Dons must learn from a trying season back in League 1

MK Dons
MK Dons
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The dust has barely settled on another season at Stadium MK, but MK Dons will perhaps look back and learn more from a mediocre season in League 1 than they would have from their brief cameo in the Championship.

The feel around Stadium MK is significantly different to this time last year is so many ways than the obvious. After relegation from the Championship last season, there was an air of despondency, frustration and stagnancy around. As it turned out, it would be the calm before the storm.

Robbie Neilson

Robbie Neilson

After a torrid start to life back in League 1, Karl Robinson's departure after six-and-a-half years in October threatened to be a bigger disruption to the ship than relegation from the Championship had just a few months earlier. It felt like a lifetime before Robbie Neilson eventually took over at the helm in December, with Steven Gerrard heavily tipped to take his first plunge into management.
Having aimed at an immediate return to the second tier, Dons had fallen into a state of chaos. Dropping into the relegation zone, without a win in nine months at Stadium MK and lost for ideas, Robbie's revolution began in earnest, and it couldn't have come at a better time, nor against better opposition for the Scot.

His first game in charge was the graciously over-looked 4-1 hammering at the hands of Yeovil in the Checkatrade Trophy, but his baptism in League 1 came at home to AFC Wimbledon... and what a message he sent.

Given the importance of the game, the state of the club he'd walked in to, and the dire home form, Neilson oversaw a 1-0 win which would be the first of eight wins at Stadium MK as they set about rebuilding the fortress.

The January transfer window would be relatively quiet, despite the outcry from fans to rebuild the tried-and-tested-but-ailing squad. Only four would come in, but despite being thin on the ground, four would also leave.

Chuks Aneke

Chuks Aneke

While Neilson had Dons back on their feet, their dangerous workplace flirtation with the relegation zone remained. After their brief and uncomfortable encounters earlier in the season, never did the pair ever meet up again, but the threat remained as talk of safety was preferred to the prospect of a late surge for the play-offs. There were dark times along the way too. Losing at Oxford in a lifeless performance at the Kassam Stadium, a drab 0-0 away at Bury and a painful 1-0 defeat at home to Fleetwood offered up little hope for the remainder of the season - and that was just a week in February. And the less said about March 14, the better.

But there were rays of light for fans too, as Neilson's plans began to fall into place. The emergence of Chuks Aneke came just at the right time, and his utter dominance against Northampton and Peterborough, where he scored arguably Dons' goal of the season, restored the faith as it became generally accepted that Dons were consistent in their inconsistency. And Aneke's cameo in the season showed what Dons fans can look forward to next season, assuming they can keep him fit.

The end of the season has seen a pick up in form, despite losing at home to top-enders Scunthorpe and champions Sheffield United. And the 4-1 win over Walsall on the final day of the season was the icing on the cake as they wrapped up 12th spot - a top half finish, above AFC Wimbledon, above former boss Karl Robinson, now at Charlton, and above neighbours Northampton.

With the recognised names of Darren Potter, David Martin and Dean Bowditch on their way out, cloudy futures over Dean Lewington and Ben Reeves and Harvey Barnes' return to parent club Leicester City, it will be a huge summer facing Neilson.

His report card for this season will read in a positive manner though, but a similar scenario in 12 months time will be seen as a failure. The bar has been set high.