I saw my first professional football match in Milton Keynes yesterday. It’s nearly 14 years since the club was created, stealing Wimbledon’s place in the Football League, and I’ve never been to watch them. Not even when Boro arrived in the league.
For a long time I refused to shop in the adjacent Asda, either. As David Conn records here, they provided the bulk of the funding for the new club and the new stadium, in return for the land for what at the time was (and may still be) the largest supermarket in Europe.
High principles rarely survive, however, in the face of the passage of time and the pragmatic indifference of the rest of the world. Over the last couple of years, it became clear it was only really AFC Wimbledon, When Saturday Comes (“no questions asked”) and, well, me that were still holding out. And quite a lot of Wimbledon fans have turned up on the occasions they’ve had to play “the Franchise”.
Meanwhile my wife seems to be unimpressed with the notion that George’s affordable tops and the cheapest petrol in town should be denied to us because of the integrity of the football pyramid. My dad, who was involved at a professional level in the opening of stadium:mk and who can’t be bothered travelling to Middlesbrough every month or so, has had a season ticket pretty much since the place opened. And I have to go to the stadium a few times a year for work, because the meeting rooms are infinitely more comfortable than anything we’ve got and the bacon sandwiches are excellent.
Added to all that, if you ignore the unforgivable circumstances of the club’s birth, it’s not a bad setup. Take the ticket prices, for example. All under 12s can watch the entire league season for £10, or £20 with a replica shirt chucked in, as long as they come with a full paying adult. Teenagers get in for £48 – yes, for the whole year – while under-21s have to pay a whole £144, or £6-odd per game. It costs that much up the road at Newport Pagnell in the United Counties League.
Then there’s the academy. The closest league clubs previously were Northampton and Luton, with Watford and Coventry slightly further afield. Having a professional outfit in the middle of a growing young population must have given opportunities to local kids who wouldn’t otherwise have had them, and two of them, Sam Baldock and Dele Alli, between them generated transfer fees which covered the club’s operating losses for three or four years.
Ah yes, the losses. Give or take, MK Dons lose about £2.5 million per year in normal operations. Any profits come from player sales, and the club owes its parent company (and therefore essentially owner and founder Pete Winkelman) about £11 million. On the local news this week, Winkelman promised to keep the money coming. It’s difficult to see when and where the return could come though, with crowds rarely creeping above 10,000 in a 30,000-capacity stadium. A lucky Moneyball run to the Premier League with kids and loans seems like the only plausible route to sustainability outside the current structure of hotel and property funding.
One of the current loans is Marcus Tavernier. I first saw Tav playing for Boro’s under-18s in a Youth Cup match against Tottenham a couple of years back. The memory obviously plays tricks, because I could have sworn he was a Vieira-type “strolling” midfielder, so it was quite a surprise to see him turn up this year as a nippy winger. I thought he was one of the stand-out players in the games he had under Garry Monk, so in a way it was a bit of a disappointment to see him farmed out under the new regime.
On the other hand, it provided as good an excuse as any to break the boycott. So that’s how I ended up in “Club Red” – like a normal ticket, but with an inside lounge and a free cup of tea at half time – admiring the Arsenal-esque seats which are standard around the ground, and processing the slightly odd feeling of the away fans significantly outnumbering the home contingent, spread sparsely throughout the other three stands.
Tavernier was involved from the start, getting shoved by Coventry’s chippy captain Michael Doyle (by name AND nature), and making the mistake of returning the favour while the referee was looking. Doyle picked up a yellow card quite early on, which had no effect at all on his general nipping and whinging for the rest of the match.
MK’s formation looked most like the 4-2-3-1 that most teams seem to play these days. Tavernier definitely started on the left, but soon swapped to the middle, with fellow loanee Ike Ugbo taking his place. Ugbo is apparently on Chelsea’s books, so it’s probably best to suppose that he hasn’t had much game time recently and will improve with appearances. Meanwhile Kieran Agard, last season’s top scorer, played the lone front role, eventually being substituted after falling over his feet with an open goal at his mercy in the second half.
Further back, Dean Lewington returned from the exile that must have been caused by some clash with previous manager Robbie Neilson, and provided defensive experience and solidity that evaporated once he was taken off ten minutes after the break. Working from a decent base that I’m told wasn’t there in previous months, MK had the better of the first half. They were quite obviously doing that thing Monk used to do with a midfielder dropping in between the centre backs when they had the ball, with Alex Gibley playing the role of Adam Clayton (himself a former Don). This allowed Lewington and right back George Williams to join in a lot further up the pitch, to decent effect.
Tavernier seemed to be involved in everything, although that might be down to the Boro-tinted glasses I was wearing. Certainly he was quicker to find space and move the ball on than his colleagues. A decent shooting opportunity ended up in the upper tier, then right at the end of the half he set off from the halfway line at pace, beating a couple of player, confusing another defender and bursting through on goal, only for Coventry keeper Burge to save at his feet. If he’d scored, I’d have done a lap of honour.
I found out at half time that that would nearly have been feasible. Stadium:mk is unique, as far as I know, in having a concourse both open to the pitch and unobstructed by doors all the way round the ground. You can set off from the south side of Club Red, 20-odd rows above pitch level, and make your way around two-and-a-half sides as far as the away segregation. It would be extremely convivial to lean on the barrier with a coffee and watch the match, but apparently the stewards make you go and sit down if you try.
MK started the second half as they finished the first – playing some decent football, retaining possession, but only very rarely posing any threat to the Coventry goal. Tony Pulis would say that they don’t get the ball forward fast enough, and when it does get there they’re very slow to do anything useful with it. By this time Tavernier was on the right, and encouraged by new MK boss Micciche to pull further and further wide. This meant he could link up well with Williams, and most of the decent opportunities seemed to come through that side.
Coventry’s goal was pretty much the definition of “against the run of play”. MK like to try to play themselves out of trouble, even along their own six yard line, but this time they didn’t. I haven’t seen the replay, but from our vantage point it looked like the ball scrambled off about four players before creeping inches over the line. The away contingent celebrated like they’d won the cup, with a couple of hundred running around on the pitch distributing blue smoke bombs until they were ushered back to their seats by late-arriving stewards.
MK had half an hour to get back into it, but seemed to be unable to shake off the ponderous build up play. If they did manage to get it into the box, the finishing tended to range from weak to pathetic, and the 6 (six) minutes of stoppage time didn’t really help them threaten an equaliser. Indeed, a lot of it was spent playing neat passes about ten yards from their own goal-line, which unfathomably Coventry didn’t seem to mind.
Tavernier probably tired towards the end, which didn’t really excuse the ridiculous lunge that got him booked and could well have attracted harsher punishment. The ball had long since been played ahead of the Coventry player when Tav arrived, Traore-style, and deposited him into touch. Doyle nearly got himself sent off for shouting and pushing, and Micciche forgot himself and charged on to the pitch to get involved.
At the end, Winkelman appeared on the pitch, shaking players’ hands and applauding the crowd. My initial reaction was that this was not a great look for a football chairman, but then I checked and he doesn’t appear to have banned any local journalists, so I suppose it’s swings and roundabouts. Tavernier was the last to leave the pitch, wandering round waving at the stands as if he was savouring the atmosphere of a cup final rather than a home ground after a fourth round exit, albeit in his first game there.
Was my boycott daft? Obviously it didn’t have any effect on anyone or anything, but it was never going to. I once left a job because I didn’t agree with a transfer of employer. Nobody cared about that either, and I’ve subsequently worked in exactly the circumstances I objected to. Not being able to halt the tide of wrongness, and eventually getting swept along with it, doesn’t mean it was any more right to start with.
Milton Keynes had no right to a place in the Football League – but given that the club whose place it poached has reclaimed its own spot, and now sits slightly higher in the pecking order, with what appears to be a healthier financial position, maybe it’s time to let the old injustice rest.