."
So, I wonder, what is this proper football club concept we speak of?
Well, it’s not MK Dons, however hard they try and however loathsome the rest of the sport is becoming. Even Pete Winkelman, the man who concocted the plan to bring an existing Football League team to Milton Keynes, admitted earlier this season that the way he went about it was wrong. He told The Guardian’s outstanding investigative sport reporter David Conn: “I did a deal that was wrong and the owners [of Wimbledon at the time] were wrong. I'm not proud of the way football came to Milton Keynes."
And your first reaction to that was probably something along the lines of ‘whoa steady on Poirot’ or ‘no shit Sherlock’ because here in the land where football was born the idea that a struggling football club can just be carted 65 miles out of its community and become a new entity altogether is so obviously wrong that it should never have been entertained in the first place. But, it is nevertheless an important admission, because if even the one crazy loon who thought of this and somehow followed through with it now acknowledges it was a mistake it means the chances of anybody ever being bold enough to try such a thing again are remote.
Sadly, Winkelman kept talking after that though, again reinforcing that he doesn’t really get why it was wrong. The defence that Winkelman couldn’t simply put money into the local Milton Keynes non-league side and grow that naturally – it was two divisions higher than where AFC Wimbledon began when the controversial move was ratified – because Asda and Ikea needed a Football League club to justify a stadium to achieve planning permission for super stores is absolutely deplorable. I’ve been to Stadium:Mk and seen how well designed it is compared to some of the other hell holes that the likes of Leicester and Coventry (also, apparently, ‘proper football clubs’) have stuck up in retail parks and called home. It is, like so many other new stadiums, a place with no soul, surrounded by by-passes and distribution centres and fast food outlets. But where the “King Power Stadium” and “Ricoh Arena” do at least have the redeeming feature of a famous old football club housed within their concrete hearts, all Stadium:MK has is the omnipresent reminder of why the club exists: a supermarket selling crap food and an outlet for cheap Swedish furniture. Who would want to go there? Who would support that venture? Who would ever think that acceptable? I hear the people who say they live locally and want to watch football, but surely this is a venture to be actively boycotted? I see no pleasure, even for a neutral, in driving out into a retail park on the edge of Milton Keynes to sit in a half finished stadium and watch a team created this way. I feel that 12 months and three meetings with MK Dons later, I actually understand less about the club and the people that follow it than I did when I’d never seen them play live or visited their ground. The whole thing perplexes me.
Further on in the Conn interview Winkelman goes onto say: “They (the Wimbledon fans) deserted their club; they forced it to administration, then they didn't buy it. The club had no other choice but to come to Milton Keynes, it was going to be liquidated." To blame the Wimbledon supporters for not saving their own club themselves thereby forcing a move to Milton Keynes, is risible. What he’s saying there is “I’m was richer than you, so I could do what I wanted, and because you couldn’t become as rich as me either individually or collectively in double quick time, you could do nothing about it.” He’s like Harry Enfield’s Brummie millionaire.
His idea that the only reason the move happened and can be justified was because Wimbledon in its original form – poorly supported and marooned in a ground share at a ramshackle Selhurst Park – was dead and would cease to exist is also flawed. It ignores that it was his involvement and MK plan that caused the supporters to abandon the club, the success of the reformed Wimbledon, and the steady progress other similar ‘let’s start again’ ventures in Chester and Darlington are making. It also conveniently airburshes out a meeting he held in The Adelaide pub in Shepherds Bush where he proposed to take QPR to Milton Keynes instead – had the QPR fans abandoned their club as well then? Was QPR going to the wall? They seem to have done alright since despite being dreadfully mismanaged pretty much ever since the door of the pub was slammed behind him.
And this is all raw and relevant again because this season, thanks to the quirk of the FA Cup draw which had come close to pairing the two on a previous occasion, MK Dons finally played AFC Wimbledon in a competitive fixture. And they won – you would expect them to given the quality of the two teams – with a fluked goal in the last minute. Karl Robinson, who for all his clear ability as a manager I feel often lets himself down with his touchline behaviour, celebrated on the pitch with his coaching staff – including former Wimbledon striker Mick Harford - like they’d masterminded a World Cup win.
It was classless. It was like running somebody over, spending eight years blaming the victim’s family for allowing them to be out of the house at that time, and then dancing around on their front lawn. That the goal was a fluke anyway should surely have triggered some thought process where Robinson and his players did some sort of football equivalent of a snooker player tapping the side of the table to apologise for his good fortune – happy the ball is in the corner pocket, but acknowledging that its presence there is not really fair.
Again, I don’t understand. I don’t understand why the hatred runs the other way to the extent it clearly does. I see why AFC Wimbledon hate MK Dons, but what have MK Dons got against AFC Wimbledon?
If, say, in 50 years time when Winkelman is gone, the experiment falls on hard times and fails financially, and somebody turns up and suggests another idea that was pitched for Wimbledon at one time to move the entire club lock stock to Dublin and try to set up a “Premier League franchise” there, so all the Irish folk who enjoy English football on their television sets could have it live on their doorstep, how would the MK supporters who now seem to hate AFC Wimbledon feel about that? Considering that, even with Winkelman, the Inter Mk Group that owns the club and the stadium has a bank debt of £21m, the club lost £1.7m last year and a £5m loan was required in July 2012 to keep the whole thing as a going concern it’s not inconceivable at all that the second he steps away, runs out of money, retires or passes away (whichever comes first) this club will be in exactly the same position as the Wimbledon one that helped to form it – and if that happens, nobody can really complain whatever becomes of it. They could move it to Canada and turn it into an ice hockey team and nobody that supports Mk Dons could say a single thing against it. It is, like Gretna and Rushden and Diamonds, a club built on the wealth and whim of one man – castles built on sand.
But then, an old saying of my grandmother’s about having the strength not to worry about things you can’t change springs to mind. The AFC Wimbledon fans, and everybody else who hates what MK Dons stand for, can’t possibly expect Winkelman and everybody else to throw their hands up, admit the whole thing was a disgrace, and hand the club back to the people of Merton can they? They dropped the Wimbledon name, they returned the trophies, now they’re being pressured to drop the ‘Dons’ bit of their identity, what next? Not allowed to ever play on a Saturday? Not allowed to ever wear blue? Where does it end and what does it achieve anyway? I’m loathe to say ‘move on’ because ‘move on’ is exactly what Chelsea say every time one of their players boots a ball boy up in the air or gets caught calling somebody a “fucking black cunt” on camera, and it’s exactly what Gianni Paladini and his merry band of loyal followers said every fortnight or so when their crass incompetence and malpractice had led to another crisis of some shape or size for QPR. ‘Move on’ is the language of sinners, keen to forget their crimes. But in this case what else can you do? It’s done now.
Peter Winkelman often comes across very well, and now he has his football club he seems keen to run everything the right way: the managerial appointments, the team building, the youth set up, the ticket prices, the way they’re building support in the local community (3,000 will travel to the game on Saturday), the way he’s drawing young supporters to their local lower league club, the focus on disabled facilities at the ground, the disabled teams they run in the community – it’s all wonderful, admirable stuff.
But, in the eyes of the majority it is and always will be a losing battle. No wonder Winkelman himself now admits the move was wrong – however much good he does here, it will never be seen as a ‘proper football club’, whatever that is any more.
We had an MK Dons supporter speak to us last season for this profile piece and although his views were certainly provocative, I was disappointed by the reaction in the comments section. I was even told that I’d brought shame on the website by even speaking to him in the first place – which seemed a bit strong. I’ve roped two more in this season: Dan one of the young local people drawn into what is the youngest support base on average in British football, and Alan who followed the original Wimbledon from Milton Keynes and stuck with the team after the move. Both guys have taken time out during a working week to speak to us, and even if you don’t like or agree with what they say can we play nicely please.
When did you start supporting MK Dons, and why? Did you support another team before them?
Alan: Always liked an underdog so the 1988 cup final captured the imagination. Around the same time our young kids started taking an interest in Wimbledon. Can’t remember how or why it happened but we found ourselves trekking from where we lived near Milton Keynes to south London every other week. Little did we know what the future held. I can remember the crush on a train going to a cup tie against QPR at Selhurst being worse than a Chinese metro but can’t remember the score.
Dan: I started watching MK Dons in 2005. My first game was vs Stockport County. We won 2-1 and from there I started to love watching the games and wanted to be there even more.
One year on from the first ever meeting between these two sides, what changes will QPR notice in the MK Dons team this time around? Do you fancy yourselves for promotion this year?
Alan: We should have beaten QPR in both games last season so hopefully with a bit more maturity in front of goal this will be third time lucky. Up until two home defeats over Christmas we had been pretty tight defensively. At the moment it looks like Tranmere and Doncaster have shot away at the top of League 1. I think most people expected Tranmere to fall back but it hasn’t happened yet. We have games in hand but I always think points on the board are an advantage. We have a small squad and that could be a big factor when games come thick and fast. Unless there is a brilliant run realistically it looks like playoffs yet again.
Dan: With us still playing the same formation and style of play I'm not too sure you will see much change in that respect, but I do think you'll see better individual player performances from our guys. We've worked so incredibly hard trying to keep with the teams at the top of League One and I'm sure we will finish in the top two. I hope so, I don't think I can handle another play-off defeat again.
Karl Robinson is starting to be linked with jobs higher up the league ladder - how good is he? Can he perform in higher divisions? He seems quite hot headed and perhaps lacks experience currently, does that count against him?
Alan: People should remember he’s only 32 (think he is still the youngest in the Football League) and this is his first managerial job. We think John Gorman’s influence was a big factor in Karl’s career so far. Now that John has retired it’s good to see that Karl is continuing to flourish. I’d say he’s very good tactically and players play for him. At least some of the players appear to understand his Scouse accent even if some of us fans can’t. He certainly has the ability but needs to prove he can be a success at a lower level before moving upwards. We’ve had Roberto de Matteo and Paul Ince in the past who then moved rapidly up to the Premiership but it didn’t work out for them. The club operates on a very tight budget so it remains to be seen if this frustrates Karl in his ambitions (like it did Paul Ince). The game against QPR should be an interesting battle between arguably the best old English manager and the best young English manager.
Dan: He may lack experience but tactically Robinson is one of the best. In a few years I have no doubt he will be higher up the Football League but I think he should stay with us for another two or three seasons to gain more experience then I'm sure he will be a force and can be a successful manager in the future. As a fan of the Dons I don't want to see any of our managers leave but we can't deny them the opportunity if it comes along.
Which players should we be watching out for this weekend?
Alan: Probably Darren Potter, a classy midfielder who has the ability to control games. Our style is to play out from the back (no route one stuff here) and most of the play tends to go through Darren. For raw, unpredictable talent look out for Daniel Powell.
Dan: Darren Potter. I'm sure he'll control the game like he does every week.
Obviously you finally had to play AFC Wimbledon on your way to this round, how was that game? What was the atmosphere like?
Alan: We experienced all the emotion when the move to Milton Keynes took place (probably still have the MK No-Way t-shirt in the bottom drawer). Hard choices had to be made which no other football fans have had to make. We didn’t like what happened but being football fans first and foremost decided to follow MK Dons, mainly because they were local, Pete Winkelman is an inspirational character and we were living a vision. The game was the most tense and hostile atmosphere we had ever experienced at a football match (including in the Premiership). Thank goodness the result came right, we were dreading going to a replay. The way AFC played was disappointing. They were very defensive and the first priority appeared to be avoiding a big defeat. As usual we struggled to unhinge a packed defence. Typically our player back heels a winner into the top corner and it’s called a fluke. If Torres or Suarez had done it the media would have been raving for days. Given current league form it doesn’t look there will be a repeat too soon.
Dan: Well everybody knows the history between the two teams and what happened. The game was a little bit frightening in a way. Pre-match protests were happening around the away end, loads of swearing and abuse to the club and our fans - the atmosphere was a very strange one because of the history. We can't deny what happened was very wrong but now we just have to move on. I accept that it will be completely different for AFC Wimbledon. When they pulled it back to 1-1, I was very nervous because personally I didn't want to go back to Kingsmeadow. Happily we got a very lucky winner and can now move on in the competition.
This article last year provoked plenty of discussion on our site. One point I didn't put to the Dons fan we spoke to was that MK had a non-league team two divisions higher than where AFC Wimbledon started. Should Pete Winkelman not simply have ploughed money into that?
Alan: Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Pete Winkelman had a bigger vision for sport in Milton Keynes which is now being realised, eg football and rugby union World Cup stadium, Premiership rugby etc. Milton Keynes is one of the fastest developing communities in the country and he saw the footballing potential. Our crowd is one of the youngest in the country which proves the point. All this would not have happened by ploughing money in lower down the pyramid. Entrepreneurs should be able to invest their money where they like – QPR have had their fair share recently.
Dan: Winkelman had discussions regarding MK City but I'm not too sure why he didn't. All I know is that ASDA and Ikea wanted to build stores on the Denbigh Estate and in return they wanted a Football League club. If anyone was in the same position as Winkelman I'm pretty sure 99% would do the same thing as him in these circumstances.
Prior to the match with AFC Winkelman himself said: "I did a deal that was wrong and the owners [of Wimbledon at the time] were wrong. I'm not proud of the way football came to Milton Keynes." Has that admission changed your own stance and feelings on the move?
Alan: I was surprised Pete said what he did but it shows the honesty and calibre of the man. Remember if he had not stepped in the old Wimbledon would have completely folded. In effect what he did was cause two clubs to emerge from the ashes, both of which are now league clubs.
Dan: Definitely not. I'm sure what I say will get criticism but what Winkelman has done for Milton Keynes has been very pleasing: over £250m in investments (in development sites) and that figure is still rising all the time. The opportunities he has bought for us has been brilliant. Now that the club is here, we all have to take responsibility for how that happened.
Having returned the trophies and honours won by Wimbledon to AFC Wimbledon, should MK now drop the Dons part of their name?
Alan: Our understanding is the trophies and honours were returned to the London Borough of Merton. AFC don’t play in the borough. This was something raised by the AFC chairman ahead of the recent cup tie to stir things up and attract media attention. MK Dons have more links with the old Wimbledon than the AFC so no reason why we should drop the Dons. What happened is now about 10 years ago. It’s about time things were laid to rest and both clubs now look to the future. MK Dons are doing this but the AFC appear to want to carry on dragging up history. There is nothing to be gained by continually looking backwards.
Dan: No. For starters AFC Wimbledon do not have the old trophies and honours as they are with Merton Council.
I’ve actually managed to catch MK Dons on three separate occasions this season, which isn’t bad going for somebody whose focus is – for now – predominantly on the top division. It’s more than I’ve seen anybody else in League One apart from my poor, beleaguered hometown club Scunthorpe but I’m not going to sit here and pretend it gives me a lot of insight – this section of the profile is usually compiled over a dozen viewings or more of a team both live and one TV.
Each game I’ve seen the Dons play has been unique and potentially very difficult situation.
The first was in an earlier round of this competition at Southern League side Cambridge City who are four divisions below the Dons. The game was played on a non-league pitch that seemed to be buried deep in a forest somewhere and was barely lit by a few candles in each corner. For the non-leaguers it was a big night and a chance to claim a league scalp, and the ESPN cameras had turned up in hope of an upset.
A fortnight later I saw them away at table-topping Tranmere Rovers in League One. Again the cameras were in town, though this time it was mainly to have a look at Ronnie Moore’s men who had won 11 and lost just two of 17 league matches to that point.
Then of course there was the home game against AFC Wimbledon and all the baggage, attention and hostility that came with it, allied with another lower league team that put everybody behind the ball and just tried to hang on as best they could and make it difficult for the Dons to play.
From those games they took two wins and a draw and I was thoroughly impressed with Karl Robinson’s team on every occasion. They play a 4-2-3-1 as so many of the top flight teams do these days and despite the wide ranging circumstances of the three matches they stuck to both their team shape and patient, adventurous, attacking, passing game plan throughout. It was commendable. Darren Potter is key as one of the deep lying two – he played reasonably well against QPR previously in a poor Sheffield Wednesday team and seems too good for the level he’s at now, playing in a more settled, attractive and confident outfit. At Cambridge and Tranmere I thought Luke Chadwick was outstanding as well, playing as one of the supporting three behind the lone striker. Scoff at the idea of fearing Darren Potter and Luke Chadwick if you like, but remember that QPR aren’t exactly pulling up any trees this season are they?
The other running theme through all three games however was profligacy in front of goal. For the possession they had and the chances they created they only scored three goals across the three games when it should have been at least double that. Two of them, in the AFC Wimbledon game, were out of the ordinary with a smashing long range strike and a flukey back heel to win the game. The winner at Tranmere, scored late on by Steven Gleeson, was the only goal you could call normal.
Some of that was bad luck – they hit the woodwork so often at Cambridge I started to wonder if it was being done deliberately – but at Tranmere it was down to plain old lack of composure in the final third and poor decision making. The lone striker for the majority of the games I watched was Ryan Lowe, who made his name late in his career with 53 goals in 98 appearances for Bury before a move to Sheff Wed didn’t really work out for him. At times they tried Dean Bowditch – who scored in the first meeting between these two last season – and even veteran Alan Smith up there at one point or another but persistently lacked a clinical cutting edge.
They’ve moved to rectify this by bringing Izale McLeod back to the club where he made his name. He scored 60 goals in 135 appearances for the Dons previously, and was linked with a move to QPR before heading to Charlton for £1.1m. I watched a bit of McLeod at Barnet last season and he’s a strange player. He looks the part physique wise and he’s quick across the ground, his record in a poor Barnet side and latterly in an equally desperate Portsmouth team was up around the goal every other game mark, but he can often look totally bereft of life and ability and have no influence on games for hours at a time. A danger, certainly, his record speaks for itself, but a player that has often puzzled me.
Dean Lewington – who has been with the club since the start – is the team’s nominated referee.
Pictures – Action Images
Photo: Action Images
Please report offensive, libellous or inappropriate posts by using the links provided.
You need to login in order to post your comments
Blogs 30 bloggers
Matches of Yesteryear - Yeading v U's 12/11/94 by wessex_exile
I had a chat earlier this week with my neighbour, Head Groundsman at Forest Green, lamenting the interminably dreadful weather we’ve been experiencing, and he wryly asked the rhetorical question ‘do you know when it last wasn’t raining – October!’. Not literally, but it does feel like it right now, and all but the most pristine of surfaces are really starting to creak at the seams now. The news that there’s a pitch inspection at 9am tomorrow does not fill me with hope, particularly as I’ll be halfway to Birmingham by then…
Matches of Yesteryear - Northampton v U's 24/4/99 by wessex_exile
Well, here we are going through the exhilarating highs and despairing lows of what it is to follow the U’s rollercoaster journey this season – one wonders what Saturday will bring, apart from yet another storm (Dennis this time). Vale Park is a tough enough place to go at the best of times, so will howling winds and lashing rain be the great leveller for the U’s? We shall see, but in the meantime, how about we go back to a time when our perennial concentration around this time of the season always seemed to be at the wrong end of the table, maybe put things a little bit into perspective…
Matches of Yesteryear - Bees v U's 11/3/03 (eventually) by wessex_exile
It was noted that Saturday’s stunning defeat of promotion rivals Plymouth Argyle was the first time we had beaten them since our League Cup victory back in 2003. Well our record against tomorrow night’s opponents Grimsby can challenge that – if you’re wondering ‘not another Tuesday night trip to Blundell Park’, the last time we played at Grimsby on a Saturday was also back in 2003…and the last time we won there? Over 40 years ago believe it or not, on 22nd September 1979, winning 2-1 thanks to two goals from Trevor Lee, with the U’s managed by none other than Bobby Roberts on that day.
Matches of Yesteryear - Southend v U's 17/2/04 by wessex_exile
“…Parky couldn’t quite keep the momentum from September going in the league, and we finished 11th at the end of the season. However, for the entertainment of the faithful, he was just about to embark with the U’s on two successful runs in both the FA Cup and the LDV Vans Trophy, the latter just about to start the following Tuesday (14th October) at Cheltenham”.
Matches of Yesteryear - U's v Blackpool 11/10/03 by wessex_exile
Ahead of our upcoming match at the Abbey Stadium tomorrow, we again go back to the Parky era, and for this match his first full season in charge at Layer Rd. It’s funny, when I first started following the U’s in the 70s, matches against local rivals Cambridge United always seemed to be a really big thing, up there with Southend in many ways – they just don’t seem to have quite the significance these days?
Queens Park Rangers Polls