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stadium:mk
  England v
Finland
Under 21's International Game
Thursday, 14 November 2013, 7.45pm

Tim Sansom
(England fan)

1. Why you were looking forward to going to the ground (or not as the case may be):

I cannot believe that ten years have passed since Wimbledon FC changed into Milton Keynes Dons FC. I can truly assure you that a whole decade has really drifted by since the team, defined by their FA Cup triumph in 1988, was morphed up the M1 to Buckinghamshire, rebranded, and repackaged into a new footballing outfit, new strip and new logo, playing at MK’s National Hockey Stadium to howls of outrage from the wider football community. I vaguely remember talk about boycotts of the Dons back in 2003 and 2004 with cries that the true soul of the ‘beautiful’ game had been trampled to pieces with this move of a club from its roots to a totally different part of the UK.

Time has passed. Matches have been won and lost. Other professional teams are no more but AFC Wimbledon have made a remarkable journey to the professional leagues. MK Dons have moved to a new stadium towards the south of MK, and bigger issues have taken over the minds of the wider footballing public whether in MK, South West London or further afield. However, I wanted to visit the stadium, to not only see the home of MK Dons, but also truly believe that England’s youth are starting to pass the ball on the floor than high into the midnight sky. After watching recent England ‘senior’ performances on the way to World Cup 2014, I had resolved to stop moaning about anything to do with the national team. I had seen hopeful signs in the game that the national team were playing more like a respectable international side in 2013. The promise of a £10 ticket helped me to make the journey from the other side of Buckinghamshire towards MK and Stadium MK. 

2.How easy was your journey/finding the ground/car parking?

It was never going to be that easy or uplifting to drive across a range of A grade single carriageway roads on a dark and cold Thursday night in this endless build up to Christmas. Despite having two respectable motorways ploughing their way through the county, Buckinghamshire seems to be mostly made up of twisty A roads winding their way around the Chilterns without a real sense that you are going anywhere.

I tried to tackle Aylesbury during the rush hour, and spent a long while watching the flickering lights of Stoke Mandeville station, trying to find a local radio station that was not playing hysterical adverts about ‘unbeatable’ offers or sofas, or the back catalogue of Olly Murs. I settled on a local radio ‘politics hour’ that had an air of tension between the participants, and I continued to drive along more A grade single carriageway roads until I saw the bright lights of Milton Keynes.  I drove along the A5 to MK as if I was one of the three kings travelling to the star of Bethlehem. It had been a surprisingly long journey.

Having only been to MK on a couple of occasions, and having critically not done enough research where Stadium MK was in relation to the City, I remembered that MK rivals Basingstoke for the sheer number of roundabouts, I was anxious to avoid spending the rest of my Thursday night driving around a never ending roundabout with increasingly dashed dreams of football. I bailed off the A5 too early, and found myself in Bletchley near to a Tesco superstore. I needed the help of a friendly petrol station cashier to get me to the stadium which is near to Bletchley IKEA and a shockingly large ASDA. It was only by chance that I saw the stadium lights.

I parked in a nearby industrial estate, where it seemed that the whole of MK was parking up for the night. The stadium certainly cuts an impressive figure, on the other side of the road, and reminded me of a smaller City of Manchester/ Etihad Stadium with the bowl of the stadium cut into the ground. I had made the end of a long journey, and as always happens when I am in new football stadium, I start gabbling at random people like an over-excited child to get myself into the ground. The ticket office operative was very patient with me.  

3. What you did before the game pub/chippy.... home fans friendly?

Stadium MK is designed for the modern football fan. There must be football fans who want to go shopping for Swedish furniture, buy some clothes, and choose their Sunday roast, and then take in a bit of gentle football before they head home for their Saturday night. If you are one of those fans, Stadium MK is a dream come true for you. This is not a ground for that experience of walking through terraced streets, have a pint at a spit and sawdust local and then shuffle off to the ground like a real life Lowry painting.

I went to get some cashback from the local Asda, and quickly debated whether it was worth buying a plastic England souvenir from the stall holders that were dotted across the ground. I declined that opportunity but brought a programme from a young programme seller who seemed so pleased that I had chosen his stand to buy my programme. He warmed my heart. The atmosphere was friendly full of families, and groups of mates. A (sadly) increasingly different audience that seems to watch a football match at many grounds these days.  

4. What you thought on seeing the ground, first impressions of away end then other sides of the ground?

More evidence of Stadium MK being designed for the modern football fan was the wide sweeping concourses where you could buy a range of refreshments. The Stadium has a similar feeling to Bolton’s Reebok Stadium in addition to Manchester City’s grounds, and the seats were like the Emirates seats. They offered much more than the bucket seats beloved on many grounds and 80s running track arenas across the UK. I brought a £2 hot chocolate and ate a chunky Yorkie bar, which is fast becoming my snack of choice at match day football. The national anthems were played with me having such a sugar rush, which I have not really experience since I was about 6 years old.
I was sitting towards the left of the players tunnels and the sightlines were pretty good to see the whole of the action. There is an upstairs to the stadium that is waiting to be filled. Regardless about how this club came into being, I sensed that the club and the stadium remain on the belief that they will progress and become a Premiership outfit. Compared to other clubs, there is a sense that the Dons and Stadium MK have not plateaued at League One level. Whether they will ever get the stadium to be totally filled is another more difficult matter. However, a large crowd had turned up for this England U21 game. 

5. Comment on the game itself, atmosphere, stewards, pies, toilets etc..

There was not much of an atmosphere in the stadium. Mexican waves occasionally rippled around the stadium but the increasingly cold weather made these waves become nothing more than little wrinkles. There seemed to be endless people walking in and out of the stands to get more fast food from the catering outlets, disturbing the sense that we were enjoying this football together. For many people, the football became more and more of a side show which was a bit of a pity, because watching an England player actually run with the ball is something that needs to be cherished rather than ignored.

Watching Wilfred Zaha and Raheem Sterling, as well as Will Hughes, and Saido Berahino fight for the ball and have the energy and guile to make something of their possession was so heart-warming. Michael Keene may become another important Man Utd product for the England defence in years to come. After years when it has seemed that the only way that England could play was by behaving like it was a sporting version of the gunfight at the OK Corall, I began to believe that there was a future for International football. Finland were so poor but I hope that the momentum of these England players is not allowed to be stifled.

6.Getting Away From The Ground

As the night became even colder, and the match began to fade away, I became increasingly concerned that with not a particularly full tank of petrol, I would be marooned in the Milton Keynes industrial estate, suck in a never ending gridlocked jam of increasingly angry drivers. I left a couple of minutes before final whistle (which I hate to do,) and was still in a jam onto Grafton Street (V6.) where I chanced my luck, turned left passed the stadium and found myself on the A5 heading towards Dunstable. Annoyed in a very male sort of way that if I had not bailed out on the way to the stadium, I would not have wasted petrol driving around Bletchley, I drove south back towards South Buckinghamshire. I am unsure whether I would have spent the next hour in jams around the stadium if I had waited till the final whistle. It is always a risk to take at football stadiums, but I will always try to stay for the full 90 minutes if I can. 

7. Overall Comments on the Day Out

Whilst I was driving along the alarmingly straight A5, and jumping in and out of a late night radio music mix of more Olly Murs, Billy Joel, and The Stylistics, I managed to listen to the post match deliberations on the local radio station. The pundits seemed a bit sniffy about the whole evening. Although I would have to agree that Finland were desperately poor, and there was not much atmosphere in the stadium, I thought that England played well. The radio seemed a bit sniffy about the national team trying to ‘play like Barcelona.’ What is wrong with the team trying to take lessons from one of the most important football teams in the world at this present time?

I did enjoy my visit to Stadium MK and would recommend the opportunity if you need to see some football in the area, or you have the chance to watch your club in this part of Buckinghamshire. After a troubled and controversial upbringing nearly 10 years, I think that the club is still trying to go places. Whether the club will ever warm itself to the traditionalists, will be a whole different ball game. 


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