DONS’ home win against Sheffield United in April confirmed their place in the League 1 play-offs last season, and another three points this Saturday could prove just as important.
Set against the backdrop of the Blades battling it out with Steel City rivals Wednesday for the second automatic promotion place, and Ched Evans’ high-profile nonappearance, the game attracted comfortably Dons’ biggest home league gate of the season.
Despite being roared on by some 6,000 travelling supporters in a crowd of 15,938, United were outplayed and outfought by a Dons side determined to prove themselves capable of beating the best sides in the division ahead of the impending play-offs.
A 1-0 defeat for Danny Wilson’s Blades realistically ended their hopes of a top two finish, and another season in the third tier always looked on the cards after Alan Smith’s first Dons goal – and his first in five years for any club – settled a thoroughly breathless stadium:mk contest.
Unfortunately his second goal of the season, at Huddersfield, wasn’t enough to complete a magnificent play-off semi final turnaround at the Galpharm – now John Smith’s Stadium – and United’s final defeat to the Terriers ensured that Dons and the Blades would once again have to lock horns as promotion contenders.
And once again United come to Milton Keynes sat second in League 1, but while the season couldn’t have gone much better for them, Dons are left hoping a win will get them back into a play-off place, rather than consolidating it, or even aiming higher.
League position will matter a lot more when Dons travel to Bramall Lane in March, but what is important now is confidence and results, and at the moment the Yorkshire side have an almost unrivalled ability of pulling them out of a hat.
Unbeaten in their 16 games this season – making them the only side in the Football League yet to taste defeat – United have been able to do exactly what Dons haven’t: win games and pick up points when they don’t play well. In fact their undefeated record flatters them quite considerably.
Six of their eight league wins have come 1-0, and only their epic 5-3 beating of Bournemouth came by more than a single goal. Evans has not been adequately replaced, but Nick Blackman, with nine goals this term, is doing fairly well to fill his boots.
The manner of his side’s victories doesn’t seem to be troubling boss Wilson too much though, particularly because, at the other end, the Blades have conceded the fewest goals in League 1.
“There have been lots of titles that have been won on the basis of winning lots of games 1-0,” said Wilson. “We’d love to score more, but we’d be satisfied with doing that.
“We have a different type of player to what we had last season. We were more open last season and we conceded lost of goals because of that.
“We’ve had to bring players in who are versatile because of the financial position that we’re in but everyone has excelled themselves.
“The unbeaten run is not our driving force this season; our driving force is wanting to get enough points to get promoted.”
Dons nicked their own 1-0 win on Tuesday night, also without playing particularly well, but it could have been a greater margin of victory. And Karl Robinson must be desperate for that success to finally kick-start the sort of winning run everyone knows they are capable of, and that finally starts to justify Dons’ promotion credentials.
A crowd well in excess of 10,000 is expected for the game, including an estimated 2,000 Blades fans, and the majority will be hoping Dons once again come good for the big occasion.
With only six points between the sides, Dons should still be targeting the automatic promotion spots, and another memorable victory on Saturday will make that task look even more achievable.