Dons under the spotlight of the football world

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‘IT’S us against the world and the world doesn’t stand a chance’ will be the inspirational words MK Dons’ players see first when they emerge from the dressing room before their FA Cup second round tie with AFC Wimbledon on Sunday.

Manager Karl Robinson had the idea in mind long before Dons were drawn against the club his chairman describes as their ‘cousins’. But the completion of the artwork inside the stadium:mk tunnel couldn’t be more timely.

Slogans on the walls of MK Dons tunnel

Slogans on the walls of MK Dons tunnel

Three other motivational quotations greet Dons’ players on their way out to the pitch, but none are as poignant, not this week.

That’s because the majority of the football world will be against Dons when they face AFC Wimbledon this Sunday lunchtime. Not necessarily because of what they know, but because of what they think they know about how Wimbledon FC came to become Milton Keynes Dons.

‘Champions are made when no one is watching’ is also written on the wall inside the tunnel area. You could argue that Dons have nothing to win but everything to lose in front of the ITV cameras. It’s not every week that your club is scrutinised so closely by millions.

Despite being under the spotlight since the second round draw was made on December 4, Dons have conducted themselves in entirely the most professional and dignified manner possible – which isn’t easy when the opposition you’re talking about refuse to acknowledge the full name of your club. It’s been a long four weeks.

Slogans on the walls of MK Dons tunnel

Slogans on the walls of MK Dons tunnel

However, there are signs that the animosity – fuelled by inaccuracy and ignorance – might be starting to wane. Robinson himself said this week that time is probably the only healer, and it’s been nearly a decade. ‘Tough times never last but tough people do’ it says on the wall.

While Dons have acted with total integrity over the last month, fans of other clubs have been able to make up their own minds about AFC. The south London club’s officials will be sat in the north stand on Sunday, if they come at all.

Around 3,000 away supporters are expected in a potential crowd of 15,000 plus. Pete Winkelman says he’s happy with the level of interest shown in the game by the people of Milton Keynes, and those from other areas of the country, with more than 300 tickets sold in the ‘neutral area’ as of Wednesday this week. Tickets have also been bought from as far afield as Austria and Scandinavia.

“We don’t do intimidation and partisanship,” said Winkelman when asked what his message to Dons’ fans was ahead of the game.

Slogans on the walls of MK Dons tunnel

Slogans on the walls of MK Dons tunnel

“What we do do is engagement and I want to make everyone who visits stadium:mk welcome.

“We want to show AFC Wimbledon exactly what we’ve grown in Milton Keynes, and I hope that they will then have a grudging respect for what we have achieved, in the way that we have respect for their promotions.

“I’m very confident we’ll have a good number of people in the stadium – I don’t want to put a number on it yet because I hope it will be even better than what I‘m thinking, given the way that ticket sales are continuing to increase.”

Offering what is undoubtedly an historic game of football to the young people of Milton Keynes for just £1 is the sort of measure that has and continues to earn Dons great respect. And recognition like the South East Community Club of the Year award.

Slogans on the walls of MK Dons tunnel

Slogans on the walls of MK Dons tunnel

“We’re hugely proud of what we are doing,” added Winkelman. “And, of course, it’s being finished at the moment, so that’s the other great thing about it.

“There are positives of what we have done right the way through the club. And for me the biggest positive is the way we’ve become important to the community, and the fact that our charity, the Sports & Education Trust, is the Football League Charity of the Year for London and the South East, kind of says it all for me.

“We’re not building a club for one year, for one game, for one season, we’re building a club for the next 100 years, and I think people will believe that when they come.

“We want to do a professional job and a celebration of football. That’s what I’d like to be talking about after the game – that we did it and we did it well. And that we looked good, and it was executed professionally. If all of those things can happen then I’ll be pleased on Sunday night.”

Not only are Dons and AFC Wimbledon poles apart when it comes to the stadiums they play in, but they’re on different planets when it comes to the players who will ultimately do the talking out on the pitch.

However, this is the FA Cup we’re talking about, and far stranger things than a good League 1 side losing to a team from the division below have happened.

‘A man’s worth is only as strong as his ambition’ says the final quote on the wall in the tunnel. Dons have already proved they have great ambition to achieve success. But now they need to show their worth when the rest of the world is watching.