From pariahs to paragons: MK Dons are doing it right

When Russell Martin swapped MK Dons for south Wales at the tail end of pre-season, the Dons went from everybody’s promotion dark horses to the unknown entities of League One.

An equally unknown entity in the form of Liam Manning was chosen as Martin’s replacement, though the role reflected the modern switch from manager to head coach, the first appointment of its type in MK’s short history.

Just five months into his tenure, Manning’s name is another already being linked with the higher echelons of English football, such has been the ease with which he has taken to working in the EFL. Unlike his predecessor Martin, who had a largely successful EFL and Premier League career culminating in his playing days at stadium:mk before moving into the dugout, Manning has barely a playing career to speak of. Five years were shared almost equally in the youth academies of Norwich and then Ipswich without a senior appearance to his name before the midfielder pursued a career in non-league.

This is the 21st century though, when successful playing careers are no longer directly linked with an ability to coach and manage. Having honed his skills working with youngsters for four years at the helm of West Ham’s under-23 side, playing a big role in bringing Declan Rice through to the first team at the London Stadium, Manning had to look abroad for his first taste of senior football management.

Much like Brighton chief Graham Potter, whose work with Swedish outfit Ostersunds brought his abilities to mainstream attention, Manning excelled within the City Football Group, working briefly as a Director of Coaching with New York City FC and then academy director before moving within the group to Belgium and First Division B side Lommel SK. The ninth club in the Manchester City family, success had not come easy to Lommel. Bottom of the table upon Manning’s arrival, they finished third in his only season at the club.

The second tier of Belgian football may not scream out as an obvious breeding ground, but football is football at any level in any country. There are different tests in brighter lights, but it can take just as much skill, determination and talent to succeed in the lower divisions of central European football as it does right at the top of the game.

With MK Dons having backed Martin through the summer with a series of smart acquisitions including Mo Eisa, Scott Twine and Max Watters to suit his demands for an intense, possession-based style of play which brought headlines last season for involving goalkeepers so much in build-up play that Ederson would blush, the Buckinghamshire club’s hierarchy knew they could not afford to rip up the blueprint.

Hiring an individual who could continue the work Martin had begun was far more important than hiring a well-known name. And while Martin had been a better-known name, he had proven that a managerial novice could prove to be a success. Despite being unknown to almost everybody prior to his arrival, Manning was at least coming with some proven pedigree in management.

Almost everything since has proven it to be one of the managerial masterstrokes of the season, all the more impressive considering Martin swapped MK Dons for Swansea the week before the EFL season began.

They are the newest club in the EFL, and their position as pantomime villains is well-established, but there are few clubs at this level who are more sure of their identity right now than MK Dons. Having a head coach and sporting director duality helps, and Liam Sweeting has proven his dues since taking to the latter role in May 2021. The director of football role is still being perfected in England, but MK are further ahead than most despite it being a relatively new post in their own set-up.

It is why Wolves saw fit to recall winger Theo Corbeanu from a season-long loan at Sheffield Wednesday before sending him back out almost immediately to MK Dons, seeing them as a much more beneficial destination for Corbeanu’s development. As such, the youngster marked his debut at Portsmouth with a well-taken goal which proved decisive in yet another MK victory this campaign.

Similarly, the departure of goalkeeper Andrew Fisher to link up with Martin at Swansea could have proven disastrous, but within 24 hours the club had a replacement with the loan arrival of Jamie Cumming from Chelsea, who had impressed with Gillingham in the first half of the campaign.

That Wolves and Chelsea both saw fit to halt relatively successful loan spells to see them spend the rest of the campaign with Manning’s side speaks volumes as to how the club within the game. Their birth may have been coldly manufactured, but they are a beacon of how to run a successful club after one too many missteps in the last decade and a half.

There is a feeling that the top four clubs in League One – Wycombe, Sunderland, Rotherham and Wigan – are neck and neck for the two automatic promotion spots back to the Championship. After them, and only a couple of points behind, are MK Dons and Liam Manning, looking every bit as capable of claiming a place in the second tier.

With the way the club operates, and the long-term vision being employed over the short-term gambles some of their rivals are taking, it can be a case of if not this season, then next, or the one after that. It may be too hard a pill for some to swallow and admit, but more clubs should be like MK Dons.

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