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. 

MK Dons and Stagnancy

As the Dons prepare for a sixth consecutive season in league one, you’d be right to wonder where has it all gone wrong. The MK Dons, born in 2004, had a five year plan to be competitive in the championship. Successive years of narrowly missing out on promotion through the play offs has now been replaced by a mid table finish in league one. 

Empty Seats Equals Wasted Revenue
(Image ©Liam Daly: Flickr)

In terms of infrastructure, the club is on track. The stadium is capable of seating 22000 fans and should move to 32000 by the start of next season. The surrounding retail complex moves from strength to strength and has generated  the capital required to move the stadium development forward. The only infrastructure downside is the non completion of the indoor arena. The board and management team look stable and the early commercial naivety seems to have been replaced by a well run club. 

And therein lies the problem. The initial full on challenge  of creating a club from nothing, of creating branding, merchandise, commercial opportunities was clearly a massive task. The club aggressively targeted schools and youngsters in an effort to get kids to drag parents along. They worked hard to create a core set of fans presenting an average attendance of just above 10000 in the 2009/10 season but then no increase. Indeed that average attendance for fallen to c. 8500 for the last three seasons. It feels like the MK Dons Wider Management Team hit a plateau and rather than learning from and improving on the incredible work to produce 10000 regular supporters from (almost) nothing, the club has allowed itself to plateau. 

So where has it gone wrong? To my mind, it’s not actually on the pitch. It’s down to the level of support or more accurately down to the clubs approach to developing that level of support. MK Dons have consistently been around the 5th most supported club in league one – and have consistently finished in the play off spots i.e. around fifth. One of the dreams of Pete Winkleman was to tap into a ‘city’ with a population of 250k and without a professional football club. Now I am aware that there is not a direct correlation between support and success but at this level, where money is tight, it makes a massive difference. And it makes even bigger difference if you have the infrastructure already there to support it. The Dons have the seats, the parking, the access routes already there. Each seat filled is (almost) straight profit for the club. 

The MK Dons are odd. We know that. Created from a team which separately created another team meant that there was little support from the start. The concept of a 250k population without a football team to support is slightly flawed. Milton Keynes is a city based on the principle of commuting. From ease of commuting across the city to the strong motorway and train links. The adult football loving element of that  population already had football teams to support and was happy to commute to watch them. They were season ticket holders at Tottenham, Arsenal and Villa amongst others. That left two options to the Dons. Wait a generation of two for MK residents to grow up with a club in their midst and follow it or actively target schools and youth football clubs with the intention that kids would drag parents along and would ‘convert’ them into season ticket holders. Initially, the dons addressed the second option with gusto and players were regularly seen in schools and involved in the local community events. It worked. 

Since the club developed though – in fact pretty much since the club relocated to Stadium MK, things started to change. A level of arrogance has crept in which now separates the club from its city. It feels to me that the club has gone from actively working to integrate itself into the community to almost moving to a position where MK owes the club a living. The club integrates with youth football and schools through the MK Dons SET scheme and actually does this quite well. Since this was set up though, the gulf between players and schools and youth football teams has actually widened. It is almost as if before SET was running smoothly, the club acknowledged they would have to do some work too. Now it is effective it’s like they feel above all that sort of work.

Two things happened recently to support my view. The first was the ‘lap of appreciation’. This was the same for the past two years. The players went out on the pitch looking like they would like to be anywhere but there. They completed a lap of half the pitch, rarely venturing closer than 30 yards to the fans. Kids lined the walls at the front, autograph books, shirts and pens at the ready only to be disappointed. Both this year and last, only a couple of players signed any autographs and both times were called in quickly by their teammates. I know they didn’t really want to be there. I know it was a disappointing end to the season for them. Wasn’t a great end of the season for the fans either that stayed behind. Wasn’t a great end to the season for the kids who waited to see their heroes lap of appreciation. The second incident was again a repeat of last year. Last year, after promising a player to attend the presentation day for my local youth football club, noone turned up on the day. Big disappointment for the kids. This year, it proved impossible to get MK Dons to send anyone along to attend (from any level). 

These might seem small events but MK Dons are competing in a market where there is huge peer pressure to support Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United. What the Dons have as a massive advantage is the ability to get players in front of children and create a strong link to the club. Whilst it’s clear from the arrogance displayed at the ‘lap of appreciation’ that the players consider themselves to be of Chelsea mystique, sadly they are not. They are playing at the third tier of English football and need to work to ensure that the club retains support. Until the club recognises that the route to future attendances is in it’s marketable assets, the players, getting more involved and helping to ensure that kids (and then their parents)  come along, the team won’t develop, the seats won’t get sold and the players who have got used to the relative luxury of Stadium MK will realise that the third tier will be as far as they can go. 

Pretenders To The Throne…

AFC fans have just cause to feel ‘hate’
(Image © Chalfont Don)

Been struggling with this for a while now to rationalise  why many MK Dons fans hate AFC Wimbledon. I understand to an extent why many  AFC fans ‘hate’ the MKDons as (leaving aside their difficulties at the time) some see our club as inheriting their place in the league and destroying their original team. I understand why various other football fans ‘hate’ us for creating a precedent for franchise football more along the lines of American sports. 

What puzzles me is some fans hatred of AFC. This is a club that in our short history, we have never played, and is a club set up to resurrect a team which Pete Winkleman effectively disbanded after the move to Milton Keynes. Nowadays, for MK Dons fans at least, AFC is as far removed from us as any other club. MK Dons don’t associate themselves with Wimbledon’s history, they no longer use the name of the club that they took over. Are these people disappointed that we did not keep the name and retain the history of Wimbledon? If that’s the case, and they see AFC as pretenders to the throne then I get it but I doubt it. Most of the ‘haters’ identify very strongly with MK Dons and not with Wimbledon.

The other argument I’ve heard is the hatred stems from the lies AFC push about MK Dons. To be frank, most of these ‘lies’ from both sides are fairly justified. It just depends which side of the fence you sit on. On the one side, Winkleman took Wimbledon and subsequently (in an albeit strategically correct action) seems to have departed from the ethos of the original agreement and rebranded it into a completely different team, he “ripped the heart out of Wimbledon”. On the other side, he took a club struggling to find a home and support and in financial free fall which  would have disappeared like several other clubs and he gave it a new beginning. The net result though is no Wimbledon and therefore I can understand why many supporters of AFC are pretty emotive when stating their position. 

My feelings toward AFC Wimbledon are of complete respect. To set up a team and bring them through the leagues as they have is not an easy task. To do it so fast and aggressively is a remarkable achievement.  They have retained (and grown) the interest and attendances that they  started with and, I have no doubt, will soon be challenging in the same league as the MK Dons. Ironically, in five years time they will most likely be playing at least the same level as Wimbledon but with a stronger financial base and a wider support.

I don’t therefore understand the hatred of them, jealousy perhaps but not hatred –  I’ll bet I’m not alone  though in sitting back, watching their progress and wondering if Pete regrets not trying that little bit harder with MK City…

Season Tickets – Value for Money?

The study published yesterday into the price of watching football (and associated ‘Pie’ Charts) got me thinking about whether a season ticket is actually good value at the Dons. I’ve thought about it a few times over the past season as friends were able to snap up cheap tickets for lower category games. I think there are two main reasons for buying a season ticket: To ensure your seat for all games and to reduce costs.
MKDons is one of the few clubs I’ve supported where there is a real option as to whether to buy a season ticket. (For my definition of supported see ‘I’m not a real football fan’) We have a fantastic ground built to accommodate the increasing support as we move up the leagues. That means though that at present there is plenty of space. In most grounds, even if not full, there is restricted space around the best areas of the ground – the ones where you want to buy your season ticket. At Stadium MK, there is loads of space and therefore one of the main reasons for buying a season ticket disappears. You can be sure of getting a ticket in your preferred area of the ground for pretty much any game. 
With regard to the second point, I was interested to see what the financial benefit was of purchasing up front. I will assume a model with all home games included (as it’s my own fault if I miss games due to holiday etc. My season ticket cost me (admittedly I bought it late!) £668 which breaks down as £440 for me and £228 for an under 18 in East Premium. I’ve taken Grade A & B prices at non member prices. 
Over the first nine games (as these are the only fixtures with pricing categories are assigned), the saving is already £87.  Pro Rata that for a season and you get a saving of £223 over the year by having a season ticket.
Now wouldn’t that have been a great stat for the club to put out to secure that last push for the 5000 season tickets? If they had wanted to of course…

What Price an Away Shirt?

As MK Dons confirm that their season ticket promotion topped out at around 4800, it strikes me as a great result for the club but a poor one for their customers. For those not close to the Dons, the club announced with a great fanfare that if they sold 5000 season tickets before 5pm on 1st August, they would reward each purchaser with a free away shirt. 

Now, I’m sure that the figure of 5000 was always an ambitious one – it makes sense with a promotion like this to set a stretching target. What seemed odd to me was the lack of information coming out of the club as the figure got closer and closer. As was well documented on Twitter over the past couple of weeks, it has become very difficult to get firm numbers out of the club. If MKDons were keen to hit the promotional target one would expect regular updates over the past couple of weeks to encourage a late push for tickets. Yet is was down to a small group of fans in the Twitter community to try and create that last push.
Once the club reached the 4750 / 4800 figure (which one would imagine would be their internal target) the promotion aim seems to have changed. It was massively in their interests not to hit the 5000 ticket figure at which point they have an exposure of 5000 shirts which even at cost price probably equated to about £100k. (roughly 50% of RRP). Indeed the announcement that came out yesterday that season ticket holders would be eligible to buy an away shirt at half price plays even more into their court. Like most half price marketing promotions, this will encourage the increased sale of away shirts (which they probably wouldn’t have previously sold). Even at half price, the club are likely to be making a small profit from each sale or are at least increasing footfall into the club shop. 
Of course there is the view that good news financially for the club is good news for the supporters. Increased season ticket sales & £100k saved on free shirts might be £100k to spend on the salary of a loaned player. Extra away shirt revenue from the half price promotion together with increased sponsor exposure from additional away short sales also boosts the coffers. I can’t help thinking though that this has been acheived at the expense of the supporters through a promotion which had very little chance of ever delivering. 
Maybe I’m just being cynical. It would be interesting to know what the season ticket total was last season to understand how high the bar was originally set and to understand why it was so difficult to get any information from the club as the target got ever closer. 

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.

I’m Not A Real Football Fan

Every time I sit down to watch an MK Dons game, Twitter on my iPhone and Bovril on the wall in front of me, I am confronted on said Twitter by a repeated question. This often takes the form of “Franchise Wa***rs, not real football fans, wonder who they supported before?”

Now I know I should turn the other cheek. It’s easy sport for op

Loyalty to Football Or The Club
(Image © 
Mariusz Cieszewski: PolandMFA)

position fans. I’m not sure I wholy agree with the Wimbledon / Dons transition either (although it’s certainly not as black and white as many make it). It’s not the franchise bit that gets me. It’s the inference that because the ‘accuser’ has only ever supported one club, has followed them home and away, sleet and snow, promotion and relegation etc they are real football fans whilst the rest of us aren’t.

My guess is that MK Dons draw from a diverse range of  football fans. I know many dads who have given up lifelong season tickets at Arsenal, Chelski and Spurs because of two reasons. Firstly, The MK Dons invest a lot into local schools, the kids see them and ultimately drag dad (and mum) along. Before long, the season ticket has gone and the Dons have become the norm. Secondly, the reality of life kicks in. Following your team home and away was great whilst single, childless and without  job comitments. However, time moves on and the difference between leaving at 2:30 and back at 5:30 for a game locally to a full saturday out becomes marked. Suddenly family life is part of the individuals time equation.  I guarantee in the mind of the ‘ Twitter Accusers’ that this in itself means you are not a ‘real football fan’.

Then there’s the other category (which I fall into). And I fully admit, many of my mates just don’t get this! I have always supported my local club. I’ve had season tickets at York City, Hull City, Nottingham Forest, Swindon Town, Rushden & Diamonds and MK Dons. Many of those I have followed passionately – home and away, through relegation and promotion, sleet and snow etc. Guessing though that again, because I have not followed one club from cradle to grave I am not a ‘real football fan’.

In addition to that, particularly in my younger days, I would watch several teams in one week. So I might do York City on a Saturday, Leeds on a Monday, Scarborough Tuesday and Harrogate Town on a Wednesday. In short I couldn’t get enough of live football at whatever level. I’ve watched football on holiday, created holidays so I can watch football even.  Many of those games I would be impartial but others I would take sides. Again, the ‘Twitter Accuser’ indicates that this short term loyalty it means I’m not a ‘real football fan’.

In summary, I’ve probably seen more sides, more grounds and watched football at more grounds than many of the fans that fervantly follow one club. My lack of loyalty means I can often comment more objectively on a football match that I watch.

But hey what do I know? Right now, and because of my family growing up with them, probably forever, I am an MK Dons fan and therefore I know nothing: I am not a ‘real football fan’.

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..