It’s now or never for Dons as vital season looms

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IT has been said before, and it will no doubt be said again – this has got to be the year for MK Dons to make it to the Championship, writes Toby Lock.

As the team gets back into the swing of things out on the training pitch – running endless miles to get back to peak condition after the summer break – there were a lot of familiar faces among the ranks, laughing and joking, back together for the first time since the play-off heartbreak against Huddersfield.

At League 1 level, keeping the squad together over pre-season is a rare feat. You’re always likely to find that clubs release a few players and offload some of the dead wood to free up some cash to put towards wages for the new blood to come in.

But manager Karl Robinson is in a unique position. Having kept his side together, there are many pre-season issues he can thankfully avoid. He knows his players, and he knows what they are capable of, so he doesn’t need to re-invent the wheel with them.

And it’s the same for the players too. They know what is expected of them, they know the style of football that the manager wants and – most importantly – they know the pain of losing out after they came so close last season.

There is obviously something about MK Dons, Robinson and chairman Pete Winkelman that players can relate to. Captain Dean Lewington admitted that some players had been offered much better wages to leave stadium:mk for pastures new, but had opted to stay instead. That’s a character trait not often associated with footballers, or in fact any walk of life. More often than not, if you’re offered more money to do the same job elsewhere, you jump at the chance.

But the current squad seems bonded – a lot more than any other I have seen during my time following Dons. And that should give them a great advantage, particularly in the early stages of the season when they look to avenge the disappointment of May 2012.

One of my biggest concerns though is that the team last year was not good enough to win promotion, as harsh as it sounds. They weren’t good enough, proven by the fact that they aren’t currently preparing for a season in the Championship.

And it’s the same team that is now preparing for the new season. Robinson is still looking to add ‘two or three’ new faces to the squad, but they must surely be excellent signings to add some all important added ingredients to get the club over the line after four seasons at this level.

If the push for promotion fails again, the team will undoubtedly disintegrate. The chairman has already said that the extra budget given to Robinson this summer is unsustainable for another season, so it really is all or nothing for the club over the next 10 months.

The signing of Alan Smith will put a smile on many faces in Milton Keynes this week. The former England man putting pen to paper on a permanent deal is a substantial move for the club. Not many in League 1 can boast landing a Premier League player without adding the words ‘on loan’ at the end.

But my one concern is how he fits into the side, as good a player as he is. If he is going to play in the centre of the park, is he better than Stephen Gleeson or Darren Potter in the same role?

Robinson’s ‘Rolls Royces’ are arguably the best pairing in the division, and Shaun Williams proved that, playing in his preferred role, he is just as good as the aforementioned pair. Robinson has already stated his desire to move Williams into midfield after filling in superbly at centre-back for most of the season, so who misses out?

And with Jay O’Shea arguably Dons’ best player in the last three months of the season, plus Luke Chadwick, Daniel Powell and Dean Bowditch all capable of playing in the middle, Robinson is hardly short of numbers in that position.

So what role is Smith going to play? His signing is a lot to gamble on just being an influential head in the dressing room. But plenty of times last season – when I was asking myself the very same question – he would make a pass, control the ball and hold off a player in a way only someone with his ability could. He will provide moments of magic, be it playing just in front of the defence or just behind the front man.

His fitness could be key too. Everyone remembers the horrifying injury that he suffered playing for Manchester United at Anfield in 2006. Unfortunately that sparked the end of his career at the highest level.

And it was clear when Smith arrived at stadium:mk that he was a man who had not played a full game for a while. Having played a token 90-odd seconds for Newcastle in the first six months of the season, Smith showed one of Robinson’s key attributes – he loved to play football.

You could tell by the national media’s coverage of his transfer on that Monday morning in January that a footballer dropping two divisions just to play the game was something rare and unique, particularly for someone of his experience. And especially when he could have gone somewhere else, played just as often as he did for Dons, and picked up more money.

I think, and hope, that the more we see of Smith this season, the more he will influence things both on and off the pitch. He hasn’t been forthcoming in the media since his high-profile move, not wanting to overshadow the team with the circus that was inevitably going to follow him in the early stages of his loan move. Now, as a regular member of the squad, perhaps we’ll hear more from the shy Yorkshireman.

The players Robinson has added in the last 12 months have all been of a similar breed. They’re intelligent footballers, adaptive, they can play a number of different roles and styles, and they have the nous about them to be able to talk a good game too.

Very few of Robinson’s signings have been unable to string a sentence together when put in front of reporters. And those who haven’t have largely been loanees or were released within a few months of signing on.

The loan market stung Robinson last year, enough to seemingly put him off it all together this season. The Adam Smith debacle left a nasty taste in the mouth for all involved, and I think now the manager would sooner pick up a player he could keep hold of than risk losing him on a whim and leaving the team in the mire as a result.

Dons jet off to the Republic of Ireland on Friday for their pre-season tour ahead of their season opener against Oldham on August 18. Robinson doesn’t expect any new faces to join the group before their plane hits the tarmac back in England, so their trip will be more of a focusing exercise rather than one to bond together.

And I think everyone is keen to see a side fully focused on achieving what they have threatened to do in the last two seasons.