Sky Sports exclusive: Mike Williamson discusses his brilliant start to life as MK Dons head coach, his people-centric philosophy and "mentally fatiguing" style of play and why thoughts of promotion have not yet crossed his mind
Thursday 18 January 2024 14:11, UK
This season, the one after relegation back down to League Two in May, started with such promise for MK Dons.
The vastly experienced Graham Alexander, appointed in late May, said he would work "every single minute to give the MK Dons supporters a team that had been successful" and, initially, he stayed true to his word; four wins from the first five earned him the Sky Bet League Two Manager of the Month award.
Then the rhythm dropped, and drastically so: WWLWW became LDLDLDL - and from first-place they dropped to 16th.
"We have unbelievable ways of shooting ourselves in the foot," exclaimed Alexander after a 2-2 draw at home to Barrow on October 14, where they shipped two goals in second-half stoppage time.
"It's nothing to do with luck - 'I hope our luck changes, I hope someone sprinkles some magic dust over us' - we've got to stop believing in fairy tales," he added. Two days later, after just 16 games in all competitions, he was gone.
Within 24 hours, Mike Williamson had arrived at Stadium MK. The former Newcastle defender had spent almost four-and-a-half years at Gateshead, guiding them to the National League North title in 2021/22 and the FA Trophy final the following year.
At the Gateshead International Stadium, he had built a reputation for his attractive, possession-based style of play, which garnered praise from Toon boss Eddie Howe after a pre-season friendly last summer.
It was clear from that very first interview in Milton Keynes that winning was high on his list of priorities, as was kickstarting an "evolution".
That seems to be taking shape already. Eight wins from his first 12 games have propelled MK Dons into the play-off places - even so, he is not taking the credit.
"This is a reflection on the boys and nothing more than that," he says, speaking to Sky Sports after being named Sky Bet League Two Manager of the Month for December, when he oversaw four wins from four.
"They are a great group to work with. They are really receptive, want to learn and grow and the results are a pure reflection of their performances.
"We're very process-driven and we want to keep learning and developing. We believe the results will come off the back of that, as well as a better understanding and interpretation of what we are trying to achieve."
The contrast in style - and thus fortunes - between Williamson and his predecessor is made clear by a closer look at the numbers.
Under the new boss, they have conceded 34 fewer shots from inside the box, completed almost 2,000 more passes and are now averaging 60 per cent possession, as opposed to 48 per cent beforehand.
They have also kept twice as many clean sheets and are averaging almost one point more per game. All of that having played one game fewer.
"I don't think it's largely down to my methods because you can see periods of the way we want to play and how to control games, but we're still quite far away and I think the lads know that," Williamson continues.
"They bring chemistry, they are an unbelievably fit group, a physically strong group and we've got many good footballers in the building. We're trying to do everything we can by keeping standards high to improve the concentration and understanding.
"We've all got to be on the same page because the way we play takes a lot of focus, attention and intensity, but it's mentally fatiguing. Everyone's looking for the utopian Man City, Liverpool, Brighton style of play and it's easier said than done.
"The evolution is that the understanding keeps getting cleaner and you can see the outcome of what we're trying to do and not necessarily just the points tally or the reflection of the results.
"You can actually see the desire to play a certain way and we think the results and performances will improve off the back of that."
That feeds into his overall, people-centric philosophy, too.
"We want to play a certain way and that takes buy-in from everyone. Around the training ground and in my office, there's no real hierarchy, there's no egos.
"If someone's got something to say all the way through the club and we think it's going to add value, I'm open to listening.
"I'm very much about developing the person and if the person comes in and enjoys his time here, the player will improve as a by-product of that. I love the psychology of football and humans and our behaviour and it all starts with the person."
MK Dons' rise up the division has happened so quickly that it appears to have gone under the radar somewhat. Not that Williamson is bothered.
"No - I don't know where the radar is and I'm not too interested in the radar," he says with a smile.
"We've got three games at home in a week coming up; three very, very big tests and difficult challenges for us. I know it sounds like a cliche, but I learned during my time at Gateshead that it's more than a cliche.
"You've got to keep your focus on the next game, so if you start looking at the form table and ifs and buts, you take your focus off what's right in front of you."
Needless to say, thoughts of the play-offs and promotion are far from his mind.
"It's probably not what people want to hear, but I'm not interested in the last game of the season - that will take care of itself.
"You come into a football club and bring different methods and you're judged on the outcome of it. That is where we are measured, but our focus is on the process . I also know fans aren't going to accept losing week in, week out when I'm talking about improving the process. It's actually got to reflect in the results.
"I've got to a point where I've started to really understand that every challenge is an opportunity and that pressure is a privilege. When we lose a game, it's not all doom and gloom, it's an opportunity to improve and I try and get the lads to understand that.
"We want to win - as human beings, we want to be the best - and for us it is about how we go about that and the points tally will take care of itself. The league table will never lie at the end of it, so we'll just get our heads down and focus on what we can control."
That said, the long-term aim is clear. MK Dons were in the Championship this time eight years ago and reached the League One play-off semi-finals in 2021/22 - they are itching to get back.
"If you speak to the chairman and directors here, they see this as a sustainable Championship club," says Williamson.
"I'm not going to hide away from expectation or where we see ourselves, but my job right now is to prepare the best I can for Morecambe at home on Saturday.
"The stadium is fantastic, the staff are incredible and genuinely good people are operating behind the scenes and on the pitch. All aims are to achieve that, but we can only achieve that if we focus our attention on Saturday."
MK Dons have looked for stability in the dugout ever since Karl Robinson left the club in October 2016, with seven permanent managers or head coaches having been and gone ever since.
In Mike Williamson, they might just have found the perfect tonic.
Correctly predict six scorelines to win £250,000 for free with Super 6. Entries by 3pm Saturday.