IT’S not every year that your team is on the brink of winning promotion to the Championship. But it is three years out of the last four if your club happens to be Milton Keynes Dons, writes Simon Downes.
The club as we know it today is still less than a decade old, but it’s certainly no stranger to big occasions, and the pressure to achieve success.
And that’s exactly where they are once again, with the League 1 play-off semi final against a Huddersfield Town side founded just over a century ago now on the horizon.
The difference in history between the two clubs couldn’t be much greater, yet just a single point separates them in the final league table – after they drew 1-1 in both meetings during the season.
However, one line of questioning that was prevalent during Dons’ pre-match media day that probably wasn’t during Huddersfield’s was the need for the club to try and galvanise the support of their respective town or city.
If Dons played their home matches in a 10 or 15,000-seater stadium then the club’s support would be incredible. But the simple fact is that stadium:mk was built for much bigger spectacles than a League 1 play-off semi final. The trouble is, you need to win those games to earn the right to host such occasions.
Everyone connected with Dons, be it the players, staff, programme sellers or ladies behind reception, are desperate for promotion to the second tier of the English game. They are also desperate to see stadium:mk full for the biggest game in the club’s eight-year history.
The subject of semi-final defeats of recent seasons was also fairly high on the agendas of the media pack – which predictably included various national or regional broadcasters who only turn up before the big games – but the question most asked to manager Karl Robinson and his production line of players sent out to help promote the play-offs was “how much of a blow was Saturday’s defeat to Walsall”.
The answer from most was ‘massive’, even if some weren’t quite prepared to say so on the record. The truth is that surrendering their home advantage for the second leg was something nobody expected to happen.
Robinson himself has admitted that some of his players didn’t put as much effort into the game as they could have because of a fear of being injured and missing out on the crucial games they now face with a little more trepidation than they otherwise would have.
But what disappointed Robinson and company more than the defeat to lowly Walsall was that so few fans bothered to stay behind and show their appreciation to Dons’ players for their achievements this term.
Those supporters may point to a breakdown in communication in being informed the team would be returning to the pitch after the game, but what is for sure is that the day was as close to a disaster as it could have been – when it should have been so much different.
Chairman Pete Winkelman (right) described Dons’ fanbase as “fragile” following that defeat to Walsall, while his manager was a lot more critical.
“It was the lowest I’ve felt,” Robinson said. “It really hurt me, really hurt me. I just think we deserved a little bit more than that. That’s just my own personal opinion.
“I’m not going to shy away from it. To get booed off and have 400-500 people out for our lap of honour is difficult.
“But then we had a fantastic day on Sunday as a group of lads, and I don’t care about Walsall now.
“We’ve got the smallest squad in the league – that is where we’re at. People forget that. We’ve created a monster to an extent.
“But now we’re so excited to achieve something together, and we can’t wait for the ball to be kicked now.”
The atmosphere around the club is now difficult to judge, but Robinson is insisting that nothing has changed, and that his side are as hungry as they ever have been to achieve the ultimate goal of promotion to the Championship.
He would like to take a lead to West Yorkshire after victory in front of a full house, but if it doesn’t quite work out like that, then they must make the best of the situation they find themselves in and go again on Tuesday night in front of a vociferous Huddersfield crowd.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “We’re the fifth best team in the league playing the fourth best. With that gap being so small anything can happen.
“We’ll look at the tie as four quarters, and we need to win three of them to get through. That’s probably the best way of looking at it.
“Our whole season will be defined by two games. Wembley should take care of itself, that’s generally how it works with Wembley. But these are two key games, and fate, luck, hunger, desire, and class, and a good bit of defending, will see us over the line.
“We’re ready now. We’re there. It has been a long old season and I don’t want it to end yet. The players don’t want it to end. So don’t blow the whistle on us just yet because we want to play more games.”
Robinson said all the right things on the subject of their chances of reaching the play-off final, but for once – in light of the Walsall game – he stopped short of toeing the party line when it came to calling on support from the fans. On this occasion he had a point to make.
“There will be a good game down here on Saturday. If you want to come, you come,” said the Dons boss. “It’s up to them, whatever they want to do.
“We’re going to win the tie. MK Dons are going to be going to Wembley and that’s the most important thing. We’ve got a great belief in each other and a togetherness that’s really strong.
“It was difficult on Saturday. But let’s turn it round and get behind each other, and get each other over the line. People may disagree with me, but I don’t think any player can be questioned. I don’t think Saturday was any good – people did not put effort into the game – but we’ve got such a small squad that we couldn’t have any other injuries.
“But look, it’s going to a good game. I know that Huddersfield will bring over 4,000 supporters so we want to make sure we out-sing them and compete.
“I know some fans will and I’ve had some good messages of support which I want to thank those people for. The club means a lot to people here.”
The boss is adamant that there will be no ‘negative nerves’ from his side on Saturday, but one man who is likely to go through a rollercoaster of emotions is chairman Winkelman, who is just as desperate to see stadium:mk filled to capacity as he is to see Dons progress to the play-off final.
He likes the club and Milton Keynes to put on a show, and is hoping things go a lot better ‘on the night’ than they did in the rehearsal against Walsall on Saturday.
He said: “I really don’t mind the home and away thing – I don’t think that was what it was all about. I think we were all rather disappointed that it didn’t come together.
“When you look back it was a game that was in the way. We were all excited about John Gorman’s do and there was a lot of focus on that, and not enough on actually playing Walsall – who as we know from a couple of seasons ago can always come and give us a nice little kick-in at the end of the season.
“So it did change the home and away legs, and we will soon see if that’s good or bad. But Real Madrid and Barcelona both lost with home second legs in the Champions League a few weeks ago, so it’s about who turns up on the day and plays their football. If we go and play our football then we will win.”
Like most at the club, Winkelman was hugely disappointed that last season’s play-off semi final first leg at home to local rivals Peterborough didn’t attract more fans through the turnstiles. The general feeling amongst those behind the scenes at stadium:mk was that the club failed to successfully galvanise the population into really getting behind them when Dons needed it most.
Most also point to this season’s FA Cup third round tie at home to Queens Park Rangers as a clear yet frustrating indicator that the club can attract a massive audience for big games.
More than 19,000 turned out for that memorable 1-1 draw – 14,000 of them inspiring Dons to force a replay against their Premier League opponents which earned the club countless plaudits in the national media.
With that in mind, Saturday’s sense of apathy from the fans was quite hard to take for Robinson, while Winkelman was far more diplomatic.
“I think it shows what a long way we have got to go as a football club to be honest. In Milton Keynes – and I know I’m the same – we’re all so keen to see success, and we’re all so disappointed when it doesn’t come,” he said.
“We haven’t watched enough football over the years to see all of the ups and downs. We still have an expectation on our team, and an ambition to be in that Championship. We keep getting close, and when we look like we’re not going to go all the way that upsets our fragile new support base.
“We want to give them that success, because that is how you make history, and that is what makes the play-offs so important this time.
“This is going to be third time lucky for us in League 1 and if you look at the experience of the team compared to last year – it’s of a different order and I think that can make the difference. I certainly think it helped Peterborough last year.”
Some Dons fans also felt let down by the reaction of some to Saturday’s 1-0 defeat. And as a way of making a stand to show their support for Robinson and the team, a couple of loyal supporters have been orchestrating their own mini campaign to get the stadium:mk crowd right behind them from the off.
Season ticket holders Paul Franklin and Jane Samm are urging every Dons fan to rise and show their full backing for the team with chants of ‘MK Army’ before kick-off against the Terriers. To do that they have been flooding social networking sites, and contacted their favourite city newspaper in order to spread their positive message.
“We’re not always the loudest fans, but we want the team to know we’re all right behind them,” said Jane. “Going up to the Championship would be fantastic and we want to help gather support for the team. Saturday obviously didn’t go well but we know that was a one-off.”
LET’S REALLY MAKE IT A HOME ADVANTAGE
After the negatives that came out of Saturday’s defeat, Winkelman is urging fans to turn out in their numbers – and prove the city really does deserve a Championship club.
No matter what happens over the next few days, he thinks this season is already a success, but is also desperate for Dons to get back to the level the club played at when it first arrived in Milton Keynes.
“The pressure is different to last year because there is a sense of achievement this time,” he said. “We set out to do it, and we’ve got to the play-offs. Now can we actually go and do something in those play-offs?
“You spend the whole season trying to get to the play-offs and people forget what a great achievement that is. There are 46 qualifying games to get there.
“We thought we could do it again, but tried to do it with a little more experience this time – well we’ve got more clean sheets, scored more goals, got more points, so we’re very pleased we have achieved it.
He added: “We’ve got a great respect for Huddersfield. They’re a really well run football club. We have done the play-offs three years in the last four and they have done it three times in the last three years.
“If we beat them, when we beat them, there will be a tinge of sadness with that as well. Huddersfield, like us, are a club with everything in place to be in the Championship.
“This time we think we’ve really got a chance, and we’re going into it with our eyes open. Part of the reason behind that dismal performance against Walsall was because the Huddersfield game matters just so much to everybody.”
And now the chairman is calling on the fans who turned out for the FA Cup game against QPR and other big occasions over the last eight years to come and support the club again.
He knows the importance of the role that both sets of fans can make over the two semi final legs, and when he speaks about the club that he’s raised from the ground, Winkelman always speaks from the heart, and with exactly the sort of passion that he loves to see from the stands too.
“I think that everybody knows just how much we put Milton Keynes at the centre of what we do,” he said.
“We’re building a magnificent stadium which we’re finishing over the next 12 months.
“So to those people who don’t come here regularly, come back and have a look to see what’s going on at this site. This is one of the most exciting parts of Milton Keynes. It’s representing Milton Keynes on the national stage. I ask them to come and get behind us – because you know what, we play some really nice football.
“We’re going to rely a lot on our fans. Our supporters need to be our 12th man in these games, both home and away.
“We’ve made some great noise on the road in different games this year, and I’ll be calling for them to make that trip to Huddersfield on Tuesday night.
“But it starts here – let’s take a home advantage, make it a home advantage, and that means all of our supporters need to do their bit, and I’m sure they will.
“Let’s make it the event it needs to be. We’ve had a whole year of football to get to this point, let’s at least enjoy the moment and make the most of it.”