Going from top four in the Ladbrokes Premiership to near the bottom of League One in England may seem strange, but there’s more to MK Dons than meets the eye, as Andy Harrow explains
It’s easy to dismiss Milton Keynes Dons. Created at the expense of Wimbledon FC, their existence is a contentious one and their short history has been marked by opprobrium from all comers to Stadium MK. They are based in a new town, one with an abundance of roundabouts and a minimum of character. They play in the lower reaches of the English third tier and appear to be in free-fall.
So why would Robbie Neilson, one of the brightest managerial prospects in Scotland, be considering a move to Buckinghamshire’s most reviled outpost?
MK Dons’ gleaming stadium might provide an early hint. With 30,000 seats, it’s a terrific modern structure, seemingly modelled on Arsenal’s Emirates – the pitch is large, the seats are comfy and the facilities are good enough to have attracted teams for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The foresight in building such a stadium is a sign of the club’s aspirational nature.
While the stadium is usually less than full, there is scope for growth. Games against the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea have sold out in previous years and attendances in the Championship were respectable. It’s a club also aware of its place in the local community and understands how the huge population growth in the area can work to its advantage. The club’s Sports and Education Trust ensure engagement with local schoolchildren and, on a matchday, you are likely to see a higher proportion of children than at many other teams. In a town without a strong cultural identity, the club is an important aspect of Milton Keynes’ development and sense of self. Neilson, should he take the job, would be a figurehead for not only the club, but the wider community.
On the pitch, the Dons have come close in recent times to matching the aspirations of the Chairman, Pete Winkelman. Until 2015, MK Dons had been no higher than League One but, following a number of unsuccessful promotion bids, they finally reached the Championship for the 2015/16 season. A combination of factors – a lack of player investment; an under appreciation of the standard of the league, perhaps – meant that Dons’ Championship adventure lasted only 12 months. They were relegated and the rot set in; they now sit 19th in a 24-team league having sacked manager Karl Robinson and the threat of consecutive demotions looms large.
It doesn’t sound a particularly promising situation for Robbie Neilson to throw himself into but it’s not as bleak as it would appear. For one, the squad is better than the league position would suggest. Those within MK considered a play-off push to be achievable and a number of players from the promotion-winning squad still remain. Their defence needs shored up – they have kept one clean sheet since early October – but there’s talent to work with. For Neilson, a manager clearly confident in his abilities, this is not as big a challenge in the short-term as it first seems. Stabilisation this term is eminently achievable and a promotion charge next season is realistic.
Under Robinson, the club had become stale. Robinson was only 29 when Winkelman hired him in 2010, but he was to prove an excellent appointment. He guided his side to consistently high finishes in League One, often only failing in their promotion bid at the play-off stage, until his success at the end of 2014/15. He emphasised passing, possession-based football and valued young talent. To many opposition supporters, he was the smiling, likeable face of an unlikeable club and he seemed entirely comfortable with the joint role as both club manager and ambassador. Arguably though, the Championship campaign should have been his last. The relegation had damaged confidence and it seemed that the players needed a change. Whatever Robinson tried this season, it did not work. In Robbie Neilson, Winkelman clearly sees a driven, young manager in a similar mould to the Liverpudlian, capable of injecting fresh ideas and setting the club back on an upward trajectory.
Neilson would be encouraged by the length of time Robinson was afforded by Winkelman in what is a cut-throat environment. Championship and League One managers down south are often lucky to reach the first anniversary at their clubs, but Robinson lasted over six years. It took four seasons to achieve the promotion Winkelman craved, but he trusted his manager and he was ultimately rewarded. Indeed, if anything, the Chairman had too much faith in Robinson towards the end, but it’s that loyalty – and job security - which will appeal to Neilson.
At Hearts, Neilson has also been unafraid to put his faith in young players and that is an approach that would serve him well at Dons. A number of the Dons’ current first team squad came through the youth ranks, while the likes of Dele Alli and Everton’s Brendan Galloway also developed at Stadium MK before moves to the Premier League. In August this year, Robinson selected a team for the EFL cup composed of 13 academy graduates. If Neilson enjoys developing young players, there are few clubs in English football who could not only match his enthusiasm, but his trust in them.
There’s scope for development in Milton Keynes for Neilson too. At Hearts, Neilson is perhaps close to his glass ceiling. Tynecastle is regularly full these days and he guided them through the Championship and into third place in the Premiership last season. Celtic are so far ahead that Hearts are realistically fighting for second. After that, what’s left for Neilson in Edinburgh? A cup win, of course, would be a notable achievement, but it’s understandable that Neilson would see fresher challenges and a chance to spread his wings.
MK Dons have shown their capability for reaching the second tier of English football and the infrastructure is such that the club could handle Premier League football easily. In the meantime, cup runs would give Neilson the opportunity to test himself against the very best England has to offer. Robinson, let’s remember, outfoxed Louis Van Gaal during his tenure.
Even if Neilson wasn’t to reach the Premier League with MK Dons – and it’s a huge ask – a good 12 to 18 months with the club would open the door to bigger English clubs in a way consistent results with Hearts is unlikely to. History has proven elite English clubs to be largely deaf and blind to the performances of managers in Scotland, but they pay far greater attention to bright young managers in their own football pyramid. For an ambitious man such as Neilson, the path of least resistance to the English Premier League must be appealing.
Hearts would argue, with some justification, that Neilson’s best option would be to remain at Tynecastle and some will simply not understand the reasons that he’d be keen to speak to the club from the new town, but dig beneath the headlines and the reasons become clearer. A tough decision awaits.
• Andy Harrow is a panelist and writer for The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast.