A PLAY-OFF place may be all but secure, but it is imperative that Dons do not let their foot off the gas before the end of the season, writes Toby Lock.
While the manager won’t admit it until it is mathematically certain, I’ll take the liberty of saying it – Dons WILL make the League 1 play-offs.
It will take a complete disaster for Karl Robinson’s men to miss out on a top six spot with a healthy five-point gap to the chasing back, who seem more than keen to trip over each other for the right to extend their season.
In my opinion, fourth place is still there for the taking. Huddersfield haven’t quite taken to the Simon Grayson philosophy yet. Sacking Lee Clark two months ago must surely have been a well-thought out decision because the board knew exactly who they wanted immediately, and went out and got him.
And in theory, with a little under three months before the play-off campaign gets under way, Grayson would have had the Terriors playing the style of football which saw him promote Leeds United two years ago. But that hasn’t happened.
They have had patchy form – a far cry from the incredible 43-game undefeated run achieved by predecessor Clark. And defeat to Sheffield Wednesday two weeks ago put paid to their automatic promotion chances for another season.
Short of the managerial change, their story isn’t too different to that of Dons this term. There have been moments of magic and results to match, mixed with moments of madness and frustration, but they’ve remained rock solid in that fifth place for what seems like the whole season.
It’s been a funny old month for Dons. March was a long slog with eight games in 28 days, and it was a roller coaster ride that most don’t see in an entire season let alone a month.
There have been many talking points to come from March. Refereeing decisions went against Dons, late goals cost them countless points, and even the forgetful Exeter kitman forced the usual pre-match routine to be turned on its head as they had to rummage around for a change strip.
Both the manager and players though were very forthright after the 1-1 draw with Wycombe Wanderers – they had missed out on the chance to go up automatically.
Certainly while I have covered Dons for the Citizen, Robinson and his charges have been honest in their interviews, but have always backed up the negatives with positives – learning from the defeats, not letting it happen again, and bouncing back quickly.
However, after that draw at Adams Park they admitted that the disappointment of having to endure another nervous play-off campaign had got to them.
In my opinion, they did little wrong in March, but accrued just nine points from a possible 24. But analyse the defeats: Yeovil parked the bus after snatching a goal against the run of play. Dons tried everything but couldn’t manage to break them down. It happens. It has happened plenty of times at stadium:mk in the past and on another day, they’d have scored five.
Against Carlisle, they were forced to play the last 10 minutes with 10 men after Dean Bowditch went off injured, and a foul outside the box was given as a penalty in the dying minutes. There isn’t a lot to argue against the defeat to Brentford, and Robinson admitted it wasn’t good enough in the first half. But at this level, you come to expect a defeat along the way.
The draws with Hartlepool, Chesterfield and more recently Preston show how far the team has gone in the last 12 months. Sitting in the Yeovil press box on January 3, 2011, after another defeat on the road, you wondered if Dons would ever win an away game again.
The games Dons have been drawing would probably have been defeats last year. While Dons turned on the style away from home towards the end of last season, there weren’t many teams that really went at them and didn’t come away with a win.
Take the away game against Plymouth Argyle last season for example – when Dons were in town, they simply wanted it more. You got that feeling at Chesterfield this season too, as the Spirites prepared to go to Wembley for the JPT final.
But this time, there was a spell when Dons looked like they wanted it just as badly. And suddenly they were back in the game and could have won it when Rob Hall hit the bar late on. Gone are the days of heads dropping after going a goal behind.
That mentality has seen them notch up 100 goals in all competitions this season, with top scorer Bowditch on 13 goals. But this is nothing new. In the double winning 2007/08 season, Dons hit the back of the net 97 times, with Mark Wright (also cutting in from the flank like Bowditch) their top scorer on 15.
That season also saw Willy Gueret beat a league and club record for clean sheets. But since returning to Dons in the summer of 2010, David Martin has twice surpassed Gueret’s feat, and has done it a division higher. He’s now kept 16 clean sheets this season, and his record-breaking lockout came thanks to a first half penalty save on Easter Monday against Tranmere – a fitting way to get over the line.
Something that does need to stop though is the ‘small club’ mentality that sometimes creeps into proceedings.
For three of the last four seasons, Dons have made the play-offs and have mixed it with the likes of Leicester, Leeds, Norwich, Charlton and Southampton. But every now and then, the underdog mindset kicks in, particularly against promotion rivals.
After the defeat at Bramall Lane earlier this season, Robinson said of Sheffield United: “This is a good club with an awful lot of tradition, with a lot of Championship quality and arguably should be playing a lot higher. We’re very small and fragile. We want to be where they have been.”
And this is not a dig at the club, players or management. But it needs to change, because now they are one of the big clubs in this division. They have created more history and column inches in the last eight years than others have in 50 and arguably have their ambitions set far higher than most of the other teams in League 1 too.
Dons are up in the play-offs again; they are mixing it with these huge teams with years of history again; they are worthy of that place among them because they are good enough to be up there again.
If Robinson’s side are promoted to the Championship, they will face big team after big team, week in, week out, and there will be no place left to hide.
So what is most important for the club now is to finish in style and go into the play-off campaign like a train on fire.
Of the four remaining games against Scunthorpe, Sheffield United, Rochdale and Walsall, three of them are very much winnable.
Psychologically, the game with United will be huge. Coming so late in the season, beating the Blades at stadium:mk could end Danny Wilson’s hopes of automatic promotion, handing that honour to fierce rivals Wednesday with just two games to go – and what a blow that could prove to be for the red and white side of Sheffield.
That psychological edge will give Dons the upper hand against whoever they take on in the play-offs – having form against fellow top teams could prove vital in the nail-biting affairs of May. Now they need to build up a head of stream, starting by beating Scunthorpe away on Saturday.