Howard's hat-trick leaves Dons long way from home

Milton Keynes Dons 1 - Luton Town 4
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The Independent Football

When a crushing home defeat is the stuff of dreams one can barely imagine what nightmares are made of but that is the reality of life at football's "big experiment".

When a crushing home defeat is the stuff of dreams one can barely imagine what nightmares are made of but that is the reality of life at football's "big experiment".

Saturday was a huge day for the Milton Keynes Dons, aka Wimbledon, also known as Franchise FC. It was their first "local derby" since uprooting the game's Cinderella club - albeit a Cinders with sharp elbows - from south London's congested streets to the land of concrete cows and grassy roundabouts. As such it was a chance to "make the region catch fire for football," to quote Pete Winkelman, the chairman of MK Dons.

There were wisps of smoke but little evidence of flames. With the aid of 3,184 Luton fans MK Dons did muster their largest attendance since West Ham visited a year ago. However, the home support was fewer than 5,000. Add in a managerless team plummeting towards the professional game's bottom tier (and quite possibly beyond), plus uncertainty over the construction of the new 30,000-seat stadium, and the scale of the task facing Winkelman is clear.

Fortunately for his sanity, the entrepreneur is one of those people for whom the National Hockey Stadium is always half-full, rather than half-empty. "What we are doing is not for the last few weeks or the next few weeks, it is for the next 100 years so we are at the very beginnings of the journey," he said before meeting and greeting sponsors. "We're obviously very disappointed to be at the wrong end of the table but that's football and that [football] is what we want.

"The biggest marketing device in football, whatever league you are in, is winning. If you lose, and we've lost since we got to Milton Keynes, that is a very difficult position to market from. We have got as many loyal fans following us as Wimbledon ever had. That is not a bad starting position."

This is not strictly true. Even taking into account floating and away support the old Wimbledon attracted more than the 3,000-odd MK regulars. Indeed, AFC Wimbledon, who at the present rate of both clubs' progress will pass MK in the non-League pyramid in 2007, are getting that in the Ryman First Division. However, the last time Wimbledon were at this level, in their relegation season in the old Third Division in 1982, they averaged gates of 2,595 at Plough Lane.

Bedrock support grew as the club climbed but was then constrained by the move to Selhurst Park. After they dropped out of the Premiership in 2000, gates fell below 8,000.

Which brings us to the big question: can the move ever be justified? Morally it cannot, with any regard to English football's traditions. But, though it may be heresy to suggest it, if the old Dons would otherwise have been condemned to permanent exile, and inevitable decline, there is logic to the move. Exile meant that the support base, under competition from Chelsea's rise, failed to grow and Merton Council never seemed serious about bringing Wimbledon back to the borough. While Wimbledon were in the Premiership, TV money and uncommitted support kept the club afloat. But after relegation the future was grim. The support base was simply not big enough to sustain a club above League One at best.

Which, AFC Wimbledon fans will point out, is where MK Dons are now, but Winkelman is right to suggest that the potential for growth in Milton Keynes is there - if he can tap into it. "Milton Keynes represents the biggest inward migration in this country's history," he said. "Over 200,000 people have moved here. But Milton Keynes did not exist when football was formed in this country and there is no football culture. We have to build one and we haven't exactly come here in a trail-blazing fashion. We still have some of the original Wimbledon fans but the future of the club depends on becoming part of this community. That may take months, years or perhaps a generation."

Winkelman is pinning his hopes on luring supporters through their children - the area has disproportionately large junior football participation. So, however, does America but even a thriving national team has failed to attract "soccer moms" and their offspring to watch the professional game.

Milton Keynes looks American, as is Winkelman's can-do philosophy. So is the concept of moving sports franchises. MK's population, however, is predominantly English and they have not embraced the Dons the way LA welcomed the Brooklyn Dodgers. As Winkelman said: "I think, had football been an enormous part of your life, you would never have moved to Milton Keynes."

Without the Premiership's glamour and cash Winkelman has a tough task and he knows it. In a rare negative thought he admitted: "If anybody had imagined what we would all go through to do it I don't think anybody would have started." Nor did he think anyone would move a club again because both Wimbledon and Milton Keynes were each in unique situations.

There was little on the pitch on Saturday to encourage future franchisers. MK Dons have some promising young talent but lack seasoned pros. Luton, well-balanced and brimming with confidence, overwhelmed them. Rowan Vine's opening goal was spectacular, Steve Howard's hat-trick clinically taken. They had youth and experience, width and drive. It was easy to see why they were top. For the Dons, Wade Small's close-range goal offered brief hope but no more.

The final word went to Luton's manager, Mike Newell, whose funereal countenance belied his team's success. "It's a local derby, but for us it'll never replace Watford; there is a history to that which is what football is all about."

Goals: Vine (8) 0-1; Howard (45) 0-2; Small (45) 1-2; Howard (67) 1-3; Howard (84) 1-4.

Milton Keynes Dons: (4-4-2) Martin; Edds, Ntimban-Zeh, Palmer, Puncheon; Kamara, Smith, Chorley, Rizzo (Tapp, 70); McLeod, Small (Smart, 56). Substitutes not used: Bevan (gk), Mackie, McKoy.

Luton Town: (4-4-2) Beresford; Foley, Davies, Coyne, Davis (Holmes, 90); Brkovic (Keane, 80), Nicholls, O'Leary, Underwood; Howard, Vine. Substitutes not used: Seremet (gk), Showunmi, Bayliss.

Referee: G Salisbury (Lancashire).

Booked: Milton Keynes Dons: Smart, Puncheon; Luton Town: Nicholls.

Man of the match: Howard.

Attendance: 7,620.