Ben Joyce considers whether the MK Dons will benefit the England National Team
During the October international break, and the two snooze-fests of England games during them, AFC Wimbledon significantly overtook Milton Keynes Dons in league position for the first time in their histories.
This was a fantastic achievement for the side from Kingsmeadow, as of course many know the evocative story behind this. Last week, Britain’s most unusual derby (if it can be called that) had its second outing in a league game, with MK running out 1-0 winners at Stadium: MK in the reverse fixture in December. Seeing this pop up on my Twitter timeline, it got me thinking: ‘how will this controversial chapter affect the long-term future of English football at national team level?’.
MK Dons have a squad full of talented youngsters, many of whom are probably good enough to make the step up – as proven by the stunning debut season of Dele Alli at Tottenham last year, and his continued good form this. With the New Town of Milton Keynes being a previously untapped area for footballers before the controversial events of 2002’s independent commission, does this mean that those events may actually be good for the future of the English national team?
“MK Dons have a squad full of talented youngsters, many of whom are probably good enough to make the step up.”
First off, let me start with the disclaimer that what was allowed to happen to Wimbledon FC in the early noughties by both the Football Association and Football League was a terrible thing, and should never ever be allowed to be repeated. However, this is not yet another thought-piece on Wimbledon or the state of modern Football, so keep my objections on the existence of the MK Dons to a minimum.
Let me firstly explain , the importance of the phenomenon of ‘New Towns’. For anyone not accustomed to British post-war town planning, it’s vital to understanding the importance to the idea behind this article. A new town was just that, a town built anew; to replace bombed-out homes or homes knocked down in slum clearances of major cities, often within a commutable distance but far enough away to constitute its own town and not be a suburb. Examples of these are Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage, but by far the largest (indeed, during planning it was referred to as the “New City”) is Milton Keynes. It was placed, uniquely in comparison to the new towns, in the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside, roughly equidistant between London, Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge, a town planning success that lead to its sustainability as a city, but a footballing disaster.
Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead were within a commutable distance of London, and close to existing towns in Hertfordshire. This explains why players like Jack Wilshere and Ashley Young, both residents of the former, could be picked up by the academies of Arsenal and Watford respectively. As is the case in modern football, these players were brought into academies at very tender ages. This explains why clubs are only just starting to feel the benefit from the fruits of the MK Dons academy (more on this later). However, Milton Keynes, due to the above positioning, was too far away to be in any major football club’s scouting parameter. This explains how Dele Alli became the first player from the town of Milton Keynes to receive an England cap, almost 50 years after the city’s creation.
With there being no major club nearby, Milton Keynes was what would be called in American sport an ‘untapped market’. A town of around 250,000 people without a Football League side within 20 miles, whose only local offering of football pre-2003 were two different clubs who had gone by the name Milton Keynes City, both playing at Step 9 on the National Pyramid System, and both having gone bust from money issues stemming from a lack of local support. Whilst there is the odd diamond in the non-league rough that ends up playing for England (most notably in recent years are Jamie Vardy and Chris Smalling), these cases are outstandingly rare, meaning it’s not a shock that in the 35 years from Milton Keynes’s inception to the relocation of Wimbledon, not a single notable footballer came from the city.
It must also be said that some of the aforementioned new towns, like Stevenage and Crawley, now have Football League clubs like Milton Keynes does, but this happened the traditional way, through the national pyramid system. This means that their budgets, and therefore both their stadiums and their youth systems are more like a non-league club’s would be (albeit both clubs have been in the Football League enough to invest enough in both stadia and youth to be at the standard for their current divisions), compared to MK’s artificial creation and state-of-the-art infrastructure that many a Championship and even Premier League side would be jealous of. It cannot be said that it’s solely geographical and town planning quirks that explain MK.
“Milton Keynes was what would be called in American sport an ‘untapped market'”.
As I’ve previously said, there’s much already written about the relocation of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes, so I’ll skip over that and instead fast forward to December 20th 2005, where the first MK Dons youth product of note, striker Sam Baldock, makes his debut in a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy loss at home to Colchester United. By the 2008/09 season under Roberto Di Matteo in League One, he becomes a first team regular, scoring 12 in 42 league games at the age of 20. Sam Baldock now plays for Brighton, scoring 4 and assisting 6 as Brighton finished 3rd in the Championship last season. His brother, George, is another MK Dons Academy graduate, and is currently the starting right back at StadiumMK. However, Sam, while it might not seem it, is significant in proving the point of this piece. Not all players who come from a top academy can be world class England regulars. Manchester United are the best example of this; whilst there might not be many big names having come out and solidified starting places since the “Class of ‘92”, you’ll be hard struck to find a team since 2000 who have promoted to the Premier League from the Championship without an ex-Man United youngster in it. On that note, Chelsea are widely noted to have the best academy in the country, having featured in seven of the last nine FA Youth Cup Finals, winning five of them; yet other than Ryan Bertrand starting in Munich in 2012, no graduate of the Chelsea youth system has had a strong impact on the first team since John Terry. Yet the lower leagues are littered with Chelsea loanees, a couple of whom will return and be in the first team squad, but most will end up remaining in the lower leagues: for every David Beckham and John Terry, there’s a Ryan Tunniclife or Rhys Taylor.
“The long-term future seems bright, for both MK Dons and England”.
But for a club of MK Dons’s current stature, these are the kind of player they want to produce for themselves if they wish to get to the Premier League, which has always been the ambition of Pete Winkleman, hence the currently oversized nature of StadiumMK, built ready to host a Premier League club for one then in League Two. So when players like Sheyi Ojo, who was poached from MK Dons by Liverpool at the age of 14, Brendan Galloway or Dele Alli crop up, they move on to bigger and better things, and of course at a price. Ojo was reported to have cost £2 million, Alli an initial £5 million, while Galloway’s fee was undisclosed but rumoured to be around £4 million. This helps MK financially, with these fees being able to pay for their academy, as well as keep the club generally afloat, with ticket sales in the at-best half empty StadiumMK being minimal.
The long-term future seems bright, for both MK Dons and England. Whilst both look in poor positions in the short-term, there is certainly the groundwork in place for good things. With to regards to the aforementioned starlets who have moved on, Alli was of course the PFA Young Player of the Year last season, and has continued his good form into this season; Galloway impressed when filling in for an injured Leighton Baines at Everton last season and is impressing on loan at West Brom in this, and Ojo is in and around Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool squad. On the international front, Alli continues to be first choice in the England midfield under Gareth Southgate, whilst the other two are regulars in England’s under-age squads. Back at MK, earlier this year, their U15 side beat the U15 side of Barcelona, whose La Masia academy is world renowned as probably the best in world football, meaning progress is surely good in Buckinghamshire. There are others in this MK Dons first team who are linked with being the next to take the step up to the Premier League, most notably 17 year-old Brandon Thomas-Asante who has impressed after making his debut earlier this season. And no doubt this will become a recurring theme with those at MK Dons who impress, at least until Pete Winkleman’s dream (and many football fans’ nightmare) and MK reach the Premier League themselves. But that is of course a long way off so far
“There are others in this MK Dons first team who are linked with being the next to take the step up to the Premier League”
In conclusion, whilst the wrongs of the turn of the millennium can never be righted in the eyes of those from Merton and across the footballing community, there could be some consolation. The untapped market of Milton Keynes now has a shiny faucet, which has already produced a couple gems in only 12 years of its existence, and will no doubt continue to create them into the future. Youth development is a lottery, elite players are by definition rare, and so clubs cannot expect every youth player to turn out world class; however, with these previously unseen Buckinghamshire starlets continuing to spring up, it can only be a good thing for the future of an England national team that an area of the country where youth development was non-existent for decades now has a top of the range academy. And as these players continue to be snatched up from MK, and make their mark in the Premier League like Dele Alli has done, and England team which has looked far short of the desired quality in recent years can only improve.