The award for the most improved EFL team this season would undoubtedly go to Russell Martin’s MK Dons. The League One manager spoke to Holly Hunt about how he turned around a club with a case of lost identity.
As far as introductions to the managerial hot seat go, it doesn’t get much more turbulent than Russell Martin’s start to life at MK Dons. After taking the reins of a team dangling dangerously above the drop amidst a global pandemic, the 35-year-old has seen it all in a truncated period of time.
However, the 2020/21 campaign represents a season of “progress” for the League One club, as the Dons begin to settle into the Russell Martin way.
After a sluggish start to the season, they clawed their way back to mid-table, and are now just 10 points out of reach of the top six. Martin, however, won’t hear of any promotion talk, with his sole focus on consolidation.
“If I can get through all of this, then it should be pretty mundane and straightforward after this one and the last one!” he joked.
“There’s been a lot of change in terms of the structure and financially because of the impact of COVID. From the end of last season to now there’s only three or four guys that have been here the whole time so it’s been a season of change.
“I said it was all about improvement and we’ve certainly done that, compared to where we were last season when we stopped.”
MK Dons were resigned to relegation when Martin succeeded Paul Tisdale in November 2019, 10 months after signing for the third-tier side on a short-term playing contract.
When the season was suspended in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, he took a “step back” to regroup.
He added: “It’s so intense when you’re thrown in at the deep end, going from a player to a manager in the relegation zone on a really bad run of form, and then trying to bring an identity as well as getting the results needed to stay in the league.
“The break gave me time to think. I used it as a blessing in disguise because once you start, very few managers get a chance to reflect unless they’ve been out of a job.”
The former Norwich defender, who guided MK Dons to an 19th-placed finish last year on a points-per-game calculation, brought his own philosophy to the Buckinghamshire club, which now boasts an impressive record.
He said: “A lot of people have spoken this season about how we’ve had the highest possession in Europe which isn’t normal for a League One team. We’ve also got the most touches in the opposition box so we don’t just have possession for the sake of it – we’re aggressive with it.
“MK lost its way for three or four years. I was asked to bring an identity to the club when I took over and we’ve got a strong one now.
“It’s not always going to be easy. It takes courage to play that way on some tough pitches. I’m proud of the way the players have bought into it because it’s not easy. It’s very demanding and takes a lot of work.
“It’s become a bit of a tagline for me. The supporters are bored of hearing me say it but we are process driven. We’re not emotional about results.”
Martin previously held the record as the youngest manager in English football, before being usurped by Bradford City’s joint appointment. However, despite being knocked off his pedestal, he has been encouraged by the talent coming through in the EFL.
He said: “I hope I’ll be at this club a long time seeing out the work that we’re putting in and hopefully seeing the rewards. It came a lot quicker than I expected it to. I don’t think anything can ever prepare you fully for what’s in store as a manager.
“The dynamic changed really quickly. I tried to be the same and be consistent with the guys because they were my team-mates but once I spoke to them and the door was closed, it was different. I could sense it straight away.”
Patience has been key for Martin in implementing his own ideas and style of play, which has been heavily influenced by his own superiors throughout his career. And although the ‘P-word’ is still off bounds, he’s confident the Dons are heading in the right direction.
“I don’t know how long that will take but we’ll get there eventually,” he said. “I was aware it was going to take time. In my office I’ve got about eight notepads – I compartmentalise my life with notepads! I wrote a lot down when I played about stuff I liked and stuff I didn’t like.
“As a player, sometimes you have to sacrifice your own beliefs but now I’m in a position where I can influence other people and convince them that my way is the right way.”
Follow Holly on Twitter at @hollyhunt10