Milton Keynes Dons missed out on promotion to the Championship last season via the Play-Offs, so the Buckinghamshire outfit are hoping to build a side to challenge once again.
Ball-playing defender Harry Darling has gone to Swansea for an estimated fee of £1.5 million and star forward Scott Twine – 20 goals and 13 assists last term – has reportedly been the subject of a £3 million bid from Hull City.
Add to that the departures of regular starters Jamie Cumming, Kaine Kesler-Hayden, Conor Coventry and Troy Parrott – who all spent 2021-22 on loan at Stadium:MK – and Sporting Director Liam Sweeting and Head Coach Liam Manning have plenty of work to do.
The defence has been strengthened with Jack Tucker signing from Gillingham, while midfielder Ethan Robson returns permanently after his loan spell in the first half of last season. 20-year-old forward Matthew Dennis also joins from Norwich.
To discuss the state of play, we caught up with Liam Connolly from the MK1 Podcast.
Firstly, how would you assess last season?
LC: “Last season for Dons was arguably the best the club has ever had, which only makes the way it ended that bit more sickening.
“Watching talents like Harry Darling, now of Swansea and Scott Twine blossom was truly a joy to watch and the connection throughout the club emulated that too.
“With the way that the previous management team departed the club, Manning and Co picked up the pieces and came so close to the perfect start, with a lot of credit going to Liam Sweeting and the recruitment team also.”
What do you make of the released/retained list and your business in general so far?
LC: “Retained list is as expected for a Dons fan who attended most of last season. Baldwin and Boateng were solid squad players but could never nail down a starting role. Wickham was always a short-term fix to add another dimension.
“Picking up the extensions of Harvie and Watson was vital too, the latter I’m sure picking up plenty of interest due to his progress last season.”
What is the aim for this window and what positions would you like to see strengthened and why?
LC: “I think the primary aim has to be to rebuild the spine of this Dons side, starting with the goalkeeper.
“With Ravizzoli being the first team option in the squad, a keeper must come in. One who can command his area and be a strong shot stopper would be the preference.
“Next up is centre midfield. With David Kasumu likely to move on, a physical yet composed centre mid needs to arrive in MK1 to fill for his absence.
“Then the striker position, where multiple faces are needed with the long-term injury to Mo Eisa. Both of these players have to offer different dimensions.
“One who is pacey, athletic and of course can score goals. A second option needs to be more physical and target man like.
“For now Scott Twine is still a MK Dons player, but that is looking less likely by the day. A creative winger is much needed on that left hand side to best fill his absence.
“Other positions needed are RWB, RW and perhaps a CB.”
What should be the target for next season?
LC: “Based on the transfer fees being received and the recruitment and coaching in place, a top 6 finish is definitely not out of the question for the Dons this season.
“There is a lot of recruitment that needs to be done still but this MK side will grow into this 22/23 season, and finish the season strong, and who knows where that takes them.”
With that in mind, here are eight suggested #SuttonsSignings for the Dons…
Carl Rushworth (Brighton) –
On-loan goalkeepers can prove a real success below the Premier League, because it’s a position in which many clubs attach so much weight to the importance of experience, that very good players get overlooked due to being young.
Portsmouth struck gold at this level with Gavin Bazunu, Bolton with James Trafford and MK Dons with Jamie Cumming.
Not only did Rushworth star in League Two with Walsall last season, he also has rave reviews from Brighton and the local non-league scene.
Romoney Crichlow (Huddersfield Town) –
Dean Lewington is a Milton Keynes Dons icon, a fantastic ambassador for the football club, a true leader and one of the most progressive defenders in the league.
He’s also 38. To start 42 league games for a top six side last season was an astonishing achievement, yet the club has to account for the possibility that he might not replicate that feat in 2022-23.
Zak Jules would not have been loaned to Fleetwood last term if deemed a compelling alternative and, barring an outstanding pre-season, Jack Davies may be handed a non-league loan, so the Dons may require a left-sided defender.
Romoney Crichlow impressed on loan at Swindon in the first half of last season and while Macaulay Gillesphey was preferred to him at Plymouth Argyle, he is a progressive, left-footed defender with Championship potential under the right guidance.
Crichlow could be phased into the side over the next couple of seasons, with a view to taking on a more prominent role when Lewington retires from playing in around 2024.
Josh Key (Exeter) –
Ambitious? Perhaps. Sunderland have also had interest in Key and would offer him immediate Championship football.
The 22-year-old would be better-placed to step up to that level though, after a year or two with a League One promotion-contender, a description unlikely to befit his current employers.
Key brings an effervescent energy to the wing-back role, he is a fabulous ball-carrier, he is not afraid to weave inwards and attack the penalty area, while his quality of delivery is second to none.
Plus, what the Devonian may lack in knowhow when it comes to the nuances of defending, he makes up for with his pace in recovery.
Spending a seven-figure fee as a League One club is risky, but if Key steps up to League One as well as expected, his value could rocket.
Jack Moore-Billam (Scunthorpe) –
The 18-year-old would not be one to throw into the first team straight away, but rather to hand a smart progression plan, which may include an initial loan to the National League, under perhaps a three-year contract with the option of a fourth.
The Sheffield-born youngster managed to thrive in his first senior appearances, for an Iron side relegated from League Two at the back-end of last season.
He could come into his own in a better team, with superior coaching and within a more streamlined structure.
Not only does Moore-Billam bring youthful energy and exuberance – he’s not shy to a strong challenge, either – he has a lovely first touch and retains the ball well whilst always looking to play forward, suiting the MK ethos to a tee.
Scunthorpe are strapped for cash and while it is hoped from an altruistic perspective that their ownership troubles are resolved, from a ruthless standpoint it’s something MK Dons can capitalize on.
They could snap up a player of his talent for a fee lower than would ordinarily be expected.
Jack Henry-Francis (Arsenal) –
Sticking with double-barrel-surnamed midfielders named Jack, Henry-Francis might be a smart pickup from Arsenal.
The Gunners youngster excelled in a brief pre-season opportunity under Mikel Arteta last year, with an impressive cameo, and he’s picked up from there.
Henry-Francis is an industrious, ‘tigerish’ defensive midfielder with strong ball-progressing qualities including an excellent passing range, which will suit MK Dons’ possession-heavy style in a loan move.
Arsenal’s Under-23s are not short of midfield options, yet still the 18-year-old has been able to secure a regular starting berth since the turn of the year.
The Ireland youth international’s work rate will be especially important in a 3-4-3, with midfielders tasked with covering a lot of ground and plugging gaps, something Conor Coventry did in understated fashion last term – vital when Josh McEachran supported the press.
David Ajiboye (Sutton United) –
Ajiboye has played on the right of a four-man midfield for Sutton in Matt Gray’s 4-4-2, with the remit of being part of the eight-man block in the defensive phase, then springing forward to form a four-man attack in transition.
Quick, agile and unpredictable, the two-footed winger is just as happy to attack the flank as he is to cut inside and either curl a cross to the back-post, or attempt goal himself.
The fact MK Dons play a 3-4-3, rather than a 4-3-3, means their wide forwards have some responsibility to keep the shape and protect the midfield pairings, and Ajiboye’s energy would help in that regard.
At 23, he can still develop into a good Championship player if he adds upper-body strength: nothing a good summer of gym work can’t solve.
Brandon Thomas-Asante (Salford City) –
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but MK Dons might regret letting Thomas-Asante go back in 2019.
The forward had shown flashes of potential at Stadium:MK but wasn’t fancied by Paul Tisdale who, focused on the short-term remit of promotion, loaned him out twice in 2018-19 before the departure.
Since then, though, the Milton Keynes-born man has played 101 games at Salford, going from being a direct dribbler and super sub in his first season to an athletic attacking threat last term, scoring 11 goals.
The 23-year-old forged an excellent strike-pairing with target man Matt Smith in the second half of 2021-22, but would be equally effective operating wide in a front-three.
The external investment means Salford are not the easiest club to buy from, but if MK Dons can bring ‘BTA’ home, he would contribute to their promotion push and be someone who could subsequently step up to the Championship if it came to that.
Kion Etete (Tottenham Hotspur) –
At 6’6”, Etete would be an obvious reference point.
Without losing their core possession principles, MK Dons have become more adaptable and pragmatic under Manning so if the initial build-up play isn’t opening teams up, the lanky striker is a great option to play more direct to.
Etete only scored three goals for Cheltenham after joining on loan for the second half of the season, but his hold-up play was a huge factor in the team’s strong attacking play – and the goalscoring form of his strike-partner.
Alfie May bagged 23 times last season, 10 of which coming across the 10 games in which he and Etete started simultaneously.
If Tottenham want to give Etete another League One loan as opposed to a step up to the Championship, the 20-year-old could bring MK Dons’ attack to life: even if he doesn’t grab all the headlines to himself.
Elliot Anderson (Newcastle United) –
Another long shot, but Anderson’s arrival on loan was the reason Bristol Rovers won automatic promotion from League Two last season despite being in the bottom half in December.
The agile, versatile forward scored seven goals and grabbed six assists in 21 appearances (20 starts) for the Gas last term, bringing a level of quality that belonged well above the fourth tier.
Newcastle may want Anderson to bypass League One and send him to a Championship Play-Off outsider like Millwall or Coventry, but if they decide on a more measured progression plan, MK Dons would be the perfect destination.
Anderson is very similar stylistically to Twine and his sharp, pinpoint final third play would make him arguably the best player in the league, or joint-best if Sheffield Wednesday’s Barry Bannan is reading this.
If Anderson is unattainable, Thomas-Asante could also be an option for the left of the attack.
Louie Barry (Aston Villa) –
Only three years ago, Barry’s potential was deemed so high that Barcelona picked up the forward from West Brom, before he moved back to the Midlands after a year with Aston Villa.
A loan move to Ipswich for 2021-22 did not quite work out due to the volume of strikers in situ and Paul Cook’s preference for a 4-2-3-1, but Barry showed plenty of promise in League Two with Swindon, scoring six goals in 14.
The 18-year-old wasn’t always fit for the Wiltshire club, but when he was he starred on the left of a three-man attack, bringing lively, clever movement and composed finishing, as well as effective link-up play with Josh Davison and Harry McKirdy.
If MK Dons loan in Etete, someone who is not guaranteed to hit big numbers goals wise, Barry is somebody who could make the most of his selfless work rate and hold-up play as an inside forward.
Although, the Sutton Coldfield-born forward would not be a direct Twine replacement in the sense that he will try to find clear cut chances for himself, rather than attempt to fire at goal from outside the box.
If MK Dons go for two inside forwards who do not create between the lines, it could come together smoothly, especially with potentially Etete dropping into pockets.
However, it would then be essential that wing-backs stay high and wide, the two central midfielders become dual-eights and the wide centre-backs take on recycling duties around the half-way line, so MK still have the means to break down compact blocks when the front-three are not immediately on-song.
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