PLANS are already well under way for next season regardless of what league MK Dons find themselves in, with Neil Mellor top of Karl Robinson’s shopping list.
Saturday sees Dons travel to Deepdale to take on Mellor’s Preston North End side, and the manager has openly admitted to “desperately” wanting the big forward to be part of his plans for 2012/13.
The striker has hit the back of net eight times in his 17 League 1 appearances this season. But despite his problems with a knee injury – which will keep him out of Saturday’s clash and for the rest of the campaign – Robinson is keen to snap up the former Liverpool front man when his contract expires in the summer.
“I want him, desperately, next season,” he said. “What a player he is. I want him here. I’ve spoken to him at great length.
“I think Charlie MacDonald, Jabo Ibehre and Neil Mellor would give us tremendous strength. The chairman is backing me all the way to do it.
“We know what our budgets are, but we don’t moan, we just get the best out of it. If we can find the room for the likes of Mellor in there alongside Stephen Gleeson, Darren Potter and so on, then we’ll be OK.”
And while he may have seen his side slump to two defeats on the trot, Robinson has just received “the best news for weeks” as one of his central midfield duo commit their future to the club.
The Dons boss confirmed this week that one of his key players, believed to be either Gleeson or Potter whose contracts are up in June, has agreed in principle to extend their stay at the club, with final touches being put on a new deal.
Back in September, Gleeson admitted the lure of Championship football might be too much to pass up as he looks to get his international career up and running again after three seasons with Dons.
Potter joined the club last June from Sheffield Wednesday and is believed to be among the front runners for the player of the season award.
And his planning for the future doesn’t stop there as Robinson has already made contact with three Championship players about making the switch to Dons next season, regardless of which division they are in.
“I’ve already got, hopefully, one player re-signing for us, which is massive for us – probably some of the best news I have heard in the last few weeks. We just have to finalise that.
“After that it’s just about strengthening. Two players are already interested and seriously considering joining regardless of what league we’re in.
“It’s relentless at the moment, making sure we don’t fall short next season. It would be nice to get to the summer, be in the Championship and be on course to meet our targets.
“The players I want to bring in are Championship players, I’m just trying to get them on League 1 money!
“I’ve told them too, if we’re not in the Championship, give me a year of your life to get them there. There have been some good conversations with some very strong-minded players.”
With so much emphasis put on getting promoted this season, Robinson admits that he may lose players in the summer to clubs higher up the footballing ladder.
However, he will hold no grudges, saying: “I’d be disappointed if my players didn’t want that. I want them to have that foresight about themselves and the desire to be playing higher.
“Yes, we might lose one or two but I’m getting used to that now. I only want players who want to be at this club and get the same excitement I do whenever they look at our badge.”
But while planning for the future, the boss is keen not to lose sight of the more immediate goals at hand. Dons have seen their automatic promotion chances go from tough to nigh on impossible after drawing with lowly Wycombe and losing back-to-back home matches to play-off hopefuls Carlisle and Brentford to round out a tough month of March.
The most frustrating thing for Robinson though will be that his side have performed well for the majority in both of last week’s games at stadium:mk, but have ultimately come away with nothing to show for it other than a record of three home defeats in five.
Robinson was left to rue a ‘kamikaze’ final 10 minutes against Carlisle that saw the Cumbrians score twice to overturn a late Shaun Williams penalty, before a lacklustre opening 30 minutes against Brentford saw Dons 2-0 down and unable to turn it around despite dominating the second half in another 2-1 defeat.
And as is so often the case when it comes to Dons, players and fans alike were left to lament refereeing decisions and the general rub of the green as Lady Luck seems to smile down on whoever their opponents may be.
“I think I need to take her out on a few dates!” Robinson joked. “It’s been phenomenal lately. Everyone sees the players are playing really well but things just aren’t going for us. But Alex Rae said to me ‘you don’t want her on your side yet, you want her in four weeks time!’
“So if she wants to walk through our doors again when we’re in the play-offs, we will welcome her back!
“I had two of my players assaulted in recent weeks and they’ve stayed on their feet and the player has got away with it.
“Sometimes I think you’ve got to go down to get the referee’s attention and that shouldn’t be the way.
“The honesty of our players is phenomenal. I saw Dean Lewington get assaulted on Saturday, I saw Gleeson get a right-hook in the face and we’ve seen goals that shouldn’t have been goals.
“I’ve been disappointed with the level of officiating of late, all season in fact. I can’t keep defending the indefensible.
“I come out and tell you when I’m wrong. There have been some ridiculous decisions go against us, but it’s us against the world again. That’s our mentality now and we feel more together as a result.
“I’ve spoken at length to Dave Allison (manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Board) and he can’t believe that referees have missed certain incidents.
“There are a few things that I remember from games that have probably cost us about 15 points. We’ve also cost ourselves 15 points in other games, so it’s not just about them.”
Those extra points Robinson speaks of would put Dons just three points from the top of the table, ahead of Sheffield United in second.
But for now, he is keen to make sure that his side are cemented among the top six as soon as possible, with Carlisle now within three points of Dons with a game in hand.
“We have to make sure that we’re in the play-offs first before we tell players to relax and rest,” he said. “Then we will look at where everyone is physically and we will make the best decision for the team.”
And while it looks likely to be Sheffield United, their steel city rivals Wednesday or Huddersfield Town that stand in the way of Dons and the Championship next season, Robinson isn’t concerned about who his side face.
In fact, he believes that being knocked out of the automatic promotion hunt sooner could act in their favour, with the disappointment factor being larger for those who get their hearts broken nearer crunch time.
“We will be one hugely feared team,” Robinson said. “We’ve had the dent of not being able to finish second. That has rocked us a bit in the last few weeks. But we will get over that.
“And when one of the Sheffield clubs get knocked with one or two games to go, it will be a bitter pill to swallow.
“There isn’t a team we fear, but we have to get there first. We want to be at Wembley in the middle of May and that’s our goal.
“I understand people are going to get anxious and nervous – that’s what the play-offs bring. I think we’re a stronger team mentally than we were last year because we’ve improved in key areas.
“I think if we had Angelo (Balanta), Sam (Baldock) and Smithy (Adam Smith) we’d be a lot, lot stronger, but we haven’t. The players we have got are ready for every challenge this season has got to throw at us yet.”
And the next hurdle for Dons to take on is an Easter weekend double-header. After Saturday’s game with Preston, Dons face Tranmere Rovers at home on Monday.
Rovers play the first of their two games on Good Friday, giving them 24 hours extra to recuperate ahead of the clash at stadium:mk, but Robinson isn’t concerned about that.
He is more concerned about ruining Preston’s day as the Lilywhites prepare to celebrate Sir Tom Finney’s 90th birthday with a party ahead of Saturday’s game.