Through the turnstiles 2015-16: Rotherham United v MK Dons

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Football fans are pretty good at wallowing in cloth-cap nostalgia about old grounds, former players and ghosts of cup-ties past. Sometimes this can be interpreted as a reluctance to move with the times, discomfort with progress and any attempt to disrupt the status quo. I’m not sure that Rotherham United’s fans look across town at the crumbling skeleton that is their old stadium, Millmoor with misty-eyed nostalgia. Millmoor was one of the least attractive grounds to visit, sandwiched as it was between scrapyards and rusting industrial units.

Old protest, new ground

Millmoor was replaced by the New York Stadium, something of a curious moniker for a football ground in a gritty Yorkshire town. Most recently, Rotherham has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons, a child sex abuse scandal that shocked the nation, but the football team is doing its level best to give the town some positive coverage.

Rotherham looks like a place that’s barely shaken off the effects of recession and like most towns in Britain, there’s the struggle to determine the future purpose of retail in the town centre. Gambling outlets, pawn brokers and tattoo parlours, overlooked by the biggest Tesco you’ll ever see, tell you that life isn’t very easy for a lot of folk.

One nice touch was the presence of Rotherham’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a delightfully old-fashioned “petition signing” protest about the atomic bomb. “Nagasaki and Hiroshima…never again”. As a one-time member of CND, I was pleased to sign, but couldn’t help feel that life had moved on since the days of the Aldermaston marches. But it was good to see the spirit of demonstration is alive and well in Rotherham.

It’s the job of Rotherham United to provide some distraction to the local population. The New York Stadium stands-out like an extra-terrestial implant amid the post-industrial landscape. The ground was opened in 2012 and has a capacity of just over 12,000. Rotherham United’s attendances have climbed impressively since they moved in. In 2011-12, when they played at the Don Valley Stadium ( they moved out of Millmoor in 2008), gates were under 3,500. The return to Rotherham saw the average attendance reach almost 8,000 and by 2014-15, their first season back in the second level of the English game, they averaged 10,240. It’s a comfortable location, good views from almost anywhere and colourful. Red, not rust, is the colour at the New York Stadium.

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Day of the Dons

Rotherham expected a near full house for the opening day of the 2015-16 season when MK Dons came to Yorkshire. A year ago, Rotherham were the Championship new boys, but Britain’s first franchise club (aside from Woolwich Arsenal, that is), the Dons, was making its bow at this level. The number of fans that made the journey north suggested that MK Dons had well and truly established themselves, despite the controversy of their move north and claims that Milton Keynes could never host the Football League.

It would be interesting to see the demographics of MK Dons’ fanbase. Once senses that a generation of new fans has grown up with the club, judging by the ages of their supporters who provided the soundtrack of the opening day. Now they’re in the Championship, MK Dons can claim they have certainly “arrived”.

I have known old Wimbledon and new AFC Wimbledon fans that spat on the ground with the sheer mention of “MK Dons”. There is deep hatred among the traditional Wimbledon fan for the manufactured club that took football in the London Borough of Merton to the equally manufactured city of Milton Keynes. Not many people gave them a chance of lasting too long, claiming that the MK population wouldn’t take to the club. But they have a bright new stadium, crowds have grown and last season, they won promotion. They also have that 4-0 victory against Manchester United to crow about. If you use the fans’ turnout at Rotherham as a benchmark, MK Dons don’t have much to worry about.

The teams

Steve Evans, the Rotherham manager, is no stranger to me. I recall his time as Stamford manager when I reported on a game between the Daniels and Stotfold. For 90 minutes, the younger Evans ran up and down the touchline, taunting his counterpart, current Boreham Wood manager and former Arsenal winger Ian Allinson. It was sheer entertainment and, at times, a little over-heated – especially when Allinson’s number two, Ian Donnelly, joined in. After the game the three of them sat sharing a bottle of beer, grinning from ear-to-ear. Evans’ career has been chequered ever since, but he’s certainly graduated from those days in the United Counties League.

Evans, or should we say “the gaffer” (according to the Rotherham programme), always strikes me as a cross between Tommy Docherty and Jimmy Cagney with just a hint of Mr Pickwick thrown in beneath the hard-working blazer and flannels outfit. He’s entertaining to watch on the touchline, all crimson-cheeked and pixelled animation. He had a busy summer, bringing in 12 new faces, of which three were loan players.

Evans fielded eight of his summer hires (all were free transfers or loans) against MK Dons. “Let’s hope they can bloody gel,” said one red and white-shirted fan. “To my mind, he’s made too many changes at once. They won’t even know each other yet.”

Evans himself was brimming confidence. His team had beaten Bundesliga outfit Mainz in pre-season and had been narrowly defeated by Leicester City after a summer tour to Scotland. “I have been delighted with our preparations in the build-up to the new season,” he told fans in the match programme. In the stands, and over the tannoy (where a self-indulgant DJ had been playing punk hits of his youth), there was talk of “perhaps mid-table and a stab at the play-offs.”

Rotherham lined up for their game with MK Dons as follows:

Kelle Roos (23) Dutch keeper on loan from Derby County, *
Greg Halford (30) Defender signed from Nottingham Forest. Much travelled. *
Tom Thorpe (22) Joined from Manchester United. *
Danny Collins (35) Former Nottingham Forest, West Ham, Stoke. Welsh international. *
Joe Newell (22) Signed from Peterborough. *
Chris Maguire (26) Scottish right-sided midfield player. Joined from Sheffield Wednesday. *
Richard Smallwood (24) Former Middlesbrough midfielder.
Grant Ward (20) Midfielder on loan from Tottenham. *
Aidan White (23) Irish under-21 international.*
Danny Ward (23) Bradford –born midfielder, previously with Huddersfield.
Matt Derbyshire (27) Striker. England under-21 international. Formerly with Forest.

MK Dons, however, were venturing into new territory. But in the summer, they added a slice of exotica to their squad in the form of two signings from Real Madrid Castilla – Peruvian Christian Benavente (there was a Peruvian flag perched high in the stand) and Sergio Aguza. Neither started against Rotherham. Also among the new boys at MK Dons was Matty Upson, a player who never seems to want to give up the game. Now 36, the former England international is in his 13th club.

MK Dons boss Karl Robinson is quite an attacked-minded manager and last season, the Dons netted 101 goals in 46 games. He sent out the following team against Rotherham:

David Martin (29) Goalkeeper who started out with Liverpool. Formerly with Derby.
Jordan Spence (25) Much travelled defender, previously with Sheffield Wednesday.
Kyle McFadzean (29) Scottish defender signed from Crawley in 2013.
Anthony Kay (33) Barnsley-born midfielder signed from Huddersfield.
Dean Lewington (31) Son of Ray and MK Dons’ longest serving player.
Darren Potter (30) Irish international midfielder signed from Sheffield Wednesday in 2011.
Samir Carruthers (22) Irish under-21 international left-sided midfielder. Has also played for Villa.
Rob Hall (21) Striker on loan from Bolton. England under-19 cap.
Ben Reeves (23) Northern Ireland international defender, previously with
Dean Bowditch (29) Striker formerly with Yeovil.
Sam Gallagher (19) On loan striker from Southampton. England under-19 international.

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90 minutes: Rotherham United 1 MK Dons 4

The opening day of the season is all about expectation. For Rotherham, after a year of making sure they didn’t drop back to League One at the first attempt, it was widely believed it was a year to move forward. MK Dons were in the same position that Rotherham found themselves in August 2015.

The New York Stadium was a cauldron of sound, largely due to the travelling fans, who were in fine voice. They had plenty to cheer about, as their team settled quickly and looked the better, more composed side.

They took the lead after just four minutes, Bowditch crossing, the Rotherham defence hesitating and at the second attempt, Hall shot home from close range. It signalled the start of an entertaining half in which the goal tally could have been sent soaring.

Rotherham equalised after 13 minutes, Matt Derbyshire, unmarked and almost standing on the six yard line, sending a perfect header into the net – despite the presence of the entire MK Dons defence – from Maguire’s corner.

An encouraging opening for the neutral, but some ominous signs for both teams’ defensive stability. Debutant keeper Roos looked a little uncertain and the Rotherham team, overall, confirmed the fears of that supporter who warned of possible “new-boy” syndrome.

But the lively Derbyshire could have given the Millers’ the lead when he found himself on goal with only MK Dons keeper to beat. He was blocked quite comfortably when he tried to round Martin and a chance was lost. Derbyshire also struck the crossbar with another effort and the rebound fell to Danny Ward who blasted wide.

MK Dons regained the upper hand in the 35th minute when Spence’s low and tame ball into the box took a deflection and deceived Roos. The goal was given as an own goal by Collins. Two minutes from the interval, MK Dons scored again, a cross by Reeves flicked into the net by Bowditch at the near post. That really killed-off the home team.

The second half, perhaps understandably, was more low-key. Rotherham barely posed any questions for MK Dons and it was no great surprise when the visitors sealed their perfect afternoon in the 75th minute when substitute Carl Baker, cut inside, shrugged off a challenge and sent a fierce shot past Roos. This was the signal for hundreds, indeed thousands, of red seats to be flicked-up in protest as the home fans filed out of the ground. The attendance was 9,869 (849 away fans), but by the final whistle, there were probably around 5,000 still in the ground. It made the journey back to Rotherham station that much easier!

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Just one of 46

There was no prizes who was the happiest manager. Karl Robinson said he was “humbled” by his team’s performance. MK Dons were tipped to finish 24th in the Championship! Robinson showed a touch of class when he gestured to the travelling fans to cease from taunting Steve Evans in the closing stages of the game as they sang, “Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning.” The larger-than-life Rotherham manager said he would take the defeat “bang in the face and get on with the football”. He had earlier commented in the programme that the opening day was “game one of 46”, no doubt he was reminding everyone about that in the dressing room.

MK Dons is why franchising should never take off in Britain

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It was far from jolly hockey sticks when Wimbledon moved to MK

MK Dons beat AFC Wimbledon 2-1 in the FA Cup second round, but it did little to extinguish the bad feelings between the two clubs. But it is time to put away that axe as the people who watch MK Dons are no longer the least bit interested in the heritage of AFC Wimbledon.

Milton Keynes was a town, sorry- City, waiting for football to emerge. With a population of close to 200,000 and a lot of them belonging to the socio-economic group that warmly embraces football, it was only a matter of time before someone got it right in Milton Keynes. It probably took them a long time to find their way round, for those unfamiliar with grid-like town lay-outs still find it hard to navigate MK!

The way it was all handled by the management of the old Wimbledon FC club was appalling and left many Plough Lane/Selhurst Park regulars heartbroken. The fact is, Wimbledon were a non-league club punching astonishingly above their weight. The Taylor Report put paid to Plough Lane and once the “Crazy Gang” bubble burst  on the field, they were destined to fall like a stone.

Milton Keynes had seen a number of aborted efforts to create a broadly accepted football club, but this was at non-league level and they all floundered. Wimbledon’s move to Bucks in 2003 was not the only attempt to establish football in the city – Charlton Athletic, as far back as 1973, and Luton Town, 10 years later, were all part of discussions to relocate.

AFC Wimbledon was formed in 2002, in response to the proposed Wimbledon move to MK. They climbed from the Combined Counties League to the Football league in nine seasons – a remarkable and often overlooked achievement.

Both clubs are now established and thriving. MK Dons are third in League One and have a realistic chance of promotion this season. AFC are struggling in their second season in the League but they are, at least,  back in civilisation.

It’s taken a while for MK Dons to be accepted, but they have a good ground and public support. But the bitterness runs deep and that was evident in the FA Cup game.

It also demonstrates that franchising a football club is a dangerous occupation. Football is a business but it relies on the intimate and emotional patronage of its audience. The culture, history and identity of a club is more important in football than virtually any other business.  This is not always appreciated by the plethora of foreign investors in the game or by get-rich-quick property developers. The team represents the town or city it belongs to, and that’s exactly where its audience has been built up. To discard that, like Wimbledon’s management  did, is foolhardy, cruel and a kick in the teeth for the people that helped build the club.

Franchising is a very dirty word in British football, but Wimbledon’s move some 45 miles from its spiritual home was not the first. Albeit on a shorter scale, does anyone realize that Arsenal were amongst the first to take such a bold move. They were, essentially, a south London club until 1913 – Woolwich Arsenal. That shift seemed to work out well, but today it would be met with pure and utter outrage.  Supporters – often somewhat irrationally – get bent out of shape over a stadium relocation in the same town but on the outskirts, so the sort of move made by the Dons was bound to upset the fans.

Franchising is something more akin to American sport, but it also exists in Europe, notably in Austria. It cannot be allowed to be a success in English football.  But it’s time for AFC Wimbledon fans to move on, though. They’ve vented their spleen and had their say. Be happy you’ve made a comeback and enjoy your status as a real, organically built, club….something that MK Dons will take years to credibly achieve. Try dropping the “Dons” up there in the land of featureless landscapes, that would be a start….