For nearly a month, MK Dons have been slow dancing in a burning room. On Saturday, the music finally stopped.
The 4-1 defeat to Brentford was a footnote to the real story, the final nail in the coffin but was one that highlighted exactly where, all season long, Dons went wrong.
Despite taking the lead after six minutes, they had conceded by the ninth minute, and got thumped in the second half sending them back where they, unfortunately, belong.
The team, a Frankenstein’s Monster of a squad, patched up and sent out to play with parts left over, borrowed and picked up along the way, simply haven’t been good enough all season long. The same feeling was had when Dons slumped to their lowest finish under Karl Robinson in 2013/14. The team features no world beaters, no standouts, emergency loans and players covering. The results have been unsurprisingly similar.
As is often the case with relegations, there isn’t one single problem that can be blamed, but a culmination of misfortunes, shortcomings, naïvety and, frankly, arrogance.
Losing the players Dons did last season - the likes of Will Grigg, Benik Afobe, Dele Alli - were big misses, of course. However, all but Grigg were known to be leaving in January (in Afobe’s case, he did leave in January), and Grigg was on loan, ironically, from Brentford, so was set to leave anyway. Dons had plenty of time to develop a strategy for this season. That appeared not to come, though if their strategy was to bring in the players they did in summer, that strategy was just bad.
There was also a not entirely unfounded assumption that the players under contract would be good enough to stay afloat at this level. Perhaps the manner in which they earned promotion last season, winning nine of 11 in the run-in, helped disguise their shortcomings, or was masked somewhat by the astonishing loan talent on display. There is no doubting the fact that the team which started against Yeovil last season was better than the one which started against Brentford this season. But the influence of the loan players was grossly underestimated, and that spark was never rekindled.
Of the players brought in in summer, only Cody Cropper survived the January cull, while the loan players, perhaps with the exception of Josh Murphy, have failed to sparkle all season long.
At one end of the pitch, goals have come at a premium while at the other, they’ve been flooding in. For Dons, it has been the wrong way around though. Individual errors have been pounced upon by opposing strikers, while Dons have barely been afforded a mistake to capitalise on.
While others went out and spent big, Dons felt they could get by as they had done in previous years - finding that magic touch on a shoestring. Given what Dons had lost though, Robinson’s mission was made infinitely harder without big financial backing behind him to give him a fighting chance. Replacing a soon-to-be England international was an impossible mission at this level, but there needed to be a significantly bigger budget for Dons to be able to compete, especially given what Dons were still missing come the opening day of the season, and indeed throughout - a talisman.
Coming up against a ramshackle Rotherham side tipped for the drop, their start to Championship life saw Dons win at the New York Stadium at a canter, sending them to the top. Championship football didn’t look so tough after all. But again, it only masked where Dons were short, hid what was really wrong. Dons’ naivety, both in a lack of spending and the assumption they’d be good enough is, arguably, the biggest failure of all.
It means the blame lies at the door of everyone: Robinson, Pete Winkelman, the recruitment team and the players who pull on the shirt each week. No-one is above shouldering the blame, and everyone is bang to rights. The results are damning. It hasn’t been good enough.
But now relegation has been confirmed and the room pulls into focus, the flames around them are there for everyone to see. It is going to take an awful lot of rebuilding to get MK Dons back on the right tracks again. They cannot afford to relay the same carpet, paint the walls the same colour and get like-for-like sofas again.
It needs to be an entirely new room.