Sky Sports exclusive: MK Dons captain Dean Lewington on the role of rhythm in his career, management and why legendary goalkeeper Peter Shilton's record of 1,005 Football League appearances is not in his sights.
Tuesday 22 March 2022 21:49, UK
On July 31 2021, prior to their Carabao Cup first-round trip to Bournemouth, MK Dons released a statement that revealed Swansea had made an approach for head coach Russell Martin.
Posted on the club's official website, it read: "To our extreme disappointment, this was received less than 24 hours prior to our first competitive fixture of the season. To minimise disruption to our players and our match preparation, it was decided that this would be discussed after today's game."
A 5-0 humbling preceded the confirmation of Martin's departure the following day, which made for one of the most miserable, forgettable 24-hour periods in the club's short history.
The timing was as far from ideal as one can imagine - and it thrust captain Dean Lewington into the spotlight.
With a week before the start of the 2021/22 curtain-raiser away at Bolton, a temporary plan was drawn up and, as the most senior member of the squad - having been with the club since its inception in 2004 - he was asked to step up to steer the ship.
"We knew Russ was going and I spoke to [sporting director] Liam Sweeting and he asked if I'd be able to take the team the following week, just for training, until they could find someone else to come in," the 37-year-old says, in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports.
"I knew I'd be ticking things over for that week, so I was just trying to plan the week and do the right things for the boys to prepare for the first game on the Saturday.
"We've got a very young squad and, with the experience I have, it naturally fell to me to do that, but it wasn't something I volunteered myself to do. When you look at the make-up of the squad, it fell on my shoulders, really."
Fortunately, he had the perfect man to seek out for advice: his dad, Ray.
Not only did he enjoy a long career as a professional in the 1970s and 80s, he is currently working in the Premier League as assistant to Roy Hodgson at Watford and, in 1986, was the youngest manager in the Football League, when he took over as player-manager at Fulham aged 29.
It was not long before Lewington junior picked up the phone.
"When Russ left, he took the whole backroom staff, so there was only me and one strength and conditioning coach left and we were down to the bare bones.
"I leaned on my dad in terms of the fact that I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve, but I hadn't coached before on a match scale, so I had to ask 'How long would you do this for?' and 'How long would you do that for'.
"He was out of work at the time so I leaned on him as much as I could with the practical stuff you need in coaching that sometimes, as a player, you often ignore."
The match itself was enthralling. The Dons twice came from behind to lead 3-2 at the UniBol, but, in the fifth minute of second-half stoppage time, Alex Baptiste struck to claim a dramatic point for Wanderers.
It does seem as though he would have been calling his dad anyway. Even now, Ray is his first port of call for advice or guidance.
"Most Sundays I take the kids round and we have dinner," he says. "We always talk about the game and different things within football. If anything major comes up, he would be my first point of reference because he is someone who has been there and done it.
"He sits on the other side of the fence, which is always helpful to get a different perspective. In your playing career, you see things in a totally different light to what the manager might see."
Speaking of playing careers, Lewington is now in his 20th season as a professional - 18 of which have been spent at Stadium MK.
He has been promoted from League Two twice, once from League One and played every game of the club's first and, so far, only Championship season in 2015/16. Even this far down the line, his career continues to go from strength to strength.
And, with another promotion push on the cards, it looks unlikely to end any time soon, particularly given the fact that he is now working under one of the most talented young managers in Liam Manning, who is a year younger than his skipper.
"Liam came in and had a really good manner about him. We talk regularly about games and training and he's very open with me. Age is not really a problem because there's a different power dynamic as he's the boss and I'm the player.
"He knew what was already here and what he wanted to achieve, so he tweaked it at the start, rather than making wholesale changes. He has continually done that and we've tried to improve every game and make ourselves better.
"We have tried to be more of a rounded team this year; we try to pass out from the back when we can and do the things that go with our brand of football. But we're not slaves to it; if we need to turn teams and buy a bit of space, we can do that as well.
"It is about finding that mixture and that balance and, during the second half of the season, we have got that right more often than not."
Ahead of next Saturday's visit of Shrewsbury Manning's men are third in the League One table, three points behind second-placed Wigan, albeit having played two games more.
And, with a final run of seven decisive fixtures to play, Lewington is hopeful of helping to write another positive chapter in the club's history books.
"At the start of the season it [promotion] wasn't really on the horizon," he admits. "We were developing as a team and a club and, when Russ left, it looked even more in doubt. Since Liam has come in, we have re-grouped and deserve to be where we are.
"Any success is great and promotion would be fantastic, especially to get the club back into the Championship, which is a massive step up the leagues. When you see the calibre of teams there, it is a huge step and it would be great for the club to get there.
"Fingers crossed we are heading in that direction and we can try and achieve that aim."
On a personal note, by playing in MK Dons' 1-0 win over Cambridge on March 19, he took his tally of EFL appearances to 761. Only 14 players have a higher total, with legendary England goalkeeper Peter Shilton leading the pack with 1,005.
At this point, playing another 246 games appears unlikely - but does Lewington have hopes of getting anywhere near?
"One of the press guys showed me the figures and Shilton has got over a thousand - there's no way I'm getting anywhere near that record," he says with a grin.
"He has definitely got that safe. It is an incredible amount of games, but definitely not in my sights."
With 877 total career appearances to his name, reaching one thousand in all competitions is not totally out of the question, though.
"I've been lucky with injuries and I don't need any special training regimes or days off, so I can train as normal with the rest of the group.
"I just find that the rhythm helps a lot as you get older. I think some players take time away because they think they need rest, but I prefer it the other way. That's what I do, just keep training and keep the usual rhythm for when it comes to Saturday.
"I still feel healthy and I'm playing good football as well, so while that continues, I'll carry on."
Lewington's longevity is something so rare in the modern day; only two other current professionals - Adebayo Akinfenwa and Kevin Ellison - have made over 600 league appearances in English football.
With each game he plays, the rich tapestry of his career grows - and it will be a long time before anyone comes anywhere close.