MK Dons: Up for the fight?

There seems to be a perception that changing a manager will produce an automatic upturn in results.

Any failing organisation takes time to recover. Maybe it’s a school or a hospital that has produced poor results, and a change of management is brought in to improve standards and drive up results. Those improvements take time and effort. It usually necessitates a change in culture from top to bottom.

Dan Micciche and Keith Millen have inherited the current squad of players. They have taken over a club which has been in decline for two and a half seasons. They are having to deal with damage and divisions caused by the previous regime.

On top of this they are having to introduce new ideals, a new philosophy, a new style of football. They don’t have the luxury of signing players to suit that ethos nor a pre-season to prepare the players for the fight ahead.

When fans take to social media to criticise the manager after one league defeat, I shake my head in despair. What if Simon Grayson had come here and the results had been the same. Would we then criticise Pete for having spent money on someone who doesn’t understand the club? It’s a lose, lose situation until the club starts winning again.

People question what the “MK Way” is.

This isn’t a concept that mysteriously appeared during Karl Robinson’s time at the club. Anyone who followed the club when Martin Allen was at the club would be aware of the one dimensional hoof ball that characterised his management. When he left, Peter Winkelman promised that the MK Way would be an attractive brand of passing football. He also spoke of his desire for that style of football to be reflected at every level of football within the club. At the same time he promoted the ideal of promotion from within, therefore maintaining the ethos from generation to generation.

What I saw against Walsall on Saturday was a team attempting to play passing football again. But in the first half, it was like a training session at the start of pre-season with players looking like they hadn’t got to grips with the style of play.

We saw the ball being moved side to side, either along the back line or along the halfway line. We saw attempts at “pass and go” football result in the ball constantly being given away. Everything was being done at half speed, allowing Walsall to break out at pace, leaving us exposed at the back.

Through balls were over-hit, or opportunities to break forward ignored in favour of a “safer” pass back.  There was a lack of width in our play, with wide men constantly turning inside which in turn led to a congested midfield and confusion amongst the players.

The lack of movement was obvious with players appearing static as they waited for passes to come to them. This allowed Walsall to press forward and stifle possession. It was Johan Cruyff who once said;

When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average … So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.

All of this is reflected in the stats, with the Dons showing 55% possession but having half the number of shots made by Walsall and just one shot on target in 90 minutes of football.

The players and management will know that yesterdays performance was not acceptable and I feel that there are several players who aren’t up to this level of football. But as Kelly Hawkins tweeted yesterday; “This is what we have to get us to the end of the season now” and she is absolutely right.

I do know that the fans at Walsall were generally fair and supportive. We were all frustrated by the performance and the result but equally there appeared to be an understanding that this was a new start which would take time.

I thought Dean Lewington played well. He went round before the match and spoke personally to every player on the pitch. He was vocal during the match and had a decent match at left back. He did push forward a lot but made his passes count and was covered off by other players.

Elliott Ward had a really decent debut with one outstanding goal saving tackle in the first half that he had no right to make.

Another player to impress was Robbie Muirhead. He came on in the 51st minute and transformed the side with his forward movement and crisp passing. Most good things in the 2nd half involved Muirhead in some way.

Ike Ugbo looked lively when he came on in 73th minute and perhaps should have scored with a shot that went just wide from 20 yards out.

For all the criticism of our defence, there were only 2 shots on target from Walsall, and we’ve only conceded 2 goals in 180 minutes of football. The issue we have is further up the pitch. Just 4 shots on target in 180 minutes of football.

The return of Chuks Aneke is going to be essential to our improvement in that area. Given the impact that Muirhead has had, I’d like to see him starting next time out along with Ugbo.  I’m sure readers will all have different opinions to me of course.

Look, I left the ground feeling really disheartened. It’s horrible being a fan of the Dons at the moment.

But…

The average points total for survival in League One over the last 12 years is 48. That means we need 18 points from our final 17 matches. And provided the senior players show some leadership and the younger players are allowed to perform to their ability I still believe that we can stay up.

A relegation fight can turn into something positive. A little luck, an inspired performance, an unexpected win… and suddenly everyone can see light at the end of the tunnel. Do we have any option but to be positive? I really hope to see the players and fans come out and show they’re up for the fight next week.

COYDS

MK Dons: The Changing of the Guard

Well that was a Helter Skelter month wasn’t it…

Talk about skeletons and cupboards! The old bones have been flying out of the darkest recesses of Stadium MK’s storage locations since the departure of Neilson and his cronies.

As someone tweeted today, is there anyone that the Scotsman didn’t fall out with during his time in Milton Keynes?

Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing

Sadly, when a manager falls out with his players, divides the dressing room and takes his club into free-fall you have to acknowledge that he is lacking the necessary attributes of a manager and a leader.

The return of Ben Tilney highlights my point perfectly.

Whilst I understand the need for discipline and commitment at a professional football club, I cannot accept that this should mean abandoning everything that is important to you in life.

I’ve been told that the situation was never as simple as falling out of love with football.

For those who don’t know, music is a major part of Ben Tilney’s life and he plays in a band. My understanding is that he was asked to make several life choices by Neilson which would have impacted on his private life, including being asked to give up the band.

At the same time he was told that his training regime would be substantially increased but despite this, he would only be 3rd choice at left back behind Lewington and Golbourne. Tilney was left in a position where he felt he had no option but to leave. He ended up working at Center Parks in Ampthill and playing part time for Brackley.

Dan Micciche was forthright in his views on Tilney’s apparent loss of love for the game; “I’ve known Ben a long time, and for all I’ve known him and his family that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

And talking of Micciche, I have to say that I’ve been roundly impressed with him since he took over as manager. For someone starting out on his management career, his comments have been tactful, honest and sensible and he appears to be winning the support of his senior players.

His task is onerous.

He’s taken over a club in decline, with players clearly damaged by the antics of Neilson’s regime and the fans demanding an immediate response to being in the relegation zone. And now more than ever he will need our support and backing.

So what do we make to his first transfer window?

We were never ever going to spend money in this window, and we were never going to bring in a proven goal scorer.

The Dons already have a large squad, with a significant amount of money invested in wages and paid in agents fees last summer. Additionally, the removal of Neilson, Crawford and MacFarlane would have cost a significant sum of money (certainly a high six figure amount). And with gates and revenue down on the previous season, there was no pot of money to spend.

The only way you can recruit a proven goal-scorer in January is to spend money. Lots of money. The club owning a successful striker will want a pretty compelling reason to sell them mid-season. Furthermore, a prolific goal scorer has no incentive to move to a relegation threatened club with the prospect of League Two football to follow.

If we’re honest, the Dons have a plethora of attacking talent.

If you were to cancel out the first half of this season and consider that our attacking options included Osman Sow, Chuks Aneke, Kieran Agard, Ike Ugbo, Robbie Muirhead, Sam Nombe and Brandon Thomas-Asante, I’m sure you’d be feeling quite optimistic.

Dan Micciche is confident that he can coach an improvement into the goal scoring stats and to me that makes sense. Confidence is a magical thing, and players who look ordinary playing to one system can stand transformed in another. So lets see what happens in the coming weeks.

I like the look of the players brought in.

Marcus Tavernier may only be 18 years-old but has had a good grounding in Premier League 2 and the UEFA Youth League and he’s clearly on the radar of England with 4 appearances at under 19 level already.  At the start of the season he was winning nominations for Player of the Month in PL2 for a series of top performances including a 20 minute hat-trick for Middlesborough against Norwich.

Josh Tymon is another 18 year old who has been in and around the England set-up and would have worked with Dan Micciche. He’s made 12 appearances for Hull City whilst in the Premier League and a further 3 appearances for Stoke City this season. Throw in his involvement with and England u20 side which won the Toulon Tournament last June and you realise you have an extremely talented young player on your hands.

Ike Ugbo is another young talent who has featured for England, scoring 5 goals in 15 appearances for the u17’s and scoring 2 goals in 4 appearances for the u20’s and helping England win the Toulon Tournament I previously mentioned. The most startling fact is that he scored 23 goals in 35 appearances for the Chelsea under 23 and under 18 sides last season. This is a goal hungry striker who knows how to find the net.

Elliott Ward bucks the trend in terms of age. In fact he must feel like the old man of the group at 33 years of age. Coming with many years experience in the Championship, Ward will bring a calm head much needed at the moment. He was highly thought of enough to entice Coventry City to pay a million pounds for his services in 2006.

I’m quietly confident about the way our squad is looking.

With the more cultured style of football favoured by Dan, the influence of Dons legend Dean Lewington and the input of young exciting talent and a wise old head in Ward I can see this ship turning around and heading for safer waters this season.

The signing I simply don’t understand is that of Scott Golbourne. We only signed him on loan until January 2018 and he has now sustained an injury that will keep him out until April at the earliest. The only possible explanation for extending that loan is the “hope” that he will sign a permanent contract when he becomes a free agent in the summer. But as we know from a certain Mr Hall, that course of action is fraught with “ifs, buts and maybe’s”.

Two members of staff leaving the club today are John Hill (head of Sports Science) and Alex Threapleton (Recruitment Manager). Having both been brought to the Dons by Robbie Neilson I can imagine they would both find it difficult to work in an environment where the old guard were back in charge.

The speculation will inevitably focus on Paul Mitchell who has been a regular presence around the club since the Micciche revolution. There’s some confusion about his status, with Spurs initially claiming they would hold the former Dons midfielder to a 16 month notice period. HITC.com reported in November 2017 that his notice period would end at the close of this January transfer window. If that IS true, then the timing of Threapleton’s departure could be significant. Time will of course tell.

My final word belongs to former Dons legend Sean O’Hanlon.

Within the last few hours he’s announced his retirement from the game. For me he is one of the legends of the Dons with 157 appearances in the centre of defence. His partnership with Danny Swailes was outstanding and who will ever forget his towering header, scoring for the Dons against Grimsby in the final of the JPT at Wembley. I met him several times and found him to be a great guy off the pitch as well as a hard man on it. Have a great retirement Seano.

MK Dons: The Micciche Journey

We’re living in an era where it’s unacceptable to be a square peg in a round hole.

Back in the day, there was an expectation that aspiration to senior management in any walk of life would only be realised if you worked up from the bottom, and football management was no different.

However business and industry has come to realise that some people have an aptitude for management that is to be encouraged and not delayed. Even in the slow moving public sector, minds have opened to direct entrants into senior roles.

To some fans, it would seem unthinkable that someone who has never played professional football could adequately manage a professional football club. You can therefore understand the trauma they are now experiencing, coming to terms with the appointment of a manager who has never played football at any level outside the Sunday League.

The fact of the matter is that English football management has been left behind.

Carlos Alberto Gomes Parreira was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil in February 1943. He led Brazil to victory at the 1994 World Cup Finals, the 2004 Copa America and the 2005 Confederations Cup.

He won Serie A with Fluminese, the Super Lig with Fenerbache and the Copa da Brasil with Corinthians. He has taken international sides to the World Cup finals on 6 occasions including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Brasil and South Africa

Carlos Alberto Gomes Parreira never played a game of football:

“I started out as a fitness coach,” explains Parreira. “But there reached a point in my life where I was so well qualified that I was almost pushed into taking on a head coach’s role. In Kuwait they asked me to take charge of their youth sides and that was the start of a long career.”

There have been others, not least Avram Grant, Andre Villas-Boas and the hugely successful Italian born manager, Arrigo  Saachi who famously commented;

“I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”

Continuing the Italian theme, it is now well documented that Dan Micciche was born in England into an Italian family. His parents had moved to England from their home town in Naples and therefore his early football years were spent supporting Napoli before switching allegiances to Juventus.  He remains heavily influenced by the great Italian players of that era.

Fluent in three languages (English, Italian and Spanish) Dan was brought up to believe in two key life principles – the value of family and the benefits of hard work.

The hard work ethic saw him devote much of he early life to securing academic qualifications. After obtaining a Masters degree from Loughborough University in International Management he went on to complete an MBA in football at the University of Liverpool. He also picked up a degree in Sports Science along the way.

Friends made during these degree courses have subsequently gone on to key roles within Premier League clubs including Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham. This ability to network and secure contacts within the industry has continued throughout his career to date.

It was one of those contacts, Paul Holder who introduced Micciche to the youth academy at Crystal Palace football club where he remained until September 2005. Next stop on Dan’s journey was a 2 year stint coaching the academy at Spurs before his move to MK Dons in October 2007.

After 6 highly successful years at the Dons, he was appointed to the FA in 2013 as Coach and Player Development lead for the 12-16 age range. In 2015 he was appointed manager of the England under 16 squad where he remained until September 2017.

Now… Karl Robinson is widely considered to be the most successful manager the Dons have had, and was by some way the longest serving. He kept the Dons challenging for promotion in League One for several seasons and eventually took the club into the Championship.

Karl didn’t have any academic qualifications of note prior to obtaining the UEFA pro-licence. He never played professional football and prior to being appointed assistant manager to Paul Ince at MK Dons had 7 years coaching experience with the Liverpool academy.

Contrast that with Dan Micciche who has three degree level qualifications covering management, football and sports science. A man who has spent 12 years coaching and managing at EFL, Premier League and International academies.

With that comparison in mind lets examine what Micciche has achieved in football.

In 6 years as Head of Academy coaching at the Dons, Micciche saw the development of 11 players who went on to receive international recognition – an unprecedented number of players given that the club were in League One.  These players included Dele Alli, Brendon Galloway and Seyi Ojo.

In July 2015, Micciche was appointed manager of the England under 16 side. He inherited a side that were producing ordinary results. Two friendly draws against the USA  was followed by a disastrous showing in the Tournoi Tournament. England finished bottom of the 4 team tournament with defeats by Japan and France and a draw with Holland. 3 matches – 9 goals conceded and 5 scored – bottom of the table.

By December 2015, Dan turned things around. At the NIKE international tournament in the USA, England topped the 4 team group with a series of top performances including a 2-0 defeat of Brazil. Take a look at some of the players that Micciche worked with during that tournament:

Thomas McGill, Marc Guehi, Ryan Sessegnon, Tashan Oakley Booth, Oliver Skipp, Jonathan Panzo, Colin Rosler, Nya Kirby, Ian Carlo Poveda, Daniel Loader, Angel Gomes, Jadon Sancho, Timothy Eyoma, Emile Smith Rowe, Steven Sessegnon, Curtis Anderson, Zech Medley, Phil Foden, George McEachran, Austin Samuels.

Fast forward one year and recall that stunning success by the England under 17 side in the World Cup Finals. No fewer than 9 players that Micciche had managed and coached played in that World Cup Final win against Spain:

Curtis Anderson, Steven Sessegnon, Marc Guehi, Jonathan Panzo, Tashan Oakley Booth, George McEachran, Phil Foden, Angel Gomes and Nya Kirby

So why did Micciche leave the Football Association?

Well we know he was hauled into an office on the instructions of Dan Ashworth and sacked – a move widely criticised by respected football writers. We also know that the FA recognised his “excellent” work.

The FA would like to thank Dan for all his excellent work and contribution to the success of our England development teams since his arrival at St. George’s Park in August 2013

It was reported that the FA removed him as part of yet another restructuring programme. Ashworth is quoted as saying that Micciche deviated from the FA’s DNA. According to FA sources, Micciche was told that his dismissal was not linked to results but because he had different ideas to the FA on the way to develop young players.

So what was this FA DNA?

In March 2016 the FA set up a working group to develop the Foundation Phase of the England DNA Project which developed work started the previous year and provided  set of rules and an ethos for coaches across English football. In April 2016, Micciche provided an interview where he referenced the DNA project:

“Do you need to put this stuff into kids?,” asks Micciche. “Or is it more a case of safeguarding against them losing it? Let’s be honest, when the kids are growing up at 6,7 and 8 they don’t share anything. The majority of them don’t pass the ball.

“Most of them like playing football because they’re running with the ball in their garden and they’ve seen something on television that has hooked them into football – which is normally a trick or an exciting goal.” Micciche added: “If you look at coaching programmes up and down the country for players in the foundation phase, I guarantee that every one of them will emphasise 1v1 domination. My argument is, if you’re emphasising it with the youngest players – where has it gone as they get older?”

There is a feeling that in some instances the creative spirit shown by the
very youngest players can be lost in the teenage years as coaching and
player development becomes “more serious”.

My interpretation of events is that Micciche wasn’t allowed the freedom to do the job he was appointed to. Although he seemingly proved that his methods worked at international level in a very short period of time, he was handcuffed by a set of rule created and applied that cut across his principles.

And what are those principles? A little insight can be gleaned from an interview that he gave in 2017

We work to a 6-6-6 idea: can you win the ball back within six seconds; can you attack with a minimum of six players and can you get the ball over the half-way line within six passes.

If the players are on five passes and they aren’t near the half-way line we’re not going to start shouting ‘kick it long’.  It’s just an idea for the players to get in their heads that we want to dominate possession – but we want to do it in the opposition’s half.

We aim for a minimum of six players attacking the final third because we know that most teams will defend with nine, ten, or eleven players, so if we try and attack with less than six we’re going to need to be damn good.

The players have a number of playing principles including stay on the ball, seek creative solutions and win the ball cleanly, which guide the subsequent individual challenges.

From the principles, each individual will have picked three areas to work on during a game which link to their individual strengths.

We will then use some of this to tweak how we play and set-up in the games. For example if we have a defender who is outstanding at 1v1 defending, we will play a system that creates opportunities for him to defend 1v1.

We might leave the number 9 and 10 out from defending in their own half meaning there are more 1v1 defending scenarios. It also means our best attacking players are conserving energy for when we have the ball.

All our training is based around these ideas. We look for opportunities to praise the players for playing in a particular way and always use the same terminology. We’ll sometimes stop the practice, only for a minute, and say ‘I really like it when you did that – which one of our principles does that link into?

The sheer number of tweets in support of Dan’s appointment from academy and grass roots coaches reflect the support his principles have and equally acknowledge the brave decision made by Pete Winkelman.

For me this is not a final chance for the so called “MK Way” but the next step in the development of an ethos that will endure for years to come – as it has at many great clubs  like Liverpool. Edu Rubio, Dean Lewington, Paul Mitchell, Keith Andrews and others may well be passed the baton in future years.

But for now its the turn of Dan Micciche.

MK Dons: As Lincoln once said…

On June 16th 1858 a US Senator called Abraham Lincoln gave a famous speech in Springfield, Illinois known as the HOUSE DIVIDED SPEECH. Lincoln who went on to become President of the United States said;

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

Whilst the context of Lincoln’s speech was the abolition of slavery, his observations can be applied to any situation or organisation blighted by division.

What has become abundantly clear over recent weeks and months is that MK Dons has become a divided football club – a house divided against itself.

The warning signs were flashing before the season started with reports of player unrest in Hungary, and the subsequent departure of popular defender Ben Tilney to Brackley.

Then came news of an explosive falling out between Dean Lewington and Robbie Neilson following the match against Bury. A division that escalated into an irreparable fracture.

I subsequently heard reports of significant divisions between Neilson and a number of senior players including Chuks Aneke, Scott Wootton and Ed Upson.

Meanwhile there were murmurings of discontent among the back room staff, with post match comments and social media contributions indicating unseen problems festering behind closed doors.

Performances on the pitch were disjointed and inconsistent with players generally playing without the passion, style and togetherness that the Dons had become famed for. Silly mistakes were having fatal consequences but given the players involved, there seemed no plausible explanation.

The fans started attacking each other.

Half hearted banter on-line turned into heated debate. Comments made in the stands morphed into passionate arguments and even tipped over into physical confrontation. And a club that had been used to a close bond between players and fans saw open hostility as tempers boiled over.

News of Lewie’s departure to train at Charlton was the final straw for many fans. Long standing fans of the club started to stay away from games and some returned their Season Tickets in quiet protest.

Whilst I understand that Pete Winkelman had to stand by his manager in “that” video interview, I despaired at his comments which seemed to pay little more than lip service to the qualities that had made MK Dons such a unique and special club. I suspect he felt trapped by the circumstances and didn’t know how best to handle it.

But in the same way Abraham Lincoln identified the harmful impact of a house divided against itself, he stressed his belief that the house would not fall and would unite.

And as I watched the latest interview with the Dons chairman I saw a weight lifted, I heard the familiar passion in his voice and I listened to comments that I could associate with once again.

I observed with interest the terminology used by Edu Rubio, Thomas Cove and Chuks Aneke post Neilson;

Welcome DM, our new gaffer, to the Family! (Edu RUBIO on Dan Micciche)

Dean, welcome back to the TEAM for tonight’s match. (Edu RUBIO on Dean Lewington)

This is a fantastic appointment and exactly what the club needs. Clear style, an experienced head and our captain back. (Thomas COVE on Dan Micciche and Dean Lewington)

Great first day with the new gaffer and the team (Chuks ANEKE)

The words family, team, style and experience standing out like shining beacons through the settling dust of a falling house… a divided house.

MK Dons is in every way a unique club.

Over the years it has developed a tradition and history all of its own, built on the foundations of survival in the face of vitriol and bound together by loyalty in the face of opposition. Very much like the New City itself, it has attracted young families who have created an identity from nothing, with everyone contributing in some small way to making the project a success.

And in the same way that a family knows the worst about each other but loves without question or condemnation the same has been true at the Dons.

Despite two years of abject failure, look at the huge amount of love and respect a large number of fans had for Robbo when he left. Because, whatever he got wrong in the final 2 years, he was still part of the Dons family… he understood the club, the town and the people and made it his business to become one of them.

And for that same reason, it is the right thing to appoint a manager and a coach who are part of the DNA of the Dons. Talented young men who understand the game but more importantly understand the club, its background, its ethos and its supporters.

I can understand why some would criticise the appointments. I’ve read some valid points in respect of Lewie and Dan in particular. And having been taken in by Neilson, I shan’t be so quick to extol or defend the virtues of the new management team. But I absolutely believe that this was the right call and the right appointments.

Do you remember how low we all felt when Incey jumped ship because of lack of funds, and then how excited we felt when an unknown Robbo took over and brought the kids into the side and played such passionate football.

This is a chance to experience that all over again… with another new manager who has developed his skills as a coach here in Milton Keynes, supported by a man of great experience… with Lewie taking his first steps on the road to future management.

Of course I feel a degree of sympathy for Neilson and his family. But he will have received a financial settlement and he will get another highly paid job in the near future. But he was the wrong manager for the club and we needed to find our identity again.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. Let’s all of us make damn sure that our house (the Dons) does cease to be divided so that our unique football family can be united once again.