DEAN Lewington likes to talk.
“I’m always happy to have a chat with people when I’m out and about. It’s important to know what folk are thinking. There’s nothing better than having a natter about sport.”
The tone of conversation, though, depends upon Lewington’s proximity to Milton Keynes.
Within the town where he plies his trade, the MK Dons defender is usually assured of an appreciative audience. Venture beyond its boundaries, though, and for some the name is synonymous with everything that is wrong with the game following Wimbledon’s controversial relocation there in 2003.
With Karl Robinson’s side possibly set to face angry ancestors AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup next month, old wounds are set to be re-opened. But 10 seasons on and Lewington, together with David Martin the only surviving member of the squad which made the 50 mile journey north all those years ago, prefers to look forwards not back.
Dons, he told The Star ahead of tomorrow’s League One fixture with Sheffield United, should now be recognised as an important reference point on England’s cultural map. Footballing pioneers rather than Franchise FC.
“When we first started playing here you’d see fans coming to the games wearing Arsenal shirts, Spurs shirts and Chelsea shirts,” Lewington said earlier this week. “There were all sorts of different jerseys in the crowd but very few MK Dons ones.
“That’s changing now. The history of the place means that was inevitable really because so many people moved here from London. I’ve become one of them now myself.
“But we’ve got to the stage now where youngsters are growing up as MK fans. People aren’t just coming here for the novelty of it or because it’s cheaper than going to watch a Premier League club.”
“One of the things the club has worked really hard on is doing good work in and around the area,” Lewington added. “Trying to make sure that people don’t just have a connection with us at weekends or once a fortnight.
“We’ve got womens’ teams, youth teams and teams for people with disabilities.
“Football is such a powerful tool so it’s important that it’s used to promote good causes and different types of work. To bring people together.
“It’s something that everyone here is made to feel very conscious of. It’s as much a part of what we do as the actual match itself and I think that’s vital.”
Of course, not everyone will share the same enthusiasm about MK Dons’ existence.
But what can not be disputed is that Robinson, having guided them to top six finishes in each of the last two campaigns, has fashioned a team capable of challenging for promotion. Or, given their exhaustive outreach work, Dons are blasé about serving the community they represent.
Indeed, as Lewington explained, the opportunity to make rather than wallow in history has proven an advantage when it comes to attracting players. Ensure that future generations associate Milton Keynes is known for football more than grid systems and concrete cows.
“One of the things the gaffer always tells people he’s trying to sign is that they’ve got a chance to put themselves into the record books,” Lewington said. “Be the first person to do this or achieve that because we’re still a young club.
“That’s got to be a draw. In fact I know it is because the lads who do come in always mention it. They’re excited about having that opportunity.
“I’ve had offers to leave in the past myself and I’ve not wanted to take them for various different reasons. And that is one of them.”
Eighth in the table following Wednesday’s victory over Leyton Orient, Dons would edge to within three points of second placed United should they repeat last season’s success over Danny Wilson’s side.
Wilson spent nearly 18 months of charge of United’s opponents, having been appointed soon after they kissed goodbye to the capital.
Speaking at Shirecliffe yesterday, the former Northern Ireland international described the “difficulties” of trying to inspire success whilst still being situated at the National Hockey Stadium.
Lewington said: “I remember Danny as being a really good manager but I know it was tough for him here and he probably didn’t get the time he should.
“Back then, the manager and the physio shared an office that was about 10 feet wide.
The facilities we’ve got now speak for themselves.
“We’ve come a long way with the new ground opened.”
Teams and ref
MK DONS (Possible): Martin, Otsemobor, Lewington, Kay, S Williams, Gleeson, Potter, Chadwick, Bowditch, Lowe, Balanta..
SHEFFIELD UNITED (Possible): Long, McMahon, Maguire, Collins, Hill, Flynn, Doyle, McDonald, M Williams, Blackman, Porter..
Darren Sheldrake (Surrey): Having issued 11 red cards in only 32 outings last term, he has sent-off only one player since returning to action in August.