DONS’ season is over after a nightmare play-off semi final second leg that saw them beaten 2-0 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate by Peterborough.
Going into the game with a 3-2 first leg advantage to defend, Dons’ night couldn’t have begun much worse as Grant McCann - the man who slotted home Sunday’s controversial ‘penalty - once again found the net. He fired home from a free-kick, ironically just outside the area this time, with 11 minutes on the clock, although David Martin should have done better to keep it out. That made it 3-3 on aggregate.
Daniel Powell hit the crossbar towards the end of the first half, but after the break Dons failed to test Posh keeper Paul Jones enough, and Craig Mackail-Smith’s goal 10 minutes after the restart saw Posh 4-3 ahead overall.
And the hosts should have wrapped the game up after that, missing several good chances to kill the game off as Martin did his best to redeem himself. But in the end a horribly frustrating night for Dons was pretty much summed up by Stephen Gleeson and Keanu Marsh Brown’s coming together late in the game, and the pitch invasion from the Posh fans at the full time whistle only rubbed salt into the wounds.
Posh certainly started the game the better of the two sides. Making probably his last start at London Road, Mackail-Smith was looking to leave with a bang, and just as at stadium:mk, he was the first to try and break the deadlock. Breaking the offside trap between Mathias Doumbe and Sean O’Hanlon, he fired a shot at the near post, but Martin was a match for it, saving low and tipping the ball out for a corner.
Dons looked nervous as Posh maintained their frantic pace, and the visitors’ slender lead lasted just over 10 minutes - McCann’s free-kick from the top right hand side of the penalty area somehow sneaking under the body of Martin at his near post, sending the home fans into raptures.
However, Dons immediately looked like getting back into the game, winning a series of corners, although Paul Jones looked much more confident than he did in the first leg, punching clear. Posh made life desperately uncomfortable for Dons as they sought to get the ball down and play their passing football, closing them down at every opportunity and rushing Dons into long balls for Sam Baldock to chase.
Posh weren’t creating much themselves, but they could so easily have doubled their lead on the night when Grant Basey made it to the byline and squared a ball across the face of goal which flew agonisingly in front of the sliding Mackail-Smith.
With the wind in their sails Posh continued to search for a second to take the lead on aggregate, and Mackail-Smith again tested Martin at his near post, forcing the keeper to turn the ball around the post.
But Dons should have gone in level at the break and once again ahead on aggregate. Gary Mackenzie, up for a free kick, played the ball in from the left towards Baldock, and his flick came to Powell six yards out - but the youngster’s shot smashed against the crossbar and bounced clear.
Although a goal down at the break, Dons’ hopes remained high, especially considering the start to the second half at stadium:mk which saw them score three times in little more than 10 minutes.
But this time it was Posh who began the second half on fire. Dons were continuing to try and play their passing game, but when Dean Lewington lost the ball on the touchline it left Dons dangerously exposed. Lee Tomlin’s high ball saw a mix-up between Mackenzie and O’Hanlon, allowing George Boyd in on goal, but when his shot was stopped by Martin, that man Mackail-Smith was on hand to tap home at the second attempt – cue bedlam.
Dons responded well and should have been awarded a penalty when Angelo Balanta played the ball off Mark Little - the player at the centre of that controversial penalty at stadiummk - and he stuck an arm out to block Balanta’s cross. But referee Colin Webster turned away furious Dons appeals.
Posh should have been high and dry and in Manchester with 20 minutes to go when substitute Chris Whelpdale slid an excellent ball across the box, evading the Dons back line to find Tommy Rowe on the edge of the area attacking at pace, but his shot was brilliantly cleared off the line by Mackenzie.
Tempers began to flare up in the Dons ranks during a brief break to deal with an injury, with Gleeson and substitute Marsh-Brown going toe-to-toe and having to be separated by their team-mates.
Dons were falling apart at the seams as the clock ran down, unable to get Baldock nor Jabo Ibehre involved in any way as that elusive goal looked all the more unlikely to come. Lewis Guy, replacing O’Hanlon with five minutes to go, almost immediately made an impact as he fed Marsh-Brown in the area. He fired a ball across goal to Balanta on the far side, but amazingly he blazed the ball over the bar with the goal gaping in front of him. To save his blushes the offside flag was raised.
Posh again could have sealed the game with a couple of minutes to go when Mackail-Smith picked Mackenzie’s pocket on the edge of the area and was clean through on goal, but the hitman’s shot came back off the base of the post.
All hopes were fading fast for Dons despite five minutes being added on at the end. Balanta’s cross from a promising position on the left was easily gathered by Jones at the near post and after that it was game over. The final whistle consigned Dons to another year in League One - the curse of the play-offs striking once more. There’s nothing anyone can do about it now, but that won’t stop management, players and fans alike thinking back to that first leg goal that shouldn’t have been.