In the summer of 2010, the Guv’nor resigned from MK Dons. Paul Ince, fresh from a disastrous attempt at Premier League management with Blackburn, failed to achieve the same level of success he had managed during his first spell at Stadium MK. His replacement couldn’t have been any more different, in both personality and previous footballing experience.
The Dons board opted to appoint the League’s youngest manager in 29-year-old Karl Robinson. This caused widespread confusion, indeed some people thought the announcement was a typo and in fact Carl Robinson, the former Welsh midfielder had landed the job. But no. Carl with a C was still anchoring midfields in America for the New York Red Bulls, while Karl with a K, Paul Ince’s assistant, was promoted to the head role. The decision was certainly surprising, Robinson had no league experience as a player, while he briefly coached at Liverpool’s academy and Blackburn’s reserves before moving down to Milton Keynes. Being the youngest man ever to receive a UEFA Pro Licence, many expected Robinson to just be a flash in the pan. A cheap experiment. How wrong they’ve been.
The Dons chairman Pete Winkelman told BBC Sport: “Karl is a young man with enormous ambition who has the talent to build on the momentum our club is building.” Approaching two years in charge, Winkelman will consider his appointment well justified. The club are preparing for a playoff semi-final clash with Huddersfield Town that will determine how successfully they can judge their season. The club finished in fifth position, comfortably qualifying for the playoffs, even if they never threatened Charlton or Sheffield Wednesday for the automatic promotion spots. An unbeaten run of five games saw Robinson named manager of the month for April and although they lost to Walsall on the final day of the season, they will fancy their chances of turning over a Huddersfield side who have been rather inconsistent of late.
MK Dons’ appearance in the playoffs shouldn’t come as any surprise. Indeed, Robinson also led his squad to a fifth placed finish last season, a remarkable achievement for the youngest manager in the League. They competed against some far bigger names in the division, most notably Southampton, and still claimed a chance at Championship promotion. They faced a Peterborough side, who under Darren Ferguson, had the knowhow on how to get out of the division. Despite winning the first leg 3-2, the Dons went down 2-0, thus missing out on the showpiece final that Peterborough went on to win. With top scorer Sam Baldock departing for West Ham in the summer, no one really expected Robinson and MK Dons to repeat the feat again, especially considering the division’s competition. Charlton under Chris Powell looked well equipped, while the two Sheffield rivals were hell bent on securing a return to the Championship, a battle that went down to the final day of the season. The likes of Preston and Scunthorpe were expected to go well, while Huddersfield had Jordan Rhodes and his goals to count on.
However, the Dons have been incredibly consistent all year. They went unbeaten for the first six games of the season, topping the division and although they didn’t quite sustain that level of form throughout the year, they only dropped out of the playoff positions on two occasions. Robinson has got the best out of a small squad that relies on the goals of Dean Bowditch and the midfield enterprise of Stephen Gleeson for momentum at crucial times. They also boast a decent goalkeeper in the form of David Martin, while the club holds an impressive goal difference thanks to a mean defence, marshalled by Dean Lewington, a man who has seen through the MK project from the very start, earning him the captaincy.
Lewington will have first hand experience of the scale of what MK Dons have achieved during the eight years of their existence. It’s fair to say the club were none too popular during the first three years, having claimed Wimbledon’s history despite relocating the side to Milton Keynes. Such franchising alienated previous supporters of the club, culminating in a 2007 announcement of the MK Dons as a ‘new team.’ This earned them recognition from the Football Supporters Federation, who had previously boycotted the side on account of its dubious foundation, and having moved from the National Hockey Stadium to the new 22,000 capacity Stadium MK, the future looked bright for the Dons. This coincided with Paul Ince’s first spell at the club, when he led them to promotion from League Two as well as winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Ince left for supposedly better things with Blackburn, while his replacement, a certain Mr Roberto Di Matteo has the opportunity to win the greatest prize in club football later this month. Robinson has had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of these two former greats of the game in furthering his career, indeed he was strongly linked with the Nottingham Forest job after Steve McClaren’s departure, while Wolves are reported to be looking at him to steady their sinking ship. Robinson though, signed a new three contract in 2011, and playoff success will give him the opportunity to work his magic in the Championship anyway.
He says his club are in an ‘unstoppable’ mood approaching the clash with the Terriers, telling BBC Three Counties Radio: “We’ve discussed the play-offs at great length and I think the club is ready.” Promotion would certainly signify excellent progress for MK Dons as a club, while Robinson will no longer be that unheard-of 29-year old anymore. Indeed, Karl with K is now better known in football than Carl with a C.