Written by Connor Lawson
When someone mentions MK Dons, what do you think? I can guarantee for the majority of football fans it’ll be something along the lines of “dirty franchise”, “plastics”, or something rather more explicit that I shouldn’t include in this article.
However, MK Dons are a club driven by ambition. Putting the controversial history to one side, they are a club with a 30,000 capacity stadium, a fantastic youth academy, a retail and restaurant complex outside their ground, and a chairman who longs for success.
Despite the obvious ambition, MK Dons are not performing on the pitch, and their quality of football does not match the ambition of the club.
Let’s rewind to just over a year ago, with the club floating just above the League One relegation zone, they parted company with long-serving manager Karl Robinson. Soon after, Scot Robbie Neilson took over in Milton Keynes and, in his first league game, led the side to a 1-0 win over rivals AFC Wimbledon.
The last half of MK Dons’ 16/17 campaign was a bumpy ride, but they finished the season well and ended in twelfth place. Not fantastic by any means, but certainly better than it was looking during the Robinson era.
During the summer, the young Neilson set about adding players to his squad, many of whom he had worked with before or had some knowledge of from his time in Scotland. His signings, on top of the players he kept at the club, made MK Dons fans optimistic for the new season.
So, let’s have a look at the present. MK Dons sit sixteenth in the table, having won just six games out of twenty so far. They are only four points off the relegation zone, but eleven off the play-off places.
This bad run of form has provoked anger from many MK Dons supporters, who are angry at a number of things happening to their club at the moment. It seems clear that the current side is a long way off the promotion campaign Neilson promised the fans at the start of the season.
So, what is going wrong at MK Dons? Why are the fans so frustrated?
After the side progressed in the FA Cup at the weekend, beating Maidstone 4-1, Neilson took to the local radio to announce a controversial piece of news. Dean Lewington would be loaned out in the January transfer window having not been in the side for weeks.
This rather big news was received badly by some, with many feeling Neilson is being disrespectful to one whom is regarded a club legend, whilst others claimed it was simply the correct decision with the club captain not getting any game time.
This news was swiftly followed by a picture of Dean Lewington in a Charlton tracksuit top being shared on social media. These rumours were quickly dispersed when it was reported Lewington was only training with the club after former manager Robinson invited him to get some match fitness up.
Pete Winkelman also defended this decision in an interview published yesterday, claiming “everyone’s a winner” as Lewington can be playing some football, Neilson can focus on other matters in the team, and Winkelman himself doesn’t have to worry about having a neglected captain on his hands.
One thing that I find rather amusing, and those who follow me on social media will know this, is that many fans over the last couple of seasons have been slating him for being too slow and not good enough for the first team, yet are somehow outraged at this decision.
It seems the writing was on the wall ever since Neilson added Scott Goldbourne to his side. Lewington would be “kicked into the long grass” so to speak.
Winkelman also made it clear that Lewington thinks he should be playing in the first team, and has said that training with Charlton has simply given him the chance to prove himself to Neilson.
The question now lies with where exactly he will be off to in the window, I can see him heading out to a local League Two side, perhaps the likes of Cambridge, Barnet or Stevenage would take him, but who knows.
I think the main frustration regarding the issue from MK Dons fans is the fact that his transition from player to coach isn’t going to happen as smoothly as anyone would have liked it to. Nevertheless, I still seeing him having something to do with the club in the future, but will it be the last time MK Dons fans seeing him in a home shirt? Possibly.
Closely tied in with the Dean Lewington situation is, of course, manager Robbie Neilson. As I have already mentioned, many fans are annoyed at him for his handling of the Lewington situation, but they’re also annoyed for a rather more simple reason, poor performances and poor results.
Apart from a few decent games this season, and professional performances in the FA Cup, MK Dons fans haven’t had much to shout about. They have seen their side lose to rivals like Peterborough, as well as being put away by Bradford and losing to newcomers in Portsmouth, Doncaster and Blackpool.
Fans are not enjoying the style of football Neilson is using, and they feel that results aren’t going their way because of this.
It’s a given that, when results aren’t going well, heads turn to the manager straightaway, but fans can’t seem to get their heads around how a team of good players can be performing so badly.
In truth, Neilson has had a few injuries at times this season, notably his main signing Osman Sow, as well as Peter Pawlett. Chuks Aneke also missed a large chunk of the start of the season. Winkelman was keen to emphasise how well he think Sow and Aneke will work together, constantly reiterating they have only played with each other for fifteen minutes all season.
There is no denying that two attacking players of the size and skill of Sow and Aneke would be worrying for any defence, but it is just a case of getting them both fit at the same time. I don’t think it is fair to assume that one player getting fit again will solve all of the problems, as it most likely won’t.
Neilson is likely to be a worried man. He has some huge games coming up in December and January. He’s got Shrewsbury, Plymouth, Peterborough and AFC Wimbledon at home in those two months, whilst his side will also be travelling to Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Oxford, Northampton and QPR in the cup.
If ever the phrase ‘make or break’ could be applied to any months in the season, it will be December and January for Neilson.
The fans will accept nothing less than 100% effort from the team, especially in big games against Peterborough, Northampton and AFC Wimbledon. Lose those, and Neilson will be a dead man walking.
Winkelman has highlighted that changing the manager is a last resort scenario, and, in fairness, I can’t see it happening unless something goes really badly wrong (i.e. losing to Peterborough, Northampton and AFCW in the space of a month).
Time is of the essence with Neilson. Some people are suggesting he has lost the dressing room and the validity of that statement will be tested over the festive period.
Winkelman wants to give the manager time, especially because he paid compensation to Hearts for the Scot and Neilson has moved his wife and kids down to Milton Keynes, something Winkelman recognises as an act of commitment.
Time will tell. All hope is not lost. It isn’t unheard of for teams to have very poor seasons until Christmas and then get a revival and surge up the table, something MK Dons fans will be hoping for, though many are despondent and have already written the season off.
I have made constant reference to the twenty-four minute long interview the chairman gave addressing certain pressing issues and rumours.
Also in the interview he explained how academy director Mike Dove is taking a sabbatical, how Callum Brittain has the full support of the club when playing for England, and how Chuks Aneke leaving the club is not off the table if the right offer comes through, but the club have no specific plans to sell him, contrary to rumours.
Winkelman spoke of the need for more confidence and explained how, in his view, we will start playing better football if we start winning games.
One thing that is impossible to deny is that for Winkelman to address the fans on something like this is fantastic. He deserves credit for his honesty and refusal to hide from the rumours surrounding the club. It took a lot of guts for him to come out and face the music, and this just proves how much he cares about the club. Despite being asked some really blunt and difficult questions, he tackled each one head on, so fair play to him for that.
As I’ve said, the next few months are going to be key for MK Dons, especially the festive period. Robbie Neilson needs to get the team playing well again and he needs to win back the faith of the fans, and the only way he can do that is by getting results.
It is very unlikely that Winkelman will sack Neilson at this early stage, it simply isn’t his style. He was reluctant to sack Robinson until it was a last resort and it will be the same with Neilson. Winkelman clearly still has faith in the manager and is clearly still optimistic for success.
As for Dean Lewington, whilst some fans will be annoyed at Neilson for this, I think it has to be accepted that Lewington is past his best. Perhaps Neilson hasn’t handled it in the best way but, when Neilson doesn’t think Lewington can make the first team, and Lewington thinks he can, what choice does he have?
Loaning out Lewington is a sensible option, and in the summer, we will see what happens regarding Lewington’s future.
It will certainly be interesting to see what happens with the club in the next few months. Will it be an improvement in form, or will they sink further down the table?
MK Dons fans, what do you think of the current situation? Leave your opinions in the comments below!