The core mission for MK Dons ahead of the 2018/19 season beginning is the aim for their League Two return to be as brief as possible.
This is the Dons’ first time in 4th tier since 2008, and is very much not the scenario one may was expecting to happen so quickly after the day when they beat Yeovil in 2015 to reach the Championship.
Certainly, last season was not pretty viewing for the Dons. Over the course of a long campaign, neither Robbie Neilson or Dan Micciche was able to get the results to prevent a second relegation in three years.
Chairman Pete Winkelman has owned up to mistakes being made, and will now surely be hoping for a change of fortunes after a challenging period for the club.
The summer has been busy at stadium:mk, with a new manager in town, and with 10 new players – all permanent signings – following him in.
The move to bring Paul Tisdale to stadium:mk is a change of direction after the club’s relatively more inexperienced recent arrivals, with the new boss arriving after a 12 year stint at Exeter City. Tisdale himself will be looking for an upturn of his own, after back-to-back play-off final defeats in his final two years in charge of the Grecians.
With promotions and play-off finishes over the time in Devon, the history is there to suggest Tisdale has the experience and nous to prove to be a good selection to take the seat. There is also the suggestion of something to prove, given the unusual situation of a 2-year notice being issued against him during a rough patch at the start of the 2016-17 season.
Tisdale is not the only arrival in Milton Keynes from Devon. Following him to Milton Keynes are his assistants Matt Oakley and Mel Gwinnett, plus captain Jordan Moore-Taylor, and attackers Ryan Harley and Robbie Simpson.
Exeter fans were particularly gutted to lose Moore-Taylor, who was highly regarded by supporters of his hometown club.
It is likely he will feature at the heart of the new-look backline, with the likely partners including his fellow new arrivals Baily Cargill and Mathieu Baudry, both of whom arrived this week, and Joe Walsh, who returns after a long-term injury.
An early barometer for how the two sides have diverged may well come on August 25th, when the Dons host an Exeter team now managed by Matt Taylor.
For the Dons, a lot depends on how the 10 new faces integrate. Along with the trio of ex-Exeter players and the decent looking defenders, the Dons have also recruited highly rated Macclesfield defender Mitch Hancox as competition for veteran captain Dean Lewington and Chelsea youngster Jordan Houghton.
Houghton and Ryan Watson add options in the midfield, and are likely hoped to provide more of a bite to a midfield that seemed to lack defensive bite at times last season. Meanwhile, Lawson D’Ath and returning former loanee Harley provide additional options in attack.
The other arrival is that of goalkeeper Stuart Moore – brother of Sheffield United’s Simon – who is likely to provide the competition for number 1 Lee Nicholls and Dutch back-up Wieger Sietsma.
For the most part, there have been relatively few departures. While Giorgio Rasulo and Nigel Reo-Coker are among those in the reserves shown the door, the primary non-loan first teamers to make a departure were Ed Upson and Scott Wootton, who were out of contract.
Speculation has abounded around a move from a higher club for Chuks Aneke, who has missed pre-season. Whether or not that translates into a bid is a moot point, but assuming he remains in post, the player who was the Dons’ top scorer last season is likely to remain a key presence going forward.
Much is also anticipated of Kieran Agard. The striker was the Dons’ top scorer in his first season but had a more difficult second campaign.
However, with Osman Sow still coming back to fitness and highly rated youngster Sam Nombe recovering from an injury in pre-season, much will be expected of the former Bristol City striker to carry the goalscoring threat.
There are other talents going forward that much can be hoped for, whether its looking for the potential of Alex Gilbey and Peter Pawlett to shine through after a frustrating amount of injuries last season, or for more consistent form from the likes of Aidan Nesbitt and Robbie Muirhead after the duo showed glimpses of what they can do last year.
It is also plausible an attacking role could be found for Callum Brittain, who had a break-through year primarily as a right-back last season, but has the range to play further forward.
Certainly, there is talent available for the manager to work with. It is reflected in expectation outside stadium:mk, with the bookies and several fans of other teams naming the Dons as one of the big runners and riders for promotion to the third tier.
Whether or not they are as much depends on the restoration of the winning feeling, which has been in short supply in the last few years. Its certainly a fallacy to imagine League Two will be a walk in the park, not least given the patchy track record of teams who get relegated into it.
Nevertheless, the journey back begins with a strangely familiar look, given the Dons begin with 2 of the sides that went down with them – Oldham & Bury – and a trip to a Crewe side that used to be 3rd tier regulars.
Bringing together the new disparate elements and bringing back a winner’s feeling may not strictly happen overnight, but over the course of the upcoming 9 month marathon, and in a division that looks like it’ll be pretty open with plenty of teams believing they have what it takes to get into League One, the opportunity is there for the Dons to get the project back on track.