A far cry from concrete cows

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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.

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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.

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Within minutes of posting this, it was announced that Karl Robinson had left MK Dons.

Through the turnstiles: QPR v MK Dons

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WHEN YOU HAVE visited state-of-the-art stadiums that reek of the modern corporate ethos and a sterile atmosphere, it takes a trip to a ground like Loftus Road to remind you what football used to be about.

Queens Park Rangers’ home may look a little tired, and have a hemmed-in feel of a ground that cannot expand even if it wanted to, but it does have a vibe of its own. It felt very 60s or 70s and when they played the run-out tune from that era – the sort of tune James Last and his orchestra would have put out – and Hi-Ho Silver Lining at the end, there was a nostalgic feel to the day. I expected to see people like Terence Stamp and Michael Caine in the stand.

But then this was, indeed, a day to look back. QPR were paying tribute to their great team of 1975-76, arguably the best side never to have won the Football League. That team still rolls off the tongue easily when you recall those halcyon days when QPR fielded a team that was every bit as inventive and progressive as anything coming out of the Netherlands or Germany at the time: Phil Parkes, Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, John Hollins, Frank McClintock, David Webb, Dave Thomas, Gerry Francis, Don Givens, Stan Bowles and Don Masson. Sub: Mick Leach, Manager Dave Sexton.

We can be heroes – Bowles and co. certainly achieved that

John Hollins gives his view on the 75-76 team
John Hollins gives his view on the 75-76 team

Only four of that lot were at Loftus Road – Clement and Leach, along with Dave Sexton, have passed away. They brought those that could make it, along with players like Ron Abbott and Don Shanks, onto the pitch at half-time – with the suitable soundtrack of David Bowie’s “Heroes” – to earn the applause of the crowd and receive a token medal to mark their achievement.

The biggest cheer was reserved for Stan Bowles, who walked on, arms aloft, to milk the adulation. Bowles, 66, was recently diagnosed with Alzheimers, another setback for a man whose life after football hasn’t been a particularly happy or stable story. But he looked in good spirits as he returned to the place that saw his best work.

The return of the “legends of 1975-76” only served to remind QPR of their current status – edging mid-table in the Championship. Relegated in 2014-15 for the second time in three seasons, you get the feeling that the second tier is probably their natural habitat. They’ve finished 20th in their last two Premier campaigns and despite spending a considerable sum of money over the past few years, their team doesn’t have a Premier look and feel about it.

The line-up for QPR v MK Dons was:

QPR: Rob Green, Nedum Onuoha, Grant Hall, Clint Hill, Paul Konchesky, Karl Henry, Daniel Tozser, Matt Phillips, Massimo Luongo, Tjaronn Chery, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas
Subs: Leroy Fer, Michael Doughty, Alejandro Faurlin, Junior Hoilett, James Perch, Alex Smithies, Sebastian Polter.

MK Dons: David Martin, Jordan Spence, Kyle McFadzean, Antony Kay, Dean Lewington, Diego Poyet, Jake Forster-Caskey, Rob Hall, Ben Reeves, Josh Murphy, Simon Church
Subs: Lee Hodson, Carl Baker, Darren Potter, Samir Carruthers, Daniel Powell, Nicky Maynard, Charlie Burns

Since Air Asia owner Tony Fernandes became the majority shareholder in 2011, managers have come and gone at Loftus Road. Fernandes has been through Neil Warnock, Mark Hughes and Harry Redknapp and now has Chris Ramsey as “head coach”. There seems to be no small degree of frustration among QPR fans about Ramsey and after he substituted Massimo Luongo against MK Dons, there was jeering from the crowd. “Ramsey, you are clueless,” shouted one Rangers fan.

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The fans had endured a dismal first half in which QPR had dominated but didn’t have the teeth to take advantage. Paul Konchesky should have scored in the 34th minute when he flicked the ball goalwards, but saw his effort cleared for a corner.

With the arrival of the class of 1976, perhaps some inspiration could be found. John Hollins, the “captain sensible” of 1970s football, was interviewed on the pitch and urged on the 2015 version of “the hoops” – “Come on, QPR, let’s have some goals”.

Hollins’ words seemed to work, for QPR looked a better side in the second period. MK Dons almost went ahead on the hour when Simon Church was denied by Rob Green in the home goal. But then in the 70th minute, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas scored the sort of goal that Bowles would have appreciated, nicely controlling the ball, slipping past a defender and finishing from close range. It was a goal out of keeping with the quality of the match.

Ramsey went from zero to hero in the last 20 minutes

But it acted as inspiration for QPR. In the 78th minute, Matt Phillips beat Josh Murphy and then curled a low shot wide of MK Dons goalkeeper David Martin for the second goal. And then two minutes from time, substitute Junior Hoilett grabbed a third to give the scoreline an emphatic look. Final score 3-0, attendance 15,567, very consistent with home crowds this season.

The locals were in good spirits after hearing of Chelsea’s collapse at West Ham, and couldn’t help but taunt the MK Dons fans about their club’s origins. “Franchise, franchise what’s the score….Wimble-don, Wimble-don…you’ve got no history, you’ve got no history,” and so on, and so forth.

It was my first visit to Loftus Road for more than 25 years and, unlike many grounds I have visited after a long absence, it was very familiar. The Springbok pub, apparently a haunt of Bowles in his playing days, was still there, along South Africa Road, and the school end still had its school, albeit far more security-protected than in the past.

Will QPR stay at Loftus Road? If they want to compete at Premier level, they will surely need a bigger, more functional home ground. One that allows them to breath. More than a year ago, plans were revealed for a 40,000 stadium at Old Oak Common, two miles from Loftus Road. But like many development schemes in London, there are hurdles to overcome. The club has said it may take a decade for a new ground to be built – that’s an awful long time. Who knows who will be running London’s football clubs by then? Who knows who will be running QPR?

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