IT WAS a case of so near and yet so far as Dons were knocked out of the FA Cup by Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Tuesday night.
Danny Gabbidon scored the only goal of the game in the 73rd minute, though it was the League 1 side who proved their footballing credentials by controlling long periods of the game and looking to all those watching as the better side over the course of the tie.
Seventeen coaches helped ferry some of the 1,916 travelling Dons supporters to west London to cheer their side on, and for the most part they were the only ones to be heard, keen to enjoy the occasion whatever the result.
Mark Hughes, taking charge of his first game at home since replacing Neil Warnock at the helm, named a full-strength QPR side – suspended captain Joey Barton withstanding – with the intention of comfortably seeing off their League 1 opponents at the second time of asking, but it wasn’t to be that simple.
Gabbidon’s first goal since 2005 came very much against the run of play. Karl Robinson’s men had the better of the second half chances after an evenly matched first, and should have been at least two up before Gabbidon’s header.
Charlie MacDonald spurned a first half one-on-one with Rangers keeper Paddy Kenny before he saw another chance go begging in the second half. However, the best chance of the game came when Adam Smith found space down the right and put across a typically dangerous cross. Coming through a crowd of players, Ibehre misjudged the flight of the ball and was inches from converting when only a touch was needed.
Rangers weren’t without chances though – Shaun Derry had a first half goal disallowed for a foul on David Martin, and Shaun Wright-Phillips had a one-on-one which Martin tipped wide as the hosts showed brief glimpses of their Premier League quality going forward.
Akos Buzsaky also brought the best out of Martin with a rasping 35-yard free-kick in the second half as the keeper had to be at full stretch to keep out his dipping effort, palming it wide of the post.
But it was from the corner that Gabbidon pounced to put his side in front.
It was only once they took the lead that QPR began to play with the arrogance expected of a side in the top division, playing the possession football Dons had been showing off throughout.
“I’m gutted that we conceded from a set piece,” Robinson said afterwards. “Other than Shaun Wright-Phillips’ chance in the first half, I thought we limited them and denied them opportunities to score goals.
“They made the substitution, replacing Buzsaky with Helguson, and he added another body in the box for the corner. The boys swapped round to try and mark him but Gabbidon got the header and it won the tie for them.
“But we can walk away from here with immense pride. At times we showed an awful lot of class. I thought our philosophy was right, our system was right – they even changed their system to match ours.
“There were shots that went wide and ones that came off toes, ones that didn’t drop the right side of the post and Jabo Ibehre nearly got on the end of Adam Smith’s cross.
“But I didn’t start the season wanting go out and win the FA Cup, I wanted promotion. We will re-group and train and look forward to Notts County and Stevenage. That’s what we get paid for.
“We play and compete against anyone who is put in front of us, and if we do that with a smile on our face and passion – and the desire of the fans – we’ll be OK. We will have a right good go at getting out of the league playing football in the right way.
“We should have beaten them convincingly at our place and I felt today we were a bit more even. But I felt we had better chances and more of the chances to win the game.”
Such has been the trend with Dons of late, the decisions which didn’t go their way at stadium:mk in the original tie 10 days ago now seem all the more important as a result of the defeat.
Dons were denied a clear penalty when Clint Hill handled in the penalty area and Heidar Helguson broke from an offside position to score QPR’s late equaliser – neither of which were spotted by the referee or his assistants and ultimately cost Dons their fourth round place and a home tie against Chelsea.
Robinson joked: “You can’t blame the referee... but it was his fault in the first game!
“There are key decisions that went against us, but every manager comes out with ifs, buts and maybes. We just didn’t go through. But we have to swallow it and move on, smile and hope that maybe they’ll fall for us next time.”
Skipper Dean Lewington said that many of the Rangers players told him after the game that Dons deserved to go through on the night, but added that it was no consolation.
“It’s a mixture of emotions at the moment. We’re pleased with how we played for the majority of the game, but disappointed that we lost it from a set-piece,” said Lewington.
“We had a couple of chances, but so did they. On another night we might have nicked a draw and taken the game to extra time, so it’s disappointing not to take the chances and score a goal.
“The QPR players were very complimentary to us at the end – some of them said we were the better team and should have won it. They were a little bit surprised with the way we play – League 1 can be a bit hit and run, with a few hard tackles in there, but they were surprised that we try and get the ball down and play.
“They’re a Premier League side, but they won the Championship quite convincingly with that side and we’re just delighted to have competed with them so well in both games.
“Now we will use this as a springboard for the rest of the season. We’ve lost this game, but there are a lot of positives to come out of it and hopefully we can take them forward to Saturday.
“It was a fantastic atmosphere. It was a fantastic effort from the fans to make it here on a Tuesday night, we are very grateful and it was a great show for them.”
Earlier in the week, both Robinson and Dons chairman Pete Winkelman emphasised that losing the game would certainly not be a disaster for the club. And while the performance on the pitch may have suggested Dons would have come away worthy winners, Lewington said that the game at Loftus Road has done nothing but whet the appetite of the players keen to play in similar arenas in the Championship.
“This was a little bonus for us – a nice chance for us to play at a decent stadium against decent players,” Lewington said. “Our objective has always been to get out of League 1 and now we’re back to the grind of the league.
“We mentioned before that QPR were a Championship side, and if we want to get to where we need to be, we’ve got to play teams like this every week.
“It was no good coming here and just getting overawed by the occasion – we want to play at this level more often, against these players more often, and at these stadiums more often.”
Dons must now come back to reality away from the bright lights of the FA Cup to the bread and butter of their season, starting with a trip to Notts County.