DONS all but sealed their place in the League One play-offs with a scrappy 1-0 win over Swindon Town on Saturday, while their rivals slipped up.
Sean O’Hanlon’s 17th minute header against his former club proved to be the difference between the two sides at the County Ground as Dons moved seven points away from the chasing pack with just four fixtures remaining.
In a game of few chances, O’Hanlon’s header from Peter Leven’s corner was a controversial one - the Swindon players left appealing that the Dons defender had pushed Jean-Francois Lescinel in allowing him to score his fourth of the season.
David Martin was left as a spectator for much of the game, but had to face a flurry of half-chances late in the first half, from David Prutton and former Don Jon-Paul McGovern, although the keeper could do nothing about Calvin Andrew’s chance in stoppage time as the Swindon front man saw his effort come back off the crossbar.
Tempers flared further in the second period, and saw a face-off between Karl Robinson and Robins assistant boss Ian McParland when a rather innocuous clash between Keanu Marsh-Brown and Paul Caddis saw the Swindon bench up in arms over an alleged elbow, with McParland taking exception, prompting referee James Linington to send him to the stand.
Reduced in number on the bench, Swindon were soon reduced on the pitch too when Andy Frampton was given his marching orders for pulling back Jabo Ibehre. While a soft offence, he picked up his second booking and gave his side an even bigger mountain to climb with 10 minutes to go.
Dons though were lucky to finish the game with a full compliment of players themselves when substitute Angelo Balanta jumped in two-footed to block the ball, and on any other day he could have seen a straight red card. Caddis, fortunately, was far enough away from the challenge to avoid collision. Balanta though picked up a booking for kicking the ball away.
After the game, manager Robinson saw the incident as a soft one, but was left irate at his player for picking up a needless booking ahead of the crunch period of the season.
“He got booked for kicking the ball away. But he jumped to block the ball away and Caddis was a good three or four feet away,” he said. “It was just a block so he has not gone in to tackle or injure the player. But he got booked for stupidly kicking it away, which I’m furious about.
“It’s those bookings that add up over time, but he will learn, and he showed glimpses of frightening ability.”
With other results going in Dons’ favour, the club are almost certain to be playing into the middle of May with the play-offs, and Robinson thinks that his side will take the most stopping.
“We knew it was a must-win game,” he said. “Swindon are fighting against relegation but they’re still a good team and we’re lucky to come away from here with a win.
“We have the momentum with us now - we probably have the best momentum in the country and we’re not doing anything different to the beginning of the season.
“The headlines won’t say that it was a classic! But it was a win and a marvellous one. It has shown that we can battle as well.
“We rode our luck at times but every good team has to do that. I think they created two of the better chances. I don’t think we created much and we weren’t as fluid as we have been.”
Speaking about the goal, Robinson said: “Swindon were arguing about a free-kick, and they were possibly right, but he should have scored the much easier chance in the second half. But I’m pleased for Sean.
“He gets a lot of stick here, I don’t know what has gone on with that, but for us he’s been a talisman over three years and they have lost a very good player.”
And O’Hanlon himself was delighted to score against his former club, but muted his celebrations as a mark of respect for Swindon who gave him his big break in football.
He said: “I love scoring goals, and to do it against my former club is really pleasing and it meant a lot.
“I could’ve celebrated more, but Swindon gave me my first chance to play in the Football League so I’ll never forget that.
“I know I get a lot of stick when I come back here, but I still didn’t want to go over the top with the celebrations. I have heard the other results and they have a mountain to climb now to stay up, but they’ll have to pick themselves up again and win the remainder of their games.”
With just 12 points remaining to be won this season, Dons are seven points clear of seventh placed Rochdale and five better off than Bournemouth in the final play-off place. Rochdale were beaten 1-0 at home by Brentford on Saturday, while fellow top six hopefuls Leyton Orient lost 2-1 at Exeter. And O’Hanlon says he wants to be part of a successful promotion campaign.
He said: “We have four games to go, so if we can keep up the momentum, we will be the form team going into the play-offs.
“Realistically, we have cemented our place in the play-offs now and we will be gearing up for them. I was very disappointed to miss the last campaign so to get another chance to play in the final is the goal for me.”