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.

Calling in on….Dagenham & Redbridge – it’s Essex ‘init?

Dagenham (450x253)It’s nothing short of a miracle that the Daggers are in their seventh Football League season. When they won promotion in 2007, the immediate reaction from football fans was, “London doesn’t need another Football League club”. Indeed, with West Ham and Leyton Orient not too far away, the popular suggestion was that Dagenham wouldn’t draw anything near enough people to remain at that level.

It’s tough, true, but the Daggers have not only survived – and they almost certainly can look forward to an eighth season –  but they enjoyed one promotion in the process. Much of their success was down to a manager who was very much dyed-in-the-wool non-league: John Still. He’s not at Luton Town in the Conference and may repeat the trick of taking a club into the League.

Dagenham and me go back a long way. I saw them play at Wembley in the FA Amateur Cup final in 1970 when they were pushed easily aside by Enfield. A year later they met Skelmersdale United in the final and also lost emphatically.  I recall that Dagenham’s programme was called The Dagger and the style was identical to West Ham’s pocket-sized “Hammer”, little wonder given the editor of both was Jack Helier.

But the overriding memory of trips to Victoria Road is one visit for a non-league game. As is customary with that genre, a post-match drink was being enjoyed after a FA Cup tie. I was asked if I wanted ice in my drink and after requesting a cube or two with my G&T, the barmaid thrust her hand in the ice bucket and bowled them into the drink! The gin had a distinct note of cheap French perfume about it.

The air around the entrance to the club now is very much fried matchday food. But Victoria Road is a different ground from its Isthmian and Conference days. There’s the curiously named “Traditional Builders Stand”, which contrary to its signage, is not the exclusive territory of flat-capped brickies in overalls. It’s a large stand at an end that used to be open and exposed to the elements.

The club, of course, is a strange amalgamation of London non-league football. Its family tree is more complex than the European Championships that Michel Platini is trying to concoct in 2016 and 2020: Leytonstone merged with Ilford, absorbed Walthamstow, changed its name to Redbridge Forest, married Dagenham. There’s scarcely been a more complicated arrangement. If the creation of an East London Super Club was the aim, it was somewhat successful, although West Ham fans may not agree.

But isn’t Dagenham really Essex? It was when I was young, although anything west of Upminster has always been in “the London Borough of…”. If the term had been around before Dagenham really did become part of London, rather than the home counties, opposition supporters would have called them “Plastic Cockneys”, rather like they do now with Stevenage. What is a Dagenham accent, though? Is it the clipped vowels and public school tone that belonged to Sir Alf Ramsey (yes, he was born there…), or the estuarine diction of Terry Venables, who started life in the “suburb of East London”? More the latter, I would say, and speaking as someone who was advised by his manager at NatWest in the mid-1970s that I would benefit from elocution lessons, I should know. Essex, East London, they all merge into one these days. For the purposes of this visit, it’s Dagenham & Redbridge versus Southend United in a League Two Essex derby.

Southend fans turned out in force, around 1,300 of them made the relatively short journey from the seaside to dockside (there is a station called Dagenham Dock that used to act as the alighting point for many Fords’ workers). Their team ran out in a kit that the Hull City Tigers’ owner would die for, although the shirts had clearly been taken over by over-sized number patches. No chance of mistaken identity here.

Dagenham’s audience, swelled by West Ham fans on a night off, perhaps, were reinforced by a drum, which struggled to get through the turnstiles and barely made a noise all evening. Whatever happened to the Dagenham Girl Pipers? Over in the corner of the ground, I noticed the inevitable mascot, who, from a distance, appeared to have KKK headgear on. Surely, it wasn’t supposed to be a “Dagger”?

As for the game, Southend dominated the early exchanges and adopted a wayward shoot on sight approach that should have yielded more than the odd “ooh” or “ahhh” from the Shrimpers’ fans behind the goal. For Dagenham, Rhys Murphy looked useful – as he had done in August when we saw them at Fleetwood – prompting discussions about how players like him had been pushed down the ranks by the huge influx of foreign players in Britain. Murphy was denied by Southend goalkeeper Dan Bentley and should have given his team the lead in the first half. Bentley also pulled off an excellent save from Zavon Hines just as the Dagenham fans were heading for their half-time pies.

Southend took the lead in the 52th minute with what can only be described as a “Barnes-Wallis goal”. Actually it was Kevan Hurst who scored, a bouncing bomb of a shot that deceived Daggers’ keeper Chris Lewington. The goal was created  by Ben Coker, a player who has stepped-up from non-league football where he helped Bury Town win the Southern League Midland Division in 2010.

Dagenham equalized 15 minutes later with a much better crafted goal, Luke Norris showing some determination in brushing aside a defender before picking the only available spot high into the top corner of Southend’s net. A good strike, earning him the Man of the Match award.

It could have gone either way after that, although Lewington pulled off a point preserving save very late in the game. Final score 1-1. Southend have a chance of a play-off place but Dagenham look destined for mid-table safety this season. The game had been more entertaining than anyone had dared hope. Another London Football League club? Nah…it’s Essex ‘init.