The sports blog: Plugging the gap in local football

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MK DONS take up more space in our newspapers and on our website than any other sports club in Milton Keynes - and we make no apologies for it, writes sports editor Simon Downes.

But the city is also home to several amateur football clubs all clamouring for support, recognition and, of course, column inches. We try and provide the best coverage we can, but it isn’t always easy in an extremely competitive sportng area part of the country.

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The 2010/11 football season is coming to an end, with mixed fortunes for the majority of our sides - that’s a polite way of saying it was actually a pretty a poor year for the majority.

Stony Stratford Town are likely to be relegated out of South Midlands League Division One after finishing rock bottom, while it hasn’t been a particularly good year for New Bradwell St Peter or Cranfield United either, with both ending in mid-table. However, mid-table is a position our Division Two sides would have been proud of as MK Wanderers, Bletchley Town and Old Bradwell United have all been left holding up most of the rest. In fact this season will be one to immediately erase from the memory for Wanderers who failed to win a game in finishing bottom of the pile.

Our United Counties League sides have enjoyed good seasons though, with Newport Pagnell and Olney Town challenging for honours in the Premier Division and Division One respectively going into the final few weeks, although for both it ended in disappointed. And the fact that I haven’t even mentioned the North Bucks League illustrates just how much of a football hotbed the city really is. Giving every club the coverage they want and deserve isn’t easy, but we try our best. Oh and the Milton Keynes & Border Counties Youth League is one of the biggest in the country, by the way.

One club not yet mentioned are Padbury United, mainly because they have the word Padbury in their name and don’t play in Milton Keynes. But the thing is, they want to play here, and so deserve a mention. The club actually has a pretty interesting story to tell, and an owner with big ideas of transforming the map of city football. Dr Philip Smith is his name, and he wants to - in his own words - ‘plug the gap’ between MK Dons, and the rest.

Dons dominate the footballing landscape of the city, and it’s no surprise given that they ply their trade six steps above Newport Pagnell - MK’s next highest ranked club - in English football’s pyramid structure. And while Smith isn’t expecting to achieve League One level, he does believe there’s scope for an amateur club to make the step up to semi-professional standard, and so fill the void between the stadium:mk side and the men from Willen Road.

The club bearing the name of the small Buckinghamshire village are currently playing their home games in the county town, groundsharing with Buckingham Town whose Ford Meadow stadium has a capacity of more than 4,000. However, Smith - a former senior executive of a number of multi-national businesses, including major food retailer Asda Group Plc - has ambitions far greater than that and believes MK is where his Padbury side will end up in the coming years. He’s not against changing the club’s name to suit the area of the city he moves into either. But there’s the problem - they’ve got nowhere to go.

As well as being a major player in MK’s business community, Smith certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to running a football club - he used to be chairman of Leicester City in the nineties. And he’s run a pretty tight ship in his two decades as Padbury owner, with the club enjoying moderate success in the North Bucks League and SML Division Two.

The appointment of manager Craig Bicknell then helped take the club to the next level as he recruited several former PB (MK) players - who spent a number of years dominating the North Bucks League - and soon took SML Division Two by storm. After a couple of years of gradual progression, Padbury won this season’s title at a canter and are now likely to replace Stony Stratford in Division One.

Smith doesn’t want to stop there though. He wants SML Premier football - the equivalent to the standard Newport Pagnell play at - and then beyond to the Southern League and maybe even the top levels of the non-League game. That, as you will have guessed, will only come at a price. But Smith is a determined man, and while he isn’t the first in MK football circles to have big ideas of where he’d like to take a club, he does have a pedigree and the genuine business connections to make it possible. His first challenge though, is finding Padbury a home in the city.

Groundsharing with one of MK’s own clubs isn’t an option he’s ruling out, but that would come with complications, not least because meeting the ground grading requirements to reach the level he wants to would require major investment into any of MK’s existing sports venues.

The chances are that he and Padbury - or whoever they might end up being called - are still some way off finding a new permanent home. But after their SML Division Two title win, and making public their ambitious plans for the future, they are certainly now on the Citizen’s radar.

With Dons still in the running to challenge for Championship football through the League One play-offs, the gap between themselves and the rest could yet be even bigger next season. But who knows, maybe Padbury United could be the club to plug that gap in the years to come.