Countdown to kick-off in League Two: Allen takes a fall to put Dons back on their feet

A tough challenge lies ahead for Martin Allen, one of the English game's brightest coaching prospects
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The Independent Online

Martin Allen looked across the room towards his management team, his coach Adrian Whitbread and sports scientist Damien Doyle. "When I started out I brought them in because they were young and cheap. I promised them if they did OK, and educated themselves, and I did OK, I would take them with me."

As Allen moved on from Barnet, in the Conference, to the brink of the Championship with Brentford, acquiring a reputation as one of the game's bright young managers in the process, hitching their fortunes to his must have looked a shrewd move. But Whitbread and Doyle could be forgiven for stifling a snort when Allen recalled his sales pitch to them this week. Allen's journey to the stars has taken an unexpected detour. Instead of the trio planning a Premiership campaign with Charlton, as was mooted when Allen resigned at Brentford in May, or even plotting a Championship campaign with Crystal Palace, they are working out of a sports centre pavilion in Milton Keynes. Their task is to revive the fortunes of probably the most unpopular club in the Football League: The MK Dons, aka Franchise FC.

Instead Whitbread and Doyle continued to work diligently at their paperwork in preparation for tomorrow's season opener against Bury while Allen outlined the reasons for his move.

"I enjoyed a great two years at Brentford and was bitterly disappointed not to get promoted," he said, "but I thought it was time for someone else to take the club forward their way." In other words, Allen recognised a conflict between his desire to invest in another promotion push, and the new supporter-run board's determination to pay off the club's inherited debt and secure its long-term future. Two understandable, but incompatible ambitions. Allen then turned off the phone and went on holiday with his family. As the wrinkles on his brow testify, Allen is one of those managers who puts everything into the job and, after four years in management, needed the breather.

On his return he began speaking to interested chairmen including Pete Winkleman, the progenitor and chairman of MK Dons. Winkleman, like Allen, exudes positivity. The pair give off enough energy to light a small town. Nevertheless Winkleman's evangelical faith in his project has been sorely tested both by the extent of the opposition to moving the Dons and subsequent relegations. Bury are not the opposition he envisaged selling to the Milton Keynes public. Allen is his third manager, after Stuart Murdoch and Danny Wilson, and hiring him is both a coup, and the last throw of the dice. Next season the new stadium opens and MK Dons need to move in while on an upward curve.

"The stadium is unbelievable, just awesome," said Allen. "It was certainly a factor in coming here. The attention to detail is amazing and it will have top-quality training facilities alongside, indoor and out." But can the MK Dons fill it? "That is the challenge," said Allen. "The club had 7,500 watching a relegation season and have sold more season tickets than ever before. This city has 250,000 people. There are a lot of young children but no Premiership clubs in the area. In time those children will want to watch live football. A winning team could get those children in."

Winkleman, said Allen, was "the only one who looked me in the eye and said 'I want you to be our manager'. That was the reaction I was looking for. The relationship between the chairman and manager is very important. He has given me the reins to manage the whole club, and I can help him develop it on and off the field." Did the manner of the club's formation prompt misgivings? "Yes, of course. I have great sympathy for the people of Wimbledon. I know how important football is to people. When I was manager of Brentford the first pre-season game I arranged was with AFC Wimbledon. It was their first match back at a League club. They had a tremendous turnout, it was a great night. I don't know the financial implications of what was happening, their ground situation, so I can't really comment, but I have great sympathy for their supporters."

Allen also met, head-on, two criticisms of him. That his teams play unattractive, long-ball football, and he has no loyalty. "At Brentford our crowds went up from 4,000 to 6,500 so someone must have liked watching it," he said. "In our first season my goal was to stay up. I brought in strong, experienced, direct players. We were tough to play against. But that summer I brought in younger, quicker, technically better players, and changed our pattern of play.

"As for loyalty, I understand that supporters feel let down and betrayed when managers that do well leave, but when managers leave who haven't done well, supporters say 'thank God he's gone'. They don't realise the manager still has to pay his mortgage and feed his kids.

"Last week, at our football in the community event, there was a young boy in Brentford kit. He said 'I can't believe you left us, why did you leave'? I took him aside and tried to explain that this is my job, I have four teenage boys, I have to do the best for my family. What he said meant a lot to me, but if I'd been crap he would have said 'thank God you left'. I still have some Brentford kit and I will be sending it to him, and a letter. Hopefully, he will keep it rather than chuck it."

And so to this season. Allen has persuaded several of the better players, like Dean Lewington, to stay, and made some promising signings. The rebuilt squad were then taken to Devon for training interspersed with morning swims and war games. This gave Allen the opportunity to assess their character.

"I learnt a lot. The ones who don't fancy a freezing pool at 8am, the ones who stand on the side, are probably the ones who, when you go away in the middle of winter on a Tuesday night, won't fancy that either. In the laser games you soon see the people who are strategists, the ones who are prepared to sacrifice themselves against the enemy, and the ones who stood at the back hiding, hoping not to get shot. Which ones do you want with you up north in January?" If it is a critical season for Winkleman's Dons it is also, admits Allen, "a big season for me. If this clubs flops, if I don't do it, everything I have done over the last few years goes to pot. I'll be way further down the rungs on the ladder.

"A lot of people said they thought I would get a job higher up the League, but I am very happy here. Dropping down to Division Two is no problem for me. I feel very confident and very excited. I am thinking not of the Conference but of promotion, of the new stadium, and an exciting future."

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