Brighton – A walk in the park or a day at the races?

MK Dons play Brighton today and where normally there would be that buzz on waking up combined with growing butterflies in the stomach today it just feels flat. The reason: MK Dons performance at the Cheltenham Festival – a festival I will remember ironically for the highly professional approach taken by an amateur to achieve beyond expectation. 

The Dons, in case you missed the front pages of several tabloid papers this week went to the

Cheltenham festival for a piss up. This got out of hand and ended up with a glass of urine being poured over other spectators. Oddly, this action offends me less than the overall context in which it happened. The fact that the clubs management and players felt it acceptable to be out four days before a crucial match for an all day drinking session is to me a far bigger issue.

In the George Best era, even as recently as the ’90s, drinking was seen as not just acceptable but as part of the macho culture that surrounded sport. Football then lagged behind other sports until the introduction of managers like Arsene Wenger who absolutely understood that what a professional athlete puts into their body can make a significant performance improvement  on the pitch. These days, top sportsman – footballers included, carefully monitor nutrition as much as they monitor effectiveness during training and games. As part of that, alcohol is pretty much a no go area. There is nothing nutrition wise in alcohol that adds to athletic performance. Indeed there are many elements that significantly detract from overall performance, including focus and  muscle growth and regeneration after excercise.

I am not saying that the team shouldn’t drink during the season (although I bet many professional sports teams do set that as their standard) but they certainly should not be out on an all day blender, certainly not in the middle of the season and certainly not when there is a game at the weekend. I find it difficult to imagine Andy Murray or Mo Farah going out for an all day session in the middle of Wimbledon or the Olympics and more importantly the reason they don’t isn’t because they are told not to it’s because their desire to succeed is far higher than their desire to go an all out bender.

And that is a critical point here. We are watching a team that have finally made it into the Championship after many seasons of riding high in League One. This for me is about desire to succeed. Around 40 positions above the Dons in the league, Leicester look like they are about to make history. I am sure that those players are absolutely focussed  on the next game, both in training and in the overall preparation for it. They will not be going out for day long drinking sessions. That comes down to desire and focus. How much do the Dons really want to meet their objective this season and how much is just about turning up? Prior to this week, I was desperately  hanging on to the former. I saw a team whose salary bill is lower than any other club in the Championship and was battling to stay up. Admittedly with some performances I wondered but that’s what I wanted to believe.

It’s clear though that that nagging doubt is being realised. They don’t care if their performance today is slightly reduced from a day out drinking. They don’t care if their preparation for this game is not 100%. There will be loads of people watching today who would love the chance to be in their shoes. There are loads of people in the academy right now who have been watching what they eat (and where applicable, drink) since they were in their early teens. Future players growing up with a different mentality of what it takes to be a real professional. Maybe it’s time for some of those people, players who will embrace the 100% mentality to replace some of those who clearly think their 90% will do. 

Finally, I have been behind Robinson for longer than many. Even though increasingly  I am not convinced that he has the ability to change tactically on the fly, his loyalty is valuable and his focus toward the long term sustainability of the club rather than his personal gain has been admirable. However, Robinson is the leader right now. The leader must have taken the decision that proper preparation doesn’t matter. He must be behind this 90% mentality as much as the players. For me that’s just not good enough. It belongs more in far lower leagues than the Championship.

I don’t mind going down fighting. Going down with the players on a full day bender at Cheltenham before a key game though shows that that isn’t the case. I want a result today – a draw would be great. It’s going to very tough to achieve that. I know that, the supporters know that. The players though, they seem to think it’s a walk in the park.  

Why Karl Robinson Should Move On

Karl Robinson is seen by many pundits as one of the most successful, talented, up and coming managers in the Football League. Every time a role comes up, his name is linked to the job. Whether he ever gets to the offer stage, or whether he pulls out at offer stage is unclear. The fact is that he has remained ‘loyal’ to the MK Dons for three and a half years now and has given the Dons a degree of managerial stability that had been sorely lacking with the big name recruitment strategy previously practised. 

“Key to the club’s success is 
the retention of Robinson”
(Image © Dudek1337 2014)

Whether he has been successful is a subjective point. He guided the Dons to the playoffs in his first two seasons and had an impressive cup run in the last season. There are those that point to Robinson’s lack of success in moving the MK Dons into the Championship as evidence that he is not as successful as his media rating suggests but I think this misses the real detail. 

Despite the outward lucrative image the club does not have money to spend on the team.  MK Dons is firmly focussed on being profitable (a laudable aim in the current spend now climate) and is currently contracted to make improvements to the ground and the surrounding environment as part of the original planning terms. It therefore has to operate as a ’selling club’ nurturing youngsters and scouting little known players before moving them on at profit. Sam Baldock and Sean Williams are good examples of this.  Other players have left to cut wage costs – Sean O’Hanlon and Gary MacKenzie for instance.  

This creates a situation in which to all intents and purposes, Robinson’s hands are tied. He is not in the position to sign new players, he is rarely in the position to reinvest transfer money raised into new talent. So he needs to utilise the pretty impressive youth set up (on the understanding that once a player becomes proven he will be sold) and be active in the loan market. The loan market of course creates significant problems for a club in terms of stability.  The club built its game around Patrick Bamford for instance in the first half of the season but Chelsea’s (understandable) decision to move him up a level means Robinson now has to start again. 

My view is that Robinson has proved himself at this level. He has proved he can deliver results in a cash strapped environment whilst playing the style of football that would not look out of place at a much higher level. He has also proven he has an eye for players and clearly has some great managerial relationships with other clubs. He is perhaps found wanting when teams adapt to his sides passing styles (although having watched Forest get completely shut out by Preston at the weekend he is not alone.) He is young though and has many years of learning ahead of him. How many of us, so early in our careers had had so much interest in us?

The MK Dons have a strategy for ridding itself of debt and of meeting its contractual ‘planning’ commitments by 2015. At that point, the club can start to keep and attract players, invest in a longer term squad and move forward. With that in mind, although promotion would be nice, it is probably not the clubs main aim at the moment. In fact, realistically whilst it would provide a short term injection of cash, it is likely that the club would come straight back down as it cannot compete financially at that level. The aim therefore is more likely to ensure that their league one position is consolidated until 2015 and that where possible they start to create the sort of stability amongst players and staff that creates long term success. Key to this is the retention of Karl Robinson and his managerial support team.

But…Robinson should accept his next realistic offer. That could easily be from Blackpool – the team where he already has a man on the inside in the form of Gary Mackenzie, and a team which, having been managed by Paul Ince would in theory be similar in styling to the team he inherited from Ince in 2010. If not there, then there will be plenty of others.

The decision to go will be his. As outlined above, the club would be mad to push him out. From his point of view he has proved himself at this level. He has proved he can operate in this type of environment. He has proved his loyalty to the club in staying with them over the past few seasons when he has had other offers.  In a new environment he can move forward to the next level now. To stay at MK Dons would mean waiting for two years to do that. How many of us in our own careers would pass up the chance of progressing to the next level now in favour of waiting for two years. I’m guessing only those of us that are not especially ambitious. And Robinson is. It’s in his make up. That’s why he will succeed. 

It’s Not About The Money…

Where the streets are paved wIth gold
(Image © Tophee)

Karl Robinson has had a promising first season with MK Dons. In a season of cost cutting, to reach the playoffs and allow us another glimpse of the promised land was a great achievement. I have to acknowledge that I was firmly against the appointment when it was originally announced. Even though the end result was the same (with a knockout in the play off semi final) the season of 2009/10 was a massive disappointment. A negative style of football led to the club ending bottom of the fair play table by some 48 points (more than half again as the club above!). This from a club that has built a reputation as a family friendly club and which depends on that reputation to attract new supporters. The loss of Paul Ince who had seemed distant and tactically inept was no great surprise but I wasn’t alone in thinking that we needed a clear out of the management team rather than to promote from within.

Robinson though has been a breath of fresh air. His man management skills are self-evident. He and his management team look cohesive and passionate. The players clearly enjoy playing for him and have found the desire that was missing for much of the previous season. His skill in getting the fans onside so quickly was enviable – his trademark final wave to the supporters (win or lose)  is a small gesture but a powerful one and unifies the fans behind the team. Above all though, he has reverted to the football style that we had become accustomed to at the club, keeping the ball at all costs with fluid passing forward and back.

The problem now is one that affects many lower league clubs. One good season and the premier league clubs come sniffing around.  It happened with Ince the first time round and he was lured to Blackburn far too quickly, relatively unproven and untested. The result, sacking from Blackburn, a poor return to the Dons and following his sacking by Notts County this season I would expect a career in the media is the best case scenario.

My point is that Robinson will get offers and offers that will be financially very attractive. He is young, clearly builds relationships fast and already has a solid reputation. My hope is that he will stay another year  (two would be hoping too much). With two years’ experience, he can probably afford to take the premiership job, fail once and still have another chance.  If he goes now and fails, suddenly the year with the MK Dons will seem very short lived.

Family Focussed Red Cards

A letter to the MKDons Chairman (No reply received)

Dear Mr. Winkleman,

I am a season ticket holder and have been at the majority of games since the move to Milton Keynes. For the last two years I have taken my son (now aged 7) with me to all of the games. One of the things that really impresses me about the club is the family friendly environment that you have created. Unlike many of my friends, I have renewed my season ticket for next year.

I attended the Dons game on Saturday as part of an organised day out by Tattenhoe Youth FC (whose views my letter does not represent). Amongst other things the club was able to use the opportunity to collect their Charter Status award. I gather that one of the cornerstones of that award is creating a club were respect to the referee, to opposition players and coaching staff is key.

With that in mind, I’m sure you have shared my frustration over the past season to see a family friendly club receive so many yellow and red cards. For three games this season I actually stopped attending, not because of results, but because I was so embarrassed at repeatedly having to explain to my son that he should not repeat what he was seeing on the pitch in terms of the constant backchat to referee. This particularly evident from your captain and centre forward but others as well. According to ‘’, we are at the bottom of the fairplay table by some 48 points (more than half again as the club above us!)

To cap it all, on Saturday, one of your senior players was sent off for fighting after the half-time whistle. As if that is not enough, I look at the reaction of the caretaker manager on the sports websites today who states that he was “pleased with the Dons’ attitude”. Perhaps you could let me know how he can justify that comment to the 70 or so children that were with us on Saturday – I’m certainly struggling to do so.

Yours etc..