“How do you create a culture of high performance, elite behaviours and development thrown into that as well?”
That was the question on Milton Keynes Dons’ first-ever head coach Liam Manning’s mind when he touched back down in England a week into the 2021/22 season and just 24 hours before his side were due to host Sunderland in the Sky Bet League One.
The new Dons boss must’ve figured out the answer, with the Buckinghamshire team now occupying sixth place in the third-tier standings.
“I’ve not really had a moment to breathe since – it’s been so full on,” said the 36-year-old, reflecting on his start to life in the dugout during a rare off weekend for the Dons.
“We came in at a time of very short notice and it happened very quickly, so we had no pre-season or preparation to put certain principles or anything like that. We jumped into Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday in the first week. The first League game in Belgium was the week after I joined here, so I missed the first League game.
“It depends how you approach it when you come in. It was a case of getting our ways of working when we came in, but rather than coming in and make drastic changes, especially with that stage of the season, it was about gradually introducing and adapting things, rather than a major overhaul. It was about getting a read of the players and using the knowledge of the people that were already at the Club to get up to speed.”
Manning, who joined the Club from City Football Group-owned Belgian second-tier side, Lommel SK, succeeded Russell Martin – the MK Dons manager poached by Sky Bet Championship outfit Swansea City.
A number of comparisons have been drawn between the two bosses, with Martin’s Swans side and Manning’s Dons dominating possession in the EFL.
“I had a call with Russell to be fair and he was really helpful,” Manning continued. “I can’t speak highly enough of him and the support he gave me when he first came in, but it’s about the staff here and what we do to progress things. A lot of the stuff Russell had done before I was here, a fair chunk of it aligns with how I see the game.”
His time working abroad, including a spell in the Big Apple, gave him time to decide upon the direction he wanted to take his career. And although the closest he gets to New York these days is a trip to Rotherham, Manning has been privileged to sample various different cultures to bring his own understanding to the EFL.
“Going to New York actually gave me a period of time where I didn’t have a team and reflect on me as a coach, me and my journey. It did give me that headspace to think about where I wanted to go.
“I was at West Ham for four years and Ipswich prior to that, and predominantly, all the staff were English. Going out to New York, across the Academy, we had 42 nationalities and I think it was something like 13 nationalities in the staff. In terms of creating a culture and creating buy-ins from people with different backgrounds and upbringings, and I suppose a big element of that was how to manage people and lead people and get them to buy into you and your processes.”
At 36 years of age, some of Manning’s squad, including MK stalwart Dean Lewington, trump the manager in age. And his Dons side have a blend of “youthful enthusiasm and energy”, alongside experience and level heads.
But, irrespective of age and experience, the new MK Dons head coach has allowed his players freedom of expression – something that is central to Manning’s own footballing philosophy.
“The most important thing for me is empowering players to make decisions, so giving them the top-line of principles,” he explained. “Players know we want to dominate the ball and we want to attack and be aggressive out of possession, but they also know now that we want to be unpredictable and adaptable.
“It gives us coaching points where we can sit with them to make them better players if we empower them to make decisions, rather than just telling them what I want them to do.
“We have our framework that we work off and there’s non-negotiables in terms of values and behaviours that are expected from staff and players. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t have complete freedom but, at the same time, I want players to understand the boundaries but give them freedom and scope within that to express themselves.
“I want them to enjoy winning but I also want them to enjoy playing. Especially at the weekend against Morecambe, I thought we were excellent, and you could really see the guys enjoying themselves. That’s where all our energy goes in terms of making the players the best version of themselves.”
And Manning has urged his team, who managed three wins in four in November, to remain grounded, despite the Dons occupying a Play-Off place and looking a good shout for strong promotion contenders.
He added: “It’s about making sure our energy goes into short-term thinking to make sure we’re ready for Plymouth next week and then Oxford. If you approach each week correctly and you train properly and do all your analysis, you’ll develop the players, and the team will pick up results.”
And it’s certainly working for the MK Dons head coach.