Winkelman has to back his man or cut his losses quickly
A month ago, chairman Pete Winkelman claimed the jury was out on manager Robbie Neilson, but tension is rising not just in the boardroom, but in the stands too.
“It has been going wrong for two-and-a-half years,” said Winkelman in a lengthy interview, and he’s right. Since winning promotion in 2015, the club has been in a downward spiral - a poorly planned Championship campaign, an almost arrogant return to League 1, and now a newly dubbed transitional year, Dons are a long way off the safe and secure club they were - even if it was a club destined for the midtable.
Sitting three points above the League 1 drop zone and with just one win in 13 league outings, the situation looks equally as bleak now as it did when Karl Robinson was shown the door last October.
Winkelman isn’t a ‘sacking’ chairman. Neilson’s mission was to keep Dons up, primarily, last season. He had to stop the rot, but it’s only when you’re inside can you see just how deep the rot lays. Then, it was to build a new team capable of getting out of the third tier.
But like everything at MK Dons, that ambition is wanted over night. Turning around a flailing football club in freefall isn’t an overnight job. It’s not even a year-long project - it takes time. Time, though, is of the essence.
For the first time, in the press conference after losing 1-0 to Plymouth on Boxing Day, Neilson admitted this season was likely to be a transitional year - a year where he would have to instigate change. Before, the noises were all about promotion, but those noises have stopped in their tracks after picking up nine points from a possible 39.
These changes Neilson has to make were never going to be quick fixes. He has to rebuild an entire squad. Perhaps he tried too much too soon, but there’s little doubt the players he released are no better than the ones he brought in to replace them. It’s nearly his team - nearly, but not quite. He is still a few key pieces short of what he really needs, but it is painfully evident when the team takes to the pitch.
On the brink of another transfer window now, Neilson will again come under the spot light - can he make this one count, bring in the right personnel and save the season again?
Neilson isn’t like Robinson before him, the man who will stick around and wax lyrical with the fans after games. The Scot is a ‘get in, get out’ manager, whose job isn’t public relations or fan engagement. And certainly for some, this is as big an issue as the on-the-field problems he is facing - which, incidentally, are exactly the same as the ones Robinson faced.
The ‘Neilson out’ voices are certainly getting louder, and with the January window set to reopen in a matter of days, the chairman has a big decision to make.
If he decides to oust the Scot, there cannot be the nearly two-month deliberation period to pick his successor. It has to be swift, it has to be neigh-on immediate, in fact to give the potential new appointment the best chance of making some sort of change in January.
But if Winkelman’s jury is still out, he has to call them back sooner rather than later, and make a decision whether to listen to the fans who want the manager out, or give benefit of the doubt to the man he paid top dollar for a year ago, giving the manager his backing, publicly, to end the speculation.