Managers saving teams from relegation is becoming more common. Sunderland fans saw it happen twice to their team. Both Dick Advocat and Sam Allardyce have come in at different points and rescued the club from almost certain relegation. Rotherham United also saw it when Neil Warnock saved them from relegation to League One in 2015/16. The fact that both of these clubs are now in lower divisions, without either of those managers at the helm, shows the difference that one person can make to a club. The fresh ideas, new players and different experiences can be exactly what a club need to secure a higher status.
The Big Arrival
Perhaps not on the same level as these survivals, but equally as important for fans of the club, was the appointment of Robbie Neilson at MK Dons. The Scotsman, who was formerly at Heart of Midlothian, took over from the long-serving Karl Robinson in December 2016. It was a sad end to a mostly excellent tenure from Robinson, who subsequently joined Charlton Athletic. Having taken the Dons to the heights of the Championship for the first time, they lasted just one season in the second tier, finishing 23rd.
A big criticism of Robinson was his refusal to experiment with the team. He always went out with the same 4-2-3-1 formation and due to his stubborn nature, he would never change this when things were going wrong. Another criticism was the type of signings he made. He mostly relied on loans and free agents. While some of these were successful, for every Will Grigg and Jake Forster-Caskey, there was a Sam Gallagher and Diego Poyet. His signings were far too inconsistent.
The Dons came to a sorry finish in their lone Championship campaign, picking up just four points from their final 11 games. Despite this, Robinson was trusted to continue into the next season. That was where the club went wrong. That season was Robinson’s sixth as manager, and he had effectively got the club nowhere following their relegation. Allowing him to continue into the next season showed little ambition.
Back in League One, there was a sense that the Dons had learnt their lessons and could mount a serious challenge for an immediate Championship return. However, their transfer market ambition did not match this. Of the seven players Karl Robinson brought in that summer, only one required a transfer sum. The rest were free agents after being let go by their previous clubs. Some of these, though, have become integral parts of the team, such as George Williams and Chuks Aneke.
A New Era
Robinson was in charge for 15 games at the start of the season, and picked up just 16 points in this time, leaving the Dons hovering dangerously above the relegation zone. Step in Robbie Neilson.
The Scot effectively saved the Dons’ season. With their enormous stadium, fair numbers of quality players and a season of Championship experience under their belts, a second successive relegation would have been nothing short of embarrassing. That’s where they were heading before Robbie Neilson came in.
Once he arrived, it was clear what he had to do; save the season as best as he could. To say that he did not do that would be unfair. He took a group of players he had never worked with before, only adding in two of his own signings in the January window, and guided them away from the fringes of relegation to a top-half finish.
It may not be on a par with the escape acts of Allardyce and Warnock, but the repercussions of a club the size of MK Dons going into League Two would have been huge. Neilson ensured that did not happen. In this case, he should really be owed a great deal of gratitude by the MK Dons fans.
Neilson Deserves Better
A small minority of fans do not seem to be giving him that, unfortunately. Despite the fact that he is starting his first full season in charge, has gotten rid of all the deadwood from Robinson’s stint and brought in some quality players of his own accord, some fans still refuse to trust him. He has signed players for the needed positions, including goalkeeper Wieger Sietsma and midfielders Ousseynou Cisse, Peter Pawlett and Conor McGrandles. As well as this, he recently added the loan signing on experienced defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell, who was announced while on the pre-season tour of Hungary.
Perhaps the only argument that could be made against him is that all of these signings are still frees and loans. There is still over a month of the transfer window left, however, with a large proportion of the budget still to use. To suggest that Neilson isn’t trying to bring these players in shows little thought as to how long it takes to build a squad. It can take more than one transfer window, as different and better players become available at different times. The boss has even said himself that “there’s no point in bringing in a run of the mill League One player, we want someone who can help us progress.”
MK Dons fans need to be more willing to trust Neilson. Doing that and giving him the time to bring in quality players would mean there is far less discontent between fans. He has already helped the Dons out of a very sticky situation. The least he deserves is time and trust. In the end, it will make the club the force it was a few seasons ago.