Dan McCalla lived every fans dream on Sunday, when he joined Karl Robinson and his players on the team coach ahead of their game with Brentford.
An avid MK Dons supporter, Dan won the once-in-a-lifetime experience at a charity auction at the recent MK Dons Supporters Tenth Anniversary party and he kindly agreed to share his experience with mkdons.com by writing the following blog.
We've all been there. That 'morning after' feeling when you wake up with a stinking hangover and think: 'Oh my God, did I really do that?' In my case, this is exactly what happened to me the Sunday morning after we beat Rotherham back in October.
The Saturday evening following that 3-2 victory, I joined scores of other Dons fans at stadium:mk for the MK Dons Supporters Association's tenth anniversary party. As part of the festivities, there was a charity auction in which the star lot was a place alongside the first team on their coach to and from the away game at Brentford just after Christmas. I deemed this to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and so set myself a bidding limit of £200 - a lot of money, but not a crazy amount.
Unfortunately, I had consumed a number of pints of lager prior to this charity auction taking place (the exact number unsurprisingly escapes me) and my dad, the man who normally stops me doing stupid things whilst inebriated, was away on holiday. So it was no real shock the next morning when I opened my online credit card account to confirm that I did indeed spend exactly triple my £200 limit on winning the lot. Oh dear.
In the two months between the auction and the Brentford matchday itself, I tried to keep telling myself that it'd be worth all that money. I even bumped into Karl Robinson in a city centre bar one night and he said he'd do his best to make sure I'd have a great day. But deep down, I still had doubts. Had I just shelled out the price of two Cowshed season tickets just to sit on a coach near some footballers for a couple of hours?
As I arrived at stadium:mk at 9:30 on the morning of the Brentford game, I still wasn't sure what was going to happen and I had no idea exactly what where I was going and when, other than the fact that I'd be at Griffin Park at 3:00. After a warm greeting from Karl, I left the players to take their seats on the coach - I didn't want to sit in anyone's regular seat, after all - and then boarded myself. Sat on the first table opposite a football manager wolfing down scrambled eggs, beans and toast (the absence of meat apparently makes it good for his diet), we left at 9:45 with around three-quarters of the matchday squad on board.
Soon after we left, it dawned on me just what I was about to see - a start-to-finish example of all the things the Dons first-team operation goes through on an away matchday. I was introduced to Paul Heald (goalkeeping coach), Simon Crampton (sports medicine) and Adam Ross (sports therapist) as well as first team analyst Rob Weaver, who is in charge of all the tactics and match analysis software. I spoke to each of them in turn and was absolutely astonished by the amount of work and detail that goes into the team's preparation behind the scenes. They all explained that it was a particularly tough task keeping their work to a high standard over the festive period, with only three days between the Brentford game and the previous match at Crawley.
At 10:50 we arrived at the Crowne Plaza hotel at Heathrow Airport, where the team would stop for lunch and a team meeting before leaving for Brentford. Here, those on the coach were met by Alan Smith, Lee Hodson, Tom Flanagan, assistant manager Gary Waddock and sports science chief Damien Doyle, who all live further south and for whom it was easier to meet up there rather than travel up to Milton Keynes. There was a gap of about an hour before lunch was served, and so as the players and staff found themselves at a loose end, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to some of the players.
Both at that point and throughout the day, I noticed an enormous difference in attitude between players depending on their age and experience. The older, more senior players - David Martin especially, but Alan Smith and Dean Lewington also - were happy to chat about anything and everything, just so they could relax and take their minds off the game pressures ahead. On the other hand, most of the younger players didn't mind saying hello but mostly kept themselves to themselves. Whether that was down to shyness, wariness of an outsider or not wanting to show themselves up in front of the senior players, I'm not too sure, but I could understand in any case.
A buffet lunch was served at 11:45 and the players were free to choose from a range of various healthy options - chicken, pasta, salad or even toast for those wanting a late breakfast. I took this opportunity to talk to Gary about his work in football, and was impressed by his enthusiasm for the job and to work at a club with such a high level of infrastructure. He also seemed content in his number two role - when I asked him if he had any urge to manage again in the future, he was happy to reply: 'Not for the moment'.
Before getting back on the coach at 1:00, the squad would go into a team meeting in a hotel conference suite to get a final run-through of tactics and specific set pieces. I wasn't allowed to see this, but Karl did allow me to watch him, Rob and Gary prepare for it before any of the players arrived. Rob opened a PowerPoint presentation reminiscent of the Skypad you often see Gary Neville playing about with on the TV. With this, he could move Dons and Brentford players around to try different formations and head-to-heads, interspersed with videos of specific Brentford tactics to watch out for. In this case Rob was just using a laptop plugged into a projector, but said that for home games, the stadium:mk lecture theatre has a large touch-screen allowing Karl to move things around at will. Rob later told me that he typically watches footage of three or four full games of each opposing team prior to the relevant fixture, and I was staggered at the amount of man-hours and the painstaking detail he'd gone to in order to expose Brentford's weaknesses.
After the meeting, the whole squad boarded the coach and reached Griffin Park at around 1:40. I arrived to find my dad, who had travelled down in the kit van, helping carry all the kit, boots and equipment into Brentford's tiny away dressing room. After a quick walk down the tunnel to have a look at the pitch, and after wishing the players luck, I joined the rest of the Dons fans in the away end for the match itself, for which Paul Heald had kindly provided two free tickets. On the bright side, it brought the real cost of the trip down from £600 to £556...
You all know the result and what happened, so there's no need for me to give you a detailed match report. But at the end of the game, I felt real disappointment that all the hard work and effort that the coaching staff had put in had been for nothing. I hung around outside the main entrance waiting for the team coach to arrive again, and jumped back on it just before 5:30.
Five minutes later, we were on our way and the atmosphere on board was completely different to the relaxed, convivial mood on the way there. The players helped themselves to some pre-packed meals cooked in special ovens aboard the coach, while Rob started to dissect the video footage of the game that his assistant Tom Bradbury had recorded from the TV gantry. Meanwhile, Karl was clearly in a frustrated and edgy mood with the result and made a couple of decidedly heated phonecalls before he calmed down. I stared out of the window, trying to keep myself out of the way and feeling completely out of place for the only time all day.
Once he'd been calmed by Tom putting a meal in front of him, Karl remembered I was there, apologised profusely and grabbed one of the shepherd's pies that was going spare. I told him he had nothing to apologise for as I could understand why he was frustrated, and from then on the atmosphere was much more comfortable, if still a little dejected.
Where I was sat with the coaching staff at the front of the coach, we were joined by a succession of players wanting to look again at key moments from the game on Rob's laptop. I'd thought that they'd just want to put the game behind them and forget about a difficult 3-1 defeat, but within minutes of us leaving Griffin Park both David Martin and Shaun Williams were reviewing Brentford's goals and other key chances, and working out what they could do better between them in the future. Later, Dele Alli and Patrick Bamford did the same (although Dele did seem to enjoy replaying all his most skilful moments two or three times over) before Lewington came down to review most of the game's highlights.
We took a diversion on the return trip to the Champneys spa near Tring where I saw one of the strangest (and in many ways funniest) things I think I've ever seen. Because of the short three-day turnaround before the Dons' next game at home against Colchester United, they had been booked into a cryotherapy chamber to speed up the recovery of the muscles. This isn’t something the players always go through, but is used now and again in exceptional circumstances. The easiest way to describe this contraption is to say that it's the opposite of a sauna: players enter chambers cooled to minus 90 degrees Celsius for a couple of minutes at a time, constricting the blood vessels in muscles and getting their blood moving around the body faster.
The Brentford game's starting 11, plus substitutes Alli and Baldock, all went through two courses of this, for which they had to dress in towelled headbands, shorts and socks to prevent any extremities getting frostbite, as well as special clogs to stop their feet sticking to the floor. Groups of four or five went in at a time, and I could barely disguise my laughter as bunches of blokes dressed like they'd gone to a freshers week fancy dress night out as Pat Cash clomped round and round the chamber in their clogs. Ben Reeves asked me if I was going to have a go myself, but I declined - I think my beer belly would have looked out of place among 13 toned professional footballers!
After this bizarre procedure, the coach was fired up once more and we returned to the stadium at about 8:45 - far later than I'd have imagined and certainly far later than most of the 500 Dons fans who had journeyed down to West London that day. I thanked as many people as I could for the day and met my dad, who had had a whale of a time unloading the gear for the kit man and basically acting as a Dons roadie for the day. After this we enjoyed a very welcome pint at the pub before finally heading home.
The impression that the whole day left on me was vast. For a supporter of a football team (or of teams/players in almost any sport, for that matter), there can often be a lack of connection between the 90 minutes a week they see their heroes on the pitch or on the touchline, and everything else that goes on in the previous hours and days to prepare for it. I believe that the vast majority of football fans, regardless of allegiance and irrespective of their depth of knowledge, have little or no comprehension of how a professional team prepares for a game, and probably wouldn't be able to without seeing it for themselves. Before yesterday, that included myself, and this is one of two reasons why, for me, this trip was worth the not inconsiderable amount of money I paid: it was a fascinating eye-opener into the scale of the effort, logistics and technology that goes into running a modern professional football team.
The second reason it was worth the money was that it allowed me to see just how much the team, management and backroom staff actually care about their performances. It's easy to think that modern footballers and even modern football managers, rarely from their local areas, are emotionally disengaged from the team they play for and simply turn up, play and go home, regardless of result. From my experience, I would say that almost every single person on that coach was as disappointed and frustrated with the match result and the team's performance as I was.
As a loyal supporter of the Dons, both these factors mean that I'll certainly watch our games in a different mindset from now on. And although it was expensive, I would absolutely recommend the experience to any other fan if the opportunity should ever arise in the future. Just make sure you're relatively sober when you start the bidding.
Thanks to everyone at the MKDSA, the whole Dons first team squad, Karl Robinson, Gary Waddock, Paul Heald, Simon Crampton, Damien Doyle, Rob Weaver, Adam Ross and Tom Bradbury.
Dan is the writer of the popular book Stadium Chase, a story about MK Dons fan Adam Faiers' epic challenge of cycling to every one of the Dons' away games in 2012/13. Stadium Chase is available in both paperback and Kindle formats, is on sale now on Amazon, with all profits made being shared equally between the two chosen charities. To find it, simply search Amazon.co.uk for 'Stadium Chase' or 'Stadium Chase Kindle'.