IF there’s a better football ground in League One than the MK Stadium, then I haven’t seen it. Some say it lacks atmosphere, but that’s nothing to do with the design, for it’s as good as any modern stadium and certainly comfortable. Padded seats, decent access, facilities nearby and a reasonable pricing policy – MK Dons have a good home. And contrary to some reports, and the belief that you need a car if you live in MK, it is not difficult to find – number one or six bus from the MK Central (£2.30 return if you have a match ticket in your pocket).
But it is true that there’s not a lot in the way of ambience about the place, but that’s partly because the stadium holds 30,000 people and they only fill a third of it. Furthermore, no matter what you think about MK Dons, it is a new club in a town that was conjured up less than 50 years ago. People moved to Milton Keynes from all over, many with roots in towns and cities spread across the country. MK Dons was founded in 2004 – they are just 12 years old. It takes time to build passion, attachment and loyalty. The fact the club has played in the Championship is no mean feat.
Football in Milton Keynes has had a chequered past. Like all big towns and cities, the city has always been home to many football fans. Where’s there’s working class folk, there’s a football audience, but given the demographics of Milton Keynes in its early years, the town probably comprised a mixed bag of supporters, ranging from Liverpool, Manchester City, the Birmingham clubs and those with London roots. Luring those fans, and the plethora of young families away from the big clubs and in the direction of non-league clubs with no heritage or longevity, was always going to be a hard task for enthusiasts keen to bring football to a new community.
As a result, Milton Keynes football genetics are more confusing than one of Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees. There’s Bletchley Town, which morphed into Milton Keynes City, who were dissolved, reformed and sent into oblivion. There’s Milton Keynes Borough, which was born out of Belsize FC and then folded to form Milton Keynes FC. Wolverton came into the equation somewhere along the line, until 2004 when Wimbledon, controversially, moved to Middle England.
Milton Keynes has a population of around 230,000 so there’s potential to support a dedicated club for the town. Why did non-league football fail to take root? One reason could be that it just wasn’t “sexy” enough for the population, that clubs formed out of sports outfits with ramshackle facilities, providing a stark contrast with the shiny newness and functionality of a new town built on a grid of small communities – with the odd concrete cow in the fields around the new metropolis – was never going to work. Milton Keynes sold itself on its “newness”, a different kind of place – “you’ve never seen anything like it” was one of the catch phrases used at the time. Until the MK Stadium was built, they didn’t have a football ground to match the project.
You either like Milton Keynes or you hate it, there doesn’t seem to be any half measures, but you cannot deny that the town has a wealth of facilities. Until 2004, it didn’t have a football club of any substance, but it also came with no small degree of controversy. We won’t go into details on the Wimbledon fiasco, but the pain suffered by the London club’s relocation is legitimate and thankfully, Wimbledon’s resurgence has given them back their club. MK Dons are despised not just by old Wimbledon fans, but also by some supporters who find their existence unpalatable. It is possibly time to bury that hatchet, largely because MK Dons undoubtedly have a new audience with no link to the old Wimbledon days. Milton Keynes has its football club, they’ve handed back the history to Wimbledon and to complete the story, MK Dons really needs to send the Dons tag back to South London.
Was it all a mistake? It was certainly an insensitive decision. From a commercial viewpoint, Wimbledon’s owners possibly felt that the customer (rather than fan) base wasn’t big enough to worry about in terms of flack. But where football is different is that the rest of the constituency, i.e. the great British public, were also upset about the franchisement of English football. If you look back in history, Arsenal were the first club to do that, but the distances involved meant it was achievable. There were few, if any, Woolwich-based fans roaming around the south bank of the Thames complaining about the loss of their club.
Wimbledon fans will always look upon MK Dons as the enemy and now they’re in the same division, it’s that much easier to express their hatred. English football has a new “derby”, even if one team is in London and the other in the Midlands.
For now, Wimbledon are above MK Dons in League One. Game of the People visited the MK Stadium for the Dons game with Southend United. Both teams were languishing in the foothills of the division – MK Dons in 16th and Southend United in 19th. Both had won four, drawn four and lost six of their 14 league games.
It was family day at the stadium, so there seemed to be a lot of youngsters sitting around blowing bubbles from those little devices that seem to have been around for decades. There was hardly any noise coming from the crowd, apart from the Southend fans perched in the top tier.
The announcer tried to introduce a gladiatorial edge to proceedings, but he wasn’t getting any buy-in from the punters, despite the loud music and warnings that, “the players are in the tunnel”. Still fairly quiet, although there was a crowd of 11,039 in the stadium.
Southend silenced the home fans ever further when they scored after one minute and 21 seconds, a corner flying to the far post and Simon Cox turning and shooting home from very close range.
MK Dons almost levelled but Southend keeper Mark Oxley pulled off a spectacular double save from first a header then a follow-up shot. In the 24th minute, though, the visitors netted again, Anthony Wordsworth, on the blind side, turning and scoring with a low shot into the bottom right-hand corner. MK Dons’ misery was completed in added time when Wordsworth curled a free kick past David Martin to make the final score MK Dons 0 Southend United 3.
You can’t help but be impressed by the facilities, but on the evidence of this 90 minute run-out, MK Dons may have a hard time this season. Manager Karl Robinson has his work cut out to keep his job. His opposite number, Phil Brown, who has tasted life at the very highest level, had a much better afternoon.
Within minutes of posting this, it was announced that Karl Robinson had left MK Dons.