2020/21 Preview – MK Dons

Host of Express FM’s Football Hour and pundit on Pompey Live, Jake Smith continues his club-by-club preview ahead of the new League One season.

Intro: Controversially, the town of Milton Keynes gained another football team in the form of Wimbledon FC at the start of the millennium, as a result of Wombles owner Pete Winkelman relocating the team outside of London in an apparent attempt to save the club.

In reality, what Winkelman done was nothing less than shambolic, with Dons supporters adamant that alternative solutions could have been met to secure the future of the club within the boundaries of the capital, even if they had to relocate from the district of Wimbledon to do so.

The growing financial concerns at the club, coinciding and linking to the inability to return to the deserted spiritual home ground Plough Lane, forced Winkelman to act fast, although such a drastic relocation was not what fans were expecting.

56 miles separate Wimbledon from Milton Keynes, prompting Dons fans to set up Phoenix Club AFC Wimbledon in 2002 with the hope of reviving the club’s identity and with the dream of one day bringing professional football back to Wimbledon. They succeeded and AFC Wimbledon are scheduled to move back to Plough Lane later this year.

MK Dons were officially formed in 2004, replacing Wimbledon in the Football League structure and retaining their status in the pyramid, despite actually legally being a separate entity.

Winkelman stripped the assets of Wimbledon in order to keep the business afloat and the best way to financially keep it going was to change the entire identity of the club.

Since then, the “Dons” have spent 12 years in League One, 3 seasons in League Two and 1 in the Championship. Only the 2007/08 League Two title has been added to the club’s trophy cabinet during that time.

Home Ground: Stadium MK, Milton Keynes (Buckinghamshire), 115 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 30,500

2019/20 Table Position: 19th (League One) – 37 points after 35 games with an average of 1.06 points per-game.

Overall Head-To-Head Record: MK Dons Wins: 1 – Draws: 2 – Portsmouth Wins: 3

Previous Meeting With Pompey: Portsmouth 3-1 MK Dons, 25th February 2020, League One

2020/21 Fixture Dates:

Saturday 10th October, 2020 – Fratton Park

Saturday 17th April, 2021 – Stadium MK

Manager: The youngest manager currently holding position in the EFL, Russell Martin, is in charge of MK Dons. The 34-year-old former Peterborough United and Norwich City defender began his playing career at Brighton & Hove Albion in 2003, signing on as a youth player in East Sussex.

Martin, who went on to also represent Wycombe Wanderers, Rangers, Walsall and MK Dons, joined his first club as a first-team squad member in the early stages of 2004, when Isthmian League Division One South side Lewes came in for him following his release from the Seagulls’ academy.

As a player, Martin won promotion via runners-up of League One with Peterborough United in 2009, helped Norwich City to a League One title, Championship runners-up position and a Championship Play-Off success and automatic promotion from League Two from 3rd-place with MK Dons in 2019.

Martin was also honoured by being named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year for the 2014/15 campaign.

The veteran midfielder, who made a name for himself as a solid defender in the Football League, was born in England in 1986 but qualified to represent Scotland on the international stage as per his Scottish father.

He made his debut for the national team in 2011, featuring as a late substitute against Wales in a Nations Cup fixture. His international career ended 6-years later in 2017, after 29 total appearances.

Following the departure of former Exeter City boss Paul Tisdale at Stadium MK on the 2nd of November last year, the club appointed Russell Martin as first-team manager, the defender’s first ever managerial role. A day later, Martin announced his retirement as a player to fully focus on his coaching duties.

Since his instatement, Martin has accrued a win percentage of 30.4%, having won 7 of his 23 competitive games in charge of the club.

One To Watch: It has become quite the common occurrence for ex-Pompey players to come back and haunt the Fratton Faithful. MK forward option Joe Mason has proved since leaving PO4 that he is no exception to that frustrating curse.

The 29-year-old, who wears the No. 20 shirt for his new club, began his career at Plymouth Argyle, playing for numerous youth sides between 2000 and 2009 before turning pro. He made 53 appearances, scoring 10 goals, in the two years he spent as a senior player at Home Park.

Mason then went on to sign for Cardiff City, where he scored on 22 occasions in the space of five years with a decent loan-spell at Bolton Wanderers in-between too. Other clubs in which he has represented in the past include Wolves, Burton Albion and Major League Soccer outfit Colorado Rapids. The striker is no stranger to playing for a franchise club, having spent a season on-loan in the United States.

It was at Fratton Park where Joe Mason arguably had the worst spell of his career. It was a first-half of the season loan agreement which saw him handed just one appearance under Kenny Jackett – an EFL Trophy match away to Crawley Town in which he cleared a penalty-kick miles above the crossbar and into the club car park.

Whilst the Irishman has yet to score against the Blues following the conclusion of his forgettable loan-spell, he has caused a nuisance of himself and has put in very strong shifts when the two sides have met over the past two seasons – the most notable of which in Pompey’s 3-1 defeat at Stadium MK on December the 29th.

Signing of the Summer (So Far): To the surprise of almost everybody, MK fans included, defender Richard Keogh was announced as a new signing on August the 7th. The 34-year-old, who joined on a free-transfer from Derby County, is 6’ 2” in height and will don the No. 4 shirt at Stadium MK this season.

The Republic of Ireland international is still going strong for his national team, having not yet stepped down from those duties. He was, however, not called-up to new Ireland boss Stephen Kenny’s first squad for the upcoming Nations League fixtures against Bulgaria and Finland.

Keogh spent the best part of seven years at Derby County, continually attempting to get the Rams promoted to the Premier League but failing to do so at every attempt. He has previously played for eight other teams, including Coventry City, Carlisle United and Stoke City, with whom he represented at academy level and signed his first professional deal in 2004.

Russell Martin and MK supporters alike are hoping for no-nonsense defender Keogh to add the experience and expertise required to ensure the team get the job done and survive again in League One this season.

Season Expectation: MK Dons are likely to struggle in League One this season, having lost three key figures to their 2019/20 survival squad this summer.

Conor McGrandles moved on to Lincoln City, Alex Gilbey signed for Charlton Athletic and Rhys Healey, last season’s top-scorer at Stadium MK, has travelled across the channel to sign for French Ligue 2 outfit Toulouse. All three of these players were on the scoresheet for MK when they beat Pompey 3-1 midway through last season.

Adding to this, the Buckinghamshire-based team are coached by the youngest and most inexperienced manager across the entire Football League, owned also by a property developer who has failed to replace the departing players with new signings of equal or better calibre, frustrating supporters with the lack of ambition the board appear to be showing.

The club, having survived by the skin of their teeth last time out thanks to the unweighted points-per-game system being put in place, are once again tipped to be a team battling at the foot of the table. Unfortunately for MK, there are not many sides who look weaker on paper than themselves, which is why I am predicting them to be playing League Two football again in 2021.

Fan expectation appears to be to secure survival and a third consecutive season in the third-tier.

My Predicted Finish: 22nd (R)

MK Dons – A Club With Genuine Ambition or Unrealistic Expectations?

Jonathan Harries, who has been an MK fan for seven years and a season ticket holder for six, is seeking improvements within the team to ensure survival is secured this season: “Our defence needs to improve. Too many goals conceded last time out were avoidable. Also, when we’re on top in games, we need to be ruthless and start taking our chances.”

Heading into the club’s second straight season back in League One, Jonathan is expecting another battle for survival, however boldly claims that things may have been different had the club kept hold of key players during the transfer window: “If we had kept Conor McGrandles, Alex Gilbey and Rhys Healey, I’d have said we would have an outside chance of the Play-Offs. Now, I’m thinking mid-table or survival. We are promised three or four more additions so my opinion may change dependant on who comes in.”

At the time of writing, MK have added Carlton Morris, Joe Mason (despite being one of nine players released by the club a month prior), Callum Brittain, Louis Thompson, Richard Keogh, Daniel Harvie, Ben Gladwin and Warren O’Hara to the squad. Jonathan revealed to me which of the new signings he believes will shine the brightest in 2020/21: “If he can stay fit, then it’s Ben Gladwin for me.

“He has the vision and creativity that not many players in this division possess.” – he justified.

With eight new faces coming into the frame, the MK supporter insists that the salary cap has not had an effect, positively or negatively, on the way his club operate: “The club claim that it hasn’t affected us too much, although losing our two best players in Gilbey and Healey is not ideal. Also, with the darts and snooker taking place, you would expect some extra money coming in, but maybe that money was used to keep the club going during lockdown.” – Jonathan speculated.

Despite losing some key figures on the pitch and in the dressing room this summer, the supporter picked out some positives, including one player he expects to break through over the course of the new season: “David Kasumu is an energetic, tough-tackling, box-to-box midfielder. I think with Conor McGrandles leaving, he is bound to get more game-time.

“One that may go under the radar”, he continued, “would be Jordan Houghton. The defensive-midfielder position is not the most glamourous but the way MK Dons play mostly stems from him. He plays simple, yet incisive passes, nothing too complicated, and is willing to take the ball under pressure. He is an unsung hero in my opinion.”

Speaking of the club’s ambition and where he hopes to see MK Dons in the near-future, Jonathan stated: “Pete Winkelman has always wanted Championship football as a minimum requirement. We have the stadium, if not all of the infrastructure bar a proper training ground, so he needs to either find outside investment to take us to the next level and let his actions speak louder than his words.

“The fans will always be grateful for football in Milton Keynes, but decisions need to be made about our future.”

Jonathan mentioned the facilities at Stadium MK being up-to-scratch and more than ready for Championship, and even top-flight, football. But is the 30,500-seater ground really necessary or just an eyesore with no hopes of generating a decent atmosphere?

“The atmosphere has always been an issue at Stadium MK. Our younger fans are trying to create an atmosphere and DonsAction have made some headway. We now have a dedicated singing section (Block 11). I never got to go to The National Hockey Stadium but maybe the more sensible option would have been to stay there until Championship football was constant.”

He then went on to add what his club means to him, pushing aside any stick he may receive for following MK: “It doesn’t really bother me to be honest if ‘no one likes us’. To me, MK is unique – you are made to feel part of the club and it’s like an extended family.

“I wouldn’t want to change that, nor would I try and convince the haters to give us a chance. I enjoy the ‘we want you to fail’ tag.

Concluding our conversation, Jonathan predicted a 15th-placed finish with the current squad in place, claiming: “We’ve just not got enough creativity or goals for my liking.

“Good luck this season to Portsmouth, I really think this could be your year. I have my fingers crossed for you.”

Here’s hoping he is right on that one!

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter – @harriesdon87

Photo: Andrew Moon

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