KARL Robinson admitted he has a fight on his hands to keep Sam Baldock after his side’s 2-0 victory over Exeter City on Saturday.
Goals in each half from Jabo Ibehre and Dean Bowditch saw off a dogged City side, but the manager highlighted Baldock’s efforts in particular on a day when chances were few and far between for the 22-year-old.
But after he turned down Peterborough’s approaches in July, Robinson said other clubs were keeping tabs on the young striker and that he will face a struggle to keep hold of him past the transfer deadline at the end of August.
“The big one for me today was Sam Baldock,” he said. “He played in four positions, and did extremely well knowing that people were here watching him.
“He’s over the moon with his performance, he gave me everything he had for this club. He’s a talent and he showed that he can play in a number of positions and work hard.
“It’s not always about scoring goals, but also about understanding about the roles being played around him. And he showed what qualities he has
“Yes, we will find it hard to keep hold of him, but he’s a great man, and one I have a lot of time for.”
Robinson highlighted Exeter’s lack of a recognised striker on the pitch on Saturday, and they certainly could have used one in the early exchanges as the home side looked the more likely to open the scoring.
Callum McNish first tested David Martin with a cheeky lob in just the second minute, and Liam Sercombe’s shot five minutes later had the keeper back-tracking after a deflection off Gary MacKenzie threw it off course, dropping just wide of the right-hand upright.
The home side enjoyed more possession and territory but failed to really test Dons’ defence in the first 20 minutes, as the visitors struggled to get their midfield game going.
But their opening goal, in the 23rd minute, came with stroke of luck, not that Ibehre was complaining as he netted his third goal in as many games.
Dean Lewington ventured into Exeter’s half, and after a clever give-and-go with Baldock found himself on the edge of the penalty area. He fed the ball wide to Angelo Balanta who twisted and turned to gain some room before firing left footed on goal.
The shot hit an Exeter defender on the way through and rebounded kindly to Ibehre six yards out, and he made light work of the finish, slotting into the bottom corner.
The goal gave Dons a helping hand into the game, and they began to get the ball on the floor to play the style of football Robinson is more accustomed to seeing from his side. And they were aided by Exeter, who failed to make anything stick in the final third of the pitch as Lewington and the rest of the defence mopped up attacks with ease.
What shots the Grecians did have were well off target, and never troubling Martin as Dons took their lead into the break.
It took just 27 seconds of the second half for Dons to score at Cheltenham in midweek, but it wasn’t to be at St James’ Park, though the chance was there for them to double the lead just after the restart. It fell to Ibehre who blazed over the bar from 15 yards.
As the half settled, neither side really looked on top, with Dons comfortably within themselves. And nothing but a high Bignall shot to deal with in the opening 10 minutes of the half.
The midfield pairing of Gleeson and Potter were holding Exeter at bay as their confident passing and strong tackling quickly poured water on any potential attacks from the home side.
And what the pair did let through was ultimately mopped up by Gary MacKenzie, who went almost the whole 90 minutes unchallenged in the air.
Adam Chicksen too was enjoying a strong showing out of position at right back, throwing himself bravely into some crunching tackles, but coming off the better more often than not.
Robinson rolled the dice and went in search of a second with half an hour remaining, replacing Balanta with Dean Bowditch.
Darren Potter came close to opening his Dons account when he and Shaun Williams caught Exeter napping with a short free-kick, but the former Sheffield Wednesday man really should have done better while under no pressure 20 yards out, firing well over the crossbar.
Sam Baldock was struggling to make an impact on the game, despite playing across the front line and getting into some dangerous positions, but rarely saw the ball.
Exeter enjoyed a good spell with 25 minutes to go, earning two close free-kicks on the edge of the box but both were dealt with by MacKenzie, who was taking no prisoners at the back.
The home crowd were growing frustrated with the lack of goal-scoring chances and were making the atmosphere a very hostile one, but one aimed at their own side as the struggled to create anything going forward.
At the other end, Dons’ chances were few and far between, with Krysiak a spectator for much of the second half.
A shining light for Dons though was the performance of Jabo Ibehre. The big forward was putting in a fantastic performance on the right flank, showing great control and hold-up play, as well as giving fans a glimpse of his pace as he looked to turn and take on defenders.
But with 15 minutes to play, Daniel Powell replaced Ibehre who had nothing left to give, and received rapturous applause from the travelling Dons fans.
And with Exeter committed forward in search of the equaliser, Bowditch scored his first goal for the club to put the result beyond doubt with a minute to play.
Luke Chadwick picked up the ball in the centre of midfield and cooly played in Bowditch who was making the break ahead of him. Staying onside, Bowdtich raced through on goal and didn’t need Baldock – who was up with him in support – as he neatly side-footed passed City keeper Artur Krysiak for 2-0 and all three points.
Baldock could have put the icing on the cake when he was through seconds later, but Krysiak was wise to it and saved well at his feet.
And come the final whistle, Robinson were delighted to have ground out a solid and well deserved victory against a tough Exeter side.
He said: “They’re a very good side. We have to give Exeter credit, because if they had a goal scorer they would have got something out of this game.
“Although they had a lot of possession they only had one good chance. We denied them from creating chances which is important. We played our football at times and scored two good goals.
“The goals came against the run of play, but as part of our game plan at the end of each half, if we could contain them then our legs would get us a chance. It’s a wonderful team effort, but we have to recover quickly and get back on the coach.
“It’s a fantastic win, and a tough place to come, and I’m going back on the coach the happiest I’ve been away from an away game. They’re a very good side, and not many teams will come here and leave with a 2-0 victory.”
And while Baldock had almost no chances to speak of, Robinson was full of praise for forward Ibehre, who put in his best performance in a Dons shirt since signing two years ago.
“I love the man,” Robinson said. “He’s a credit to the club. I like having good people at the club, he’s a wonderful man and gives us everything.
“He has three in three now, and people have always said that if he adds goals to his game, he’ll be a top player and he is starting to show that.”
Dons face another long trip on Tuesday night as they take on Yeovil Town at Huish Park – a ground Dons have never won at, but will look to continue their promising start to the season after bagging their first win.