A season to remember in a year to forget
The 2020/21 season will be as unique as they come
As the final whistle blew on Sunday, so it drew a close to the 2020/21 campaign. A 3-0 home defeat to relegated Rochdale should have been met with boos really, maybe a few claps of recognition for a seasons worth of efforts and hard work, but instead... silence.
It was only fitting though, given how the rest of the season was met with the same silence almost throughout. Goals - silence. Great tackles - silence. Awful tackles - silence. There was no excitement or buzz heading to games this season. Just silence. Fortunate though I am to have been able to go to games while everyone else has been desperate to be in my shoes, I've taken precious little enjoyment from this last nine months. Football hasn't been right.
The world feels like it has been falling apart since we were told to stay inside. The best in humanity has been overpowered by the worst, with the more heinous of human traits coming to the fore, making social media an increasingly vile place to frequent, filled with hate and venom. All the while, the first global pandemic in our lifetime was making the outside world an equally uncomfortable place to be. It's a period in human history which will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.
But in spite of it all though, the patch of grass in the middle of MK1 though gives fans of MK Dons something to be positive about. Admittedly, it took a little while to get going. Two points from five games, only five points from eight - it didn't feel like a lot had changed over the summer except the shelling of a few key players. From a distinct style towards the end of the previous season came this new creature of Russell Martin's creation - his previous incarnation given the Marshall amp treatment and turned up to 11. Back in September it was frightening, nerve-jangling. Now it's the norm, unless you're not a regular view, and the dividends are far more obvious now everyone is on the same page.
The team took three forms during the course of the season - the remains of the previous regime to start, the inconsistent middle ground and finally the side which spluttered into life with the change of the calendar. Not many of Martin's Dons team-mates remain any more such has been his desire for change, but those changes have given the entire team a new lift, a new face and a new sense of purpose. Only two of the players who started at Doncaster on opening day started against Rochdale on the close: David Kasumu and obviously Dean Lewington, who else. But such has been the change, only two played in Dons' first game of 2021 who started on Sunday: Scott Fraser and... obviously.
I say obviously because the skipper has had the best season arguably of his career to date this term. Covered last week in why he should, and subsequently did, win Player of the Year, Lewington has been a marvel this season, buying into 'the process' and dragging the ever-changing 10 team-mates around him along for the ride.
It's probably not fair to link one signing to the turnaround in fortunes, but it did all change when Harry Darling signed from Cambridge United didn't it?! Perhaps coincidental, but the January window signings would turn out to be key gears in the machine come the season's end. Darling, along with Zak Jules, Ethan Laird, Josh McEachran (admittedly signed in March) and Will Grigg would all be important pieces in the puzzle as Dons went from occasional winners to occasional losers in League One. Winning streaks got gradually longer, and though there were some dismal losing streaks too, they would get shorter.
So it's with disappointment to end the campaign with a defeat on the final day, though it meant little other than bragging rights to finish 10th instead of 13th. Might it mean Dons go under the radar again early on in the season as they look to mount a play-off push? Probably not. Anyone who has played Dons, particularly in the second half of the season will be aware of what they can do, and what they started to do to teams when they clicked. When it doesn't click, Rochdale happens, Lincoln away happens, Wigan away happens. The more Dons click though, the further apart the blips become.
Eyes will already be turning to next season now this one is finished - what can Dons do? Where will they finish? Who can they get in? Will they sign Griggy?! These will all be established in due course. But from a team unsure of what they were yet, Martin's process eventually overcame Paul Tisdale's leftovers into being a League One team more than capable of doing damage to the division's biggest hitters. All the right signs are there for next season.
But with the dust still settling on 2020/21, it has to be looked back on as a success. From 19th to 13th; from a relegation scrap to missing out on a play-off place in the penultimate game; from looking down to looking up. As a lot in the world went wrong, Dons have started to get things right.