Strange times these at Manchester United. Not only is United’s side distinctly average, but the Glazer family has sanctioned more than £120 million in spending during this summer’s window to correct the failure; £200 million over the past 12 months. The world turn on its head. While the Americans’ relatively loose purse-strings has much to do with the family’s under-investment over the past eight years, United’s distinct mediocrity is a sight absent for a quarter-century.
The League Cup’s second round is a case in point: it is almost two decades since United last entered the tournament at a stage reserved for England’s lesser lights and clubs not in European competition. The last time United played at this stage was October 1995 versus York City. The Reds lost.
It is some come down for a manager as decorated as Louis van Gaal. Still, the match at stadium:mk proffers opportunity to a clutch of young players not yet given matches under Van Gaal’s leadership. More important, perhaps, a chance for the Reds to claim a first victory during the Dutchman’s tenure. United’s draw with Sunderland and the loss to Swansea City have come at the expense of intense national debate.
Better results will come of course, not least when a handful of players return from injury. Van Gaal is without Chris Smalling for the trip south after the England international suffered a groin injury against Sunderland at the weekend. Meanwhile Ander Herrera will not be risked despite returning to training this week. Rafael da Silva, Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick, Jesse Lingard and Marouane Fellaini remain on the sidelines.
New signing Marcos Rojo is yet to receive a work permit, although United should push through a £59 million deal for Angel Di Maria before the weekend’s Premier League fixture with Burnley at Turf Moor. The Argentinian holds an Italian passport and will be cleared to play as soon as the international paperwork is filed with FIFA.
Michael Keane, Tyler Blackett and Tom Thorpe could all feature in an inexperienced defence, while dynamic striker James Wilson will find a place on the bench at a minimum. Van Gaal may also include Javier Hernández, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck in the team to face MK Dons – none of the trio appears to feature in the Dutchman’s preferred XI.
Meanwhile, Milton Keynes manager Karl Robinson is without first choice goalkeeper David Martin and full-back Lee Hodson, although midfielder Samir Carruthers could play after recovering from a thigh problem. Robinson has built a reputation for playing good football over fours years in charge of Milton Keynes. The Scouser is just 33, but took over at MK Dons in his late 20s twenties after spending time as Paul Ince’s assistant.
The Dons formed when Wimbledon relocated to Milton Keynes in September 2003, more than a year after receiving clearance from the Football Association. It was a decision that many supporters find as disgraceful today as it was more than a decade years ago. Initially called “Wimbledon,” MK Dons renamed in 2004 and eventually relinquished records and trophies to the reformed AFC Wimbledon in 2007.
The convoluted history means that United is yet to face MK Dons in the club’s current guise, although the Glazer family might find some level of simpatico with MK Dons’ predatory chairman Pete Winkelman. The businessman forced through the relocation in 2003 and spent years refusing to ‘hand back Wimbledon’s history’. The debate rages on, with Milton Keynes unwilling to drop the “Dons” moniker despite a long-running supporter-led campaign. The reward: on Tuesday Winkelman’s side will face United in front of a sell-out 29,000 capacity crowd.
“Will I feel vindicated? It’s not about feeling vindicated, I’ll feel pleased,” Winkelman told The Independent.
“I would like to have done something that could be respected rather than upsetting. But it was always about a stadium for Milton Keynes. I knew that and being able to fill the stadium for this match shows other people that the idea of top-flight football in Milton Keynes is still alive.”
“Do I still feel the same way as I did 10 years ago? No. I understand the culture of English football much more, so I have many different feelings about how we got here. But what is clear is that there had to be football here. Tonight is a dream come true.”
For Wimbledon it is anything but a dream – and there is no little irony in Milton Keynes having beaten AFC Wimbledon in round one of this year’s League Cup competition.
United’s challenge is different. The global fanbase and blue chip sponsors are already in place, but it means little without success on the pitch. This is a goal Van Gaal is striving towards, albeit one that has hit two significant roadblocks over the past 10 days.
“It is a process,” claimed the Dutcman last week. One in which victory in Milton Keynes will contribute much – not least to a squad’s confidence, which appears little more than paperthin.
MK Dons (4-4-1-1): McLoughlin; Baldock, Lewington, Kay, McFadzean; Alli, Potter, Powell, Reeves, Bowditch; Grigg.
United (3-4-1-2): Amos; Thorpe, Keane, Blackett; Valencia, Cleverley, Januzaj, James; Kagawa; Welbeck, Hernández
MK Dons: Flanagan, Spence, Randall, Hitchcock, Carruthers, Afobe, Burns
United: Johnstone, de Gea, Smalling, Jones, Zaha, Powell, Blackett, Fletcher, Young, Mata, Rooney, Van Persie, Wilson.
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Assistant referees: Ryan T Atkin and Ian Cooper
Fourth Official: Keith Hill
MK Dons 1 – 2 United
£1 bet club
Javier Hernandez & 1-2 @ 22/1
Running total: £(-)2