Dons must escape League 1 this season or face losing more stars

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THE analogy of ‘waiting for a bus, then three come along at once’ has been the story of Dons’ summer so far.

It had been a quiet pre-season until the middle of June when everything exploded to life, with players in, out, and nearly out, but eventually back in again.

With the waters settled, at least for now, the players have returned to pre-season training this week with one thing on their mind – winning League 1.

But that will be no easy task. Firstly, two key players have left stadium:mk this summer. Both Peter Leven and Sean O’Hanlon were consistent performers in the last three seasons and will be missed.

Boss Karl Robinson was the first to admit that losing Leven was a disappointment, but also declared that any players who don’t start the season with the club ‘didn’t want to be here and had other motives’.

And Robinson acted quickly to snap up former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Darren Potter before Leven’s contract had ran out, and intends to play Mathias Doumbe alongside Gary MacKenzie in the centre of defence. But with O’Hanlon gone, another defender should also be on Robinson’s agenda.

The manager also has Shaun Williams and Tom Flanagan to add weight to the core of the team, but wants at least three more additions before the new season kicks off on August 6.

The signing of striker Dean Bowditch shows signs of Dons moving in the right direction. Bowditch scored 15 goals for Yeovil last season and could go on to score even more if he’s given the right service and can stay fit – a statement also fitting for Sam Baldock, who recently turned down the chance to play in the Championship – albeit with Peterborough – in order to help Dons win promotion.

The real tell-tale sign for Dons’ chances of promotion will come early in the season.

Robinson’s self-proclaimed fast, ball-on-the-ground style of football took a few months to get the hang of, particularly away from stadium:mk. But from January the players have gone into games knowing they can come away with a victory.

And if that mentality can be continued after the summer break, then Dons could steal a march on the rest of League 1 – in much the same way last season’s champions Brighton did this time last year.

Something clearly evident from Robinson’s attitude in the last week is his confidence in his team and he has no doubts in his mind that they can win promotion in 2011/12.

He’s happy to admit he needs to strengthen in a few key areas, but has instilled a fresh level of belief in his old crop of players, and already in his new recruits, that Dons will not be in League 1 in 12 months time.

Holding off the approaches from Peterborough for Baldock and Stephen Gleeson – which could have seen Dons pocket £1.8 million – is clearly a huge statement of intent by the club.

But that desire to get into the Championship really does have to come to fruition this time, or more players could be tempted to look elsewhere for a chance to play at a higher level.

And whether another failed promotion attempt would mean curtains for Robinson is an all together different proposition.

The 30-year-old, no longer rookie, signed a three-year deal last season and admitted he had been called about the possibility of a move away from Dons this summer, but insisted ‘nothing turned his head’.

Pete Winkelman certainly believes he has the right man in charge, and for the first time since the club’s inception, he has the same boss he started the previous season with.

Whatever happens between the first pre-season game at St Neots, and the season opener with Hartlepool, Dons seem to be making the right noises and the right moves to escape from League 1 at the fourth attempt.