MK Dons FanZoner Dominic Damesick met Karl Robinson this week and went away a happier man!
Robinson convinced Dons are moving in the right direction
If you doubt Karl Robinson, the system his MK Dons side play or his vision for football in Milton Keynes, just spend twenty minutes in his office. I was fortunate enough to do just that on Tuesday afternoon, and was struck by Robinson's intense belief in himself, his tactics, his squad and his club's future.
The MK Dons' manager, now in his third season at the helm, speaks sincerely and openly, addressing the questions put to him with conviction, and a belief that is quite infectious. His articulation of his long-term vision for Milton Keynes Dons borders on the poetic, and his dedication to his job and his players borders on inspirational. In short, if one does not have faith that Karl Robinson is the right man for the job, then a meeting with him is more than enough for a 'Road to Damascus' moment: the scales will fall from your eyes!
I began by asking the MK Dons' manager about his tactical system, and whether he has any temptation to change it: 'we're surpassing any of our stats from last season', the Dons boss informs me. 'The difference is the ball is not going in the net.' It is hard to disagree. Chances galore have been created in the last few games; the problem has been converting them. Robinson must be tempted to lace up his boots and give himself a go at finishing the chances his side is creating.
Alternatively, I hear Ian Wright was a useful striker in his day. Over the course of the next twenty minutes Robinson and I discuss the four main striking options contracted to the Dons. I begin with the forgotten man: Jabo Ibehre. 'There's still a future for Jabo Ibehre [at this club]', Robinson assures me, indicating that the powerful forward was struggling at the start of the season and went out on loan to find some form.
Robinson is quick to endorse Ibehre's character though, and pays tribute to the 'good relationship' the two enjoy. He also speaks highly of the professionalism of Ryan Lowe and Charlie MacDonald. However, as with Ibehre, he appears unconvinced by their recent performances. Robinson muses that - in the case of Ryan Lowe - 'sometimes things don't fit'; and while he calls MacDonald a 'wonderful professional' I cannot imagine he is satisfied with the returns delivered by the diminutive striker so far this season.
Robinson's highest praise for any of his strikers is probably reserved for Alan Smith: 'Smithy can score goals, but Smithy also wins us headers, he also gets us up the pitch and he's a good person as well'. He adds: 'if you played Alan Smith every week [as a striker] he'd probably get into double figures'.
However, Robinson adds an important caveat: 'Smithy can't play Saturday, Tuesday with his ankle, obviously there's a physical permutation with that one'. So, Alan Smith will not be the regular goalscorer the Dons so desperately require. Back to the drawing board it is then.
Robinson, in his defence, is acutely aware of this key shortcoming in his side: 'we're a player away; we're a forward finding form away [from turning the corner]'. The MK Dons boss will back his strikers 'to an extent', but also accepts that a change in personnel may be required, although he laments that there are 'not many out there for a price we can afford'. 'It's not like Championship manager', the Dons boss quips, 'I have budget constraints'.
I query, though, what happens if the goals do not arrive. Presumably, the club will still not be in a position to afford a new striker? So what will happen: will it be game over? Robinson is crisp in his response: 'I'll obviously have to try and get people out and get [other] people in'. It is the only time he borders on terse with me: the strain of the situation briefly witnessed.
Three themes constantly recur throughout my time with Robinson: respect, context and ambition. Robinson continually stresses to me his respect for the MK Dons' supporters and their opinions, refusing to condemn even his side's harshest critics. He accepts that some of the things fans may shout or write can be upsetting, 'but is it something that lingers in your head? I can't let it'.
Besides, Robinson insists that only 'five percent don't like what we're doing... I listen to the ninety-five percent.' While his estimations are possibly a little generous, Robinson is probably right: he still has the backing of the majority of the fans. He deserves their backing too, working tirelessly for the better of the football club - I was exhausted just by hearing about his schedule of watching matches and scouting players - and doing as much as he can to engage with the fans - last week's fans forums being a case in point.
The young manager promises, too, that he will 'never ever shirk a question' from a fan. He holds true to this promise in my short time with him. With regards to context, Robinson articulates a long-term vision for the football club, and wants this season - and any troubles the Dons are facing - to be put into context. With a wry smile, he is quick to remind me that the Dons have 'the smallest squad in the league' - he even repeats it for effect - and recalls that his side 'were favourites to go down two years ago'.
The young manager wants fans to remember just how far the club has come in his two and a half seasons at the helm, and states - with complete conviction - that 'it's only going to get better and better'. When Karl Robinson looks you in the eye and delivers this line, with such heartfelt sincerity, one cannot help but believe he will deliver on that statement. It is a gift Robinson has.
Despite some of his grand claims, however, Robinson reasons that, for now, the Dons' position of eighth in the table reflects 'where our budget allows us to be'. I ask Robinson, though, if he can understand the fans' frustrations about recent difficulties given the pre-season hype of pushing for automatic promotion, on the wave of an increased budget.
The Dons' manager replies: 'We've created a monster by overachieving'; a portrayal emerges of a side who are becoming victims of their own success. This is the one area, however, where I do not feel that Robinson has fully addressed my concerns. His explanation that, given budget constraints, eighth position is not necessarily an underachievement rings somewhat true, but I cannot help but wonder what happened to all the pre-season talk of finishing in the top two: what has changed between July and now?
Maybe Robinson was over-zealous in his pre-season predictions; or maybe he is being conservative in his analysis now, as he begins to feel the pressure of falling behind the leading pack? Only he knows.