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This time Dons columnist Dominic Damesick meets Karl Robinson, and is assured that the club is in very good hands.
IF you doubt Karl Robinson, the system his Dons side play, or his vision for football in Milton Keynes, just spend 20 minutes in his office. I was fortunate enough to do just that on Tuesday afternoon, and was struck by his intense belief in himself, his tactics, his squad, and the club’s future.
The Dons manager, now in his third season at the helm, speaks sincerely and openly, addressing the questions put to him with conviction, and a belief that is quite infectious. His articulation of his long-term vision for the club borders on the poetic, and his dedication to his job and his players borders on inspirational. In short, if one does not have faith that Robinson is the right man for the job, then a meeting with him is more than enough for a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. The scales will fall from your eyes!
I meet the Dons boss in his smartly furnished office, as he finishes adding his signature to various items being put before him. Sky Sports News blares out from a widescreen TV opposite his desk – one suspects it is rarely turned off – so that Robinson can keep abreast of all that is unfolding in the football world.
On the wall behind him is a whiteboard, and the schedule for the next four weeks meticulously mapped out in black marker. Robinson appears to be quite the perfectionist. I begin by asking him about his tactical system, and whether he has any temptation to change it.
“We’re surpassing our stats from last season,” Robinson informs me. “The difference is the ball is not going in the net.” It’s hard to disagree.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes Robinson and I discuss the four main striking options contracted to Dons. I start with the forgotten man, Jabo Ibehre.
“There’s still a future here for Jabo Ibehre,” Robinson assures me, indicating that the powerful forward was struggling at the start of the season and went out on loan to find some form.
Robinson is quick to endorse Ibehre’s character, and pays tribute to the ‘good relationship’ the two enjoy. He also speaks highly of the professionalism of Ryan Lowe and Charlie MacDonald. However, as with Ibehre, he appears unconvinced by their recent performances.
Robinson muses that – in the case of Lowe – ‘sometimes things don’t fit’, and while he calls MacDonald a ‘wonderful professional’ I cannot imagine he’s satisfied with the returns delivered by the diminutive striker so far this season. Robinson’s highest praise for any of his strikers is probably reserved for Alan Smith.
“Smithy can score goals, but Smithy also wins us headers, he also gets us up the pitch, and he’s a good person as well,” he said. “If you played Alan Smith every week (as a striker) he’d probably get into double figures. But Smithy can’t play Saturday, Tuesday, with his ankle.
So Smith will not be the regular goalscorer Dons so desperately require. Back to the drawing board it is then. Robinson, in his defence, is acutely aware of this key shortcoming in his side. The boss will back his strikers ‘to an extent’, but also accepts that a change in personnel may be required, although he laments that there are ‘not many out there for a price we can afford’.
I query, though, what happens if the goals do not arrive. Presumably, the club will still not be in a position to afford a new striker? So what will happen. Will it be game over? Robinson is crisp in his response.
“I’ll obviously have to try and get people out and get other people in,” he said. It’s the only time he borders on terse with me. The strain of the situation briefly witnessed.
Three themes constantly recur throughout my time with Robinson: respect, context and ambition. Robinson continually stresses to me his respect for Dons’ supporters and their opinions, refusing to condemn even his side’s harshest critics. He accepts that some of the things fans may shout or write can be upsetting, but he doesn’t dwell on it.
Besides, Robinson insists that only ‘five percent don’t like what we’re doing... I listen to the 95 percent.’ While his estimations are possibly a little generous, Robinson is probably right. He still has the backing of the majority of the fans. He deserves their backing too, working tirelessly for the better of the club – I was exhausted just by hearing about his schedule of watching matches and scouting players, and doing as much as he can to engage with the fans – last week’s fans forums being a case in point.
The young manager promises that he will ‘never ever shirk a question’ from a fan. He holds true to this promise in my short time with him.
With regards to context, Robinson articulates a long-term vision for the club, and wants this season – and any troubles the Dons are facing – to be put into context. With a wry smile, he’s quick to remind me that Dons have ‘the smallest squad in the league’ – he even repeats it for effect – and recalls that his side ‘were favourites to go down two years ago’.
He wants fans to remember just how far the club has come in his two and a half seasons at the helm, and states – with complete conviction – that ‘it’s only going to get better and better’. When Karl Robinson looks you in the eye and delivers this line, with such heartfelt sincerity, one cannot help but believe he will deliver on that statement. It’s a gift Robinson has.
Despite some of his grand claims, however, Robinson reasons that, for now, Dons’ position in the table reflects ‘where our budget allows us to be’. I ask him, though, if he can understand the fans’ frustrations about recent difficulties given the pre-season hype of pushing for automatic promotion, on the wave of an increased budget.
He replies: “We’ve created a monster by overachieving.” A portrayal emerges of a side who are becoming victims of their own success. This is the one area, however, where I do not feel that Robinson has fully addressed my concerns. His explanation that, given budget constraints, eighth position is not necessarily an underachievement rings somewhat true, but I cannot help but wonder what happened to all the pre-season talk of finishing in the top two.
What has changed between July and now? Maybe Robinson was over-zealous in his pre-season predictions, or maybe he’s being conservative in his analysis now, as he begins to feel the pressure of falling behind the leading pack? Only he knows.
Either way, it does little to shake my overriding faith in him. It would seem harsh to punish Robinson for being too ambitious, if that is what he was guilty of pre-season. Alternatively, if Dons’ current position in the table reflects a genuinely disappointing start to the season then Robinson deserves patience and support.
He has shown more than enough in his two and a half seasons at the club – not just in the manner he has developed the team on the pitch, but in the way he has sought to develop the club behind the scenes, on a prudent, sustainable budget – to convince me that he deserves to be backed to the hilt by his chairman, and by the fans for that matter.
The third theme of our conversation – ambition – applies to both Robinson personally and to his vision for the club. Robinson himself strikes me as a particularly driven, motivated individual. He wants to not only manage in the Premier League, but win it too. He wants to create ‘a dynasty and legacy’ at a football club, much like Sir Alex Ferguson (a manager he clearly admires greatly) has at Manchester United.
In short, Robinson wants to be remembered. If the 32-year-old does fall short in his career, it certainly will not be from a lack of self-belief. He gushes with pride about what he has achieved at MK Dons so far and is not shy of giving himself credit where he believes it’s due.
“I want to achieve great things at the club. I’ve turned up and surpassed everything in two years... The club, in my eyes, is definitely going in the right direction,” he said.
Robinson would like to achieve his ambitions with Dons. He remarks that he has shown his ‘commitment to this football club’ and he has required ‘mental strength as an individual not to let my head be turned (by interest from elsewhere).
With a long-term vision for Dons at the forefront of his mind, Robinson has prioritised the development of the club’s academy players, and has adopted the mantra ‘if you’re good enough, I’ll play you’. Mike Dove, the MK Dons Academy boss, has an office just across the hall, and this is deliberate, says Robinson, to give ‘fluidity’ to the progression from youth team to first team.
Robinson notes that he’s ‘ruthless with young players’ but he only does this to ‘put them in good stead’. Indeed, one only has to hear Robinson speak about the likes of Dele Alli and Brendan Galloway – he describes both as ‘class acts’ and has their very best interests at heart.
The Dons boss says it’s vital that the club takes steps to ‘educate’ the academy players as to the club’s ethos and style of football, in order to retain their services. He wants these players to carve out their fledgling careers at Dons, much as the manager himself intends to do.
As our interview ends, Robinson remarks that it has been a pleasure and thanks me for my time, a thoughtful gesture from a very talented young manager and a very personable human being.
I do not get the sense, either, that the Dons manager is just paying me lip-service. Meeting fans, granting interviews, explaining decisions, and opening up the inner workings of the club to the paying public all seem to be important to Robinson, and underline that he understands the importance of a good relationship with supporters.
Having said my goodbyes to Robinson, I’m left with the firm belief that we have one crucial thing in common: a long-term vision of sustainability and success for MK Dons. I make my way home from stadium:mk feeling that the club could hardly be in better hands.
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