Opposition Talk: Milton Keynes Dons
A new season is upon us, as League One football returns this weekend. Milton Keynes Dons are the first opponents for Darren Moore’s Rovers, and ahead of the game at the Keepmoat Stadium we spoke to Dons fan Martin Atherton from the MK Way website - you can find him on Twitter @MartinJAtherton - about his side’s prospects for the season.
ITEN: A new season is here, but it will be a very different experience for fans this term. What are your thoughts on adapting to the “new normal” of watching games online or in sparsely populated stadia?
Martin: It’ll be very strange! I’m obviously not looking forward to a return in such a manner, but after six months of no competitive football I have to say it’s certainly better than nothing. At the end of the day, clubs at this level need to have fans in as soon as possible to give them that vital cash flow; if that means it being with all the restrictions, then so be it.
The loss of top scorer Rhys Healey is understandably a blow. How do you think the team will handle his departure?
It's going to be a tough, tough season without Rhys - the player who almost single-handedly kept us up last season with his goals. I think we're really going to struggle after losing him and will likely find ourselves at the wrong end of the table.
Carlton Morris is a terrific forward in terms of creativity, but he certainly isn't that clinical finisher that we'll need to stay competitive at this level. Joe Mason brings with him one of the best goalscoring CVs in the league having notched 42 times in his Championship career, but his injury woes mean he is seldom available. 21-year-old Sam Nombe, whilst a good option off the bench, is still very raw and cannot be relied on for regular goals. Replacing Healey needs to be the club's priority right now and I'm personally disappointed that someone wasn't lined up before the sale was approved.
Stand-outs Alex Gilbey and Conor McGrandles have departed for League One rivals this summer. How do you see the midfield (which features former Rovers favourite Jordan Houghton) progressing this season without the pair?
Houghton has been a revelation under Russ! Completely underrated by our fans and plays that deep midfield role so, so well. Gilbey will be a massive loss for us – though after him having rejected a new contract with just ten months left on his current deal, it did somewhat make sense to take the fee Charlton offered. Nevertheless, I still think we’ll have a really hard time finding a replacement and our creativity in midfield will take a big hit as a result.
McGrandles is a tricky one - he was one of the bigger earners at the club but I'm personally not sure he justified that. He's a great player in terms of tackling hard and running around a lot, but his goal and assist contributions were woeful for an attack-minded midfielder - a combined total of just three in 50 games at this level. In his place we've brought in Ben Gladwin, a proven goal scorer and assist provider for League One with Swindon, who is a vast improvement on Conor if fit - a great bit of business by Russ.
The financial impact of the pandemic means transfer business has been scarce at a lot of clubs. Do you think the club can improve on last season with only a few new additions or are more signings needed before the end of the window?
We've been fortunate in that we’ve had various behind-closed-door events such as Premiership snooker being played at our ground throughout lockdown, giving us a cash line when many others in League One haven’t – but, even then, we’ve had to be frugal and the salary cap has only magnified that. We’ve paid one fee for Daniel Harvie, joining from Ayr United, but the rest of our additions have been free transfers and loans. We’re still actively putting bids into the market for a new striker and I’m confident that we’ll have someone in before the deadline, but he certainly won’t be on the same level as Healey. Either way, there certainly need to be further additions if we want to stay up.
Richard Keogh looks a bit of a coup for the club, despite his age and the well-documented drink-driving incident at Derby last year. Are you excited to see how he fits into the side?
I’m very excited for his return (to fitness), said to be around November – he’ll slot straight into the middle of our back three and provide an experienced head for younger centre-halves Poole, O’Hora and Cargill. We’re currently playing club legend Dean Lewington in the middle of our back three at the moment who, while doing a fair job since moving in from left-back last season, certainly isn’t a long term option if we want to kick on – a fully fit Keogh would be a monster in that position and be a real boost for our side!
Russell Martin has had a decent amount of time to put his stamp on things at MK now. Are you happy with his tenure in charge so far, and how do you see him progressing as manager this season?
Words can't describe what Russ has done for MK – he took us from a side that scored twice in ten into one capable of giving top six sides a tough game. Off the field he has also been a huge boost for the club, forging a great relationship with fans and using his extensive contacts to both bring in some fantastic names and organise friendlies in recent weeks against Arsenal and Fulham’s first teams.
In terms of progression it’s a tricky one – I don’t particularly think we’ll be able to fully replace Gilbey and Healey and will struggle to score goals, which is a big shame after putting together a good set of results at the backend of last season. I wouldn’t be surprised if a bigger club came knocking for his services at some point as he certainly has a big future ahead of him in management.
What are your hopes for MK Dons in League One this season? Can the team improve on the 19th place finish from 2019/20?
This time a few weeks ago I was certain we’d be a solid mid-table team that could maybe push for Play-Offs – but after losing our two attacking outlets, I’d now take anything above the drop zone, something which I hope indicates exactly how important they were to us. We still have some exceptional players for this level in our squad, such as Brittain, Houghton, Nicholls and Gladwin, but a lack of goals will cost us.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to about the return of football after such a long period of time without?
The social aspect! We’ve got a fantastic core fanbase at MK and it’ll be great to see everyone again at the start of October, albeit in the ‘new normal’. A lot of my closest mates are people I’ve met at MK and it’ll be fantastic to see them all again on a more regular basis.
Our thanks to Martin for taking the time to speak with us ahead of the opening day. Stay tuned to ITEN for our dedicated Match Preview later this week as we continue the build-up to the start of the 2020/21 season at Doncaster Rovers.