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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Paradise Lost?

After Paul Ince announces, due to budget cuts, he's quitting as boss of the MK Dons at the end of the season, Nobes examines the Milton Keynes dream.

Ince is leaving as MK Dons manager for a second time in three years

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Less than a year after returning to Milton Keynes, Paul Ince announced last Friday he would be leaving the Buckinghamshire club at the end of the current season.

He cites the reason for his departure - his second in less than three years - as being due to 'budget cutbacks' which he believes will stop him from taking the club forwards.

Laying aside the decision of the manager - which we'll examine later - it is a blow to a club who, despite being short on history, have always spoken about big plans for the future.

Indeed, they were dreams still being pursued last summer. Chairman Pete Winkelman suggesting that the playing budget had been increased after Ince's re-appointment in the hope of a promotion push.

Winkelman was instrumental in the controversial move and re branding of the old Wimbledon FC in 2002.

The hope was that a large town's population, then bereft of a professional football club, could embrace a new one - and help achieve greater things in the future than their troubled ancestor.

Two relegations later, and with the Dons finding themselves in League Two, traditionalists everywhere were smirking at how the 'Franchise' club, as they were nicknamed, were struggling to find their way in the game.

They wouldn't be laughing much longer. After Martin Allen had taken MK to the play-offs before leaving to join Leicester, Winkelman turned to Ince.

The former England international had impressed in his short spell at League Two rivals Macclesfield - where he managed to save the Silkmen from relegation.

His impact at the club's brand new 22,000 stadium:mk was immediate. They swept to the League Two title and glory in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. The Dons had their first pieces of silverware to show off.

However, Ince was tempted away for a short-lived spell at Premier League Blackburn and, although his replacement Roberto Di Matteo maintained the momentum, they lost out to Scunthorpe in last season's League One play-offs.

The 42-year-old was still enthused enough by the Dons project to return to Buckinghamshire last July though, when Di Matteo left for West Brom.

The chairman described the reunion as Ince having "unfinished business" with the club.

He probably didn't expect the unfinished business to be a season of inconsistency though. After a bright start, a tame second half of the campaign has seen the Dons long out of the play-off race and well off the top six pace.

Despite a more than competitive budget, Ince has failed to get MK competing as high up as Di Matteo. Admittedly, this year - without promotion momentum - was always going to be more difficult.

However, there have been rumours the club were unhappy with the side's performance.

Winkelman and Ince have enjoyed a good working relationship over two spells

Perhaps Ince has walked before he was pushed? Or maybe he's realising that the old football adage about never going back actually has some credence to it? Or is it simply a case of him thinking the club no longer match his ambitions?

Here-in lies a dilemma. As a player, Ince was never lacking in bravery or commitment. He was also incredibly ambitious - trying his luck in Italy with Inter Milan.

He is also clearly someone with great self-belief. His step-up three divisions to take over at Blackburn, despite having just a season and a half of managerial experience, is testament to that.

So does he now not believe he has the ability to achieve results despite working with fewer resources than he's had? Plenty of managers get clubs to punch above their weight - does he not feel he is able to do the same?

For a man who, in his playing days, never shirked a challenge as a combative midfielder, why not accept the challenge of getting more for less?

What does this say about Ince the manager? Someone who requires a big chequebook to do his job? After all, his success in League Two with the Dons came with a budget that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Championship.

Perhaps too, he is a man with delusions of grandeur about his managerial ability and standing? Despite his protestations about being given a lack of time at Blackburn, he was out of his depth at Ewood Park.

He has also now failed to get a Milton Keynes side challenging when they should have been competing for the top six in League One.

A top manager is one that can sustain success - not just live off one successful season.

It also raises questions about where Ince would look to get back into management? Does a man, once praised for beginning at the bottom, now believe he is too good for the lower divisions? His record states otherwise.

He was famously upset that he wasn't considered for the vacant Wolves job when he ended his playing days at the Black Country club. Would a Championship club be any more willing to take him on now though, after his recent failings?

Or maybe it is simply a case of the manager believing that a club no longer has the same ambition, and he wishes to pursue a fresh challenge? If so, then what does this say about the future of the Milton Keynes project?

The club have averaged around 10,000 for home matches this season. If that was in the Championship, only three clubs would have lower gates.

Admittedly, the team have underperformed and, in a higher division, more away fans could be expected to boost numbers. However, it would be hard to see average gates of more than 14,000.

That's not impossible to challenge on at the top end of the Championship, as Doncaster and Blackpool have proved this term. It indicates though that the young club, despite all their talk of potential, may have to wait for it to be realised.

Ince's departure is a cold reality check for the Dons. Although they were too big for the basement division, they have no divine right to be promoted out of League One.

stadium:mk has room for development and hopes to host 2018 World Cup games

Particularly now, with many ex-Premier League teams having found themselves relegated through to the third tier due to financial problems.

Clubs like Leeds, Norwich, and Southampton all have fan bases built up over generations - with loyal supporters who they can be assured won't desert them.

That bond - that embracing of their local football club by the people of Milton Keynes - will take a similar length of time to develop.

They, and the club, must be willing to be patient as, barring a rich benefactor, a club's potential is only measured by its fan base.

Perhaps then, a few years in League One, consolidating their support and position, will actually be of benefit to the Dons.

It appears Winkelman, sensibly, is tempering his ambition and not throwing the same levels of money around.

Although any new manager will have less to work with though, they can be assured of the support of a chairman who has shown he has a better grasp of appointing managers than most.

They have tended to go for younger managers like Ince and Di Matteo - giving them a chance to earn and impress only to see them cherry picked by teams in higher divisions.

Former Watford and Reading boss, Brendan Rodgers, fits the bill and has been heavily linked with stadium:mk over the last couple of months.

A return to the game
at Milton Keynes after being sacked by the Berkshire club last year wouldn't be a surprise to anyone.

No-one can accuse the Dons of lacking vision - they believe, one day, they can be a Premier League club. They are also in the running to stage games at the 2018 World Cup, should England host the tournament.

There's an old saying though which says such good things come to those who wait. Young they may be, but Milton Keynes must strive against impatience.

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