IT WAS billed as manager Vs manager, but it was an altogether different Ince who eventually stole the show as Dons went down 2-0 at Notts County, writes Toby Lock.
Substitute Thomas Ince - son of the former Dons boss and current County manager - fired in an unstoppable volley past David Martin with just four minutes remaining to give Notts the points after Aaron Wilbraham had been dismissed for an alleged elbow.
Lee Hughes then added a second in stoppage time as Dons slumped to an eighth defeat of the season away from home, dropping them to 14th place in League One.
Relations between Dons boss Karl Robinson and former manager Ince stole the headlines in the build up to the game, but the handshake shared by the pair after the game had more of a friendly feel than fans had expected.
And with the anticipated fireworks on the touchline turning out to be duds, the game began similarly. The opening period lacked chances, but it began to spark into life with a series of crunching tackles from the home side, reminiscent of seasons passed at stadium:mk.
But it was the visitors who should have taken the lead in the 24th minute. Wilbraham controlled a fizzing Stephen Gleeson pass, and cleverly turned it into the path of Lewis Guy who broke in behind the Magpies’ defence. But he maybe took it a touch too far, allowing Rob Burch in the County goal to close him down and pounce on the ball.
Martin made good saves from Neal Bishop and Ben Davies efforts to keep his side in the game as County enjoyed a period of pressure before the interval, but they couldn’t break the deadlock.
Robinson made a tactical change at half time, introducing Jabo Ibehre for Mathias Doumbe, and the switch turned the tide for Dons.
Guy twice got in behind the County defence as his side manufactured the best chances of the game - but they did not take them.
And after the game, Robinson picked out two key refereeing decisions which swung the game in County’s favour. The first came when Wilbraham appeared to be bundled to the ground in the penalty area when he challenged for a Dean Lewington cross, but ref David Phillips waved appeals away.
The second incident also involved Wilbraham - this time catching County skipper Mike Edwards with an elbow, picking up his second booking and his marching orders.
With 10 minutes to go, Ince put on son Thomas to add some firepower up front, and it took him just six minutes to strike a dagger into Dons hearts.
Gleeson’s header failed to clear the danger and the ball dropped perfectly for Ince to fire a left footed volley past the unsighted Martin to give County the lead - a strike which Robinson later admitted was ‘written in the stars.’
With Dons now going in search of an equaliser, Hughes was left upfield unmarked and he curled in a second goal in stoppage time to seal victory for the home side.
After the game, Robinson lamented his luck against players he helped in their younger days, but felt the game hinged on the two refereeing decisions.
He said: “I said to John Gorman when Thomas scored that it was written in the stars. The former manager’s son comes on and scores - but that is still tough for me to take.
“I had Dale Jennings (Tranmere) and Neil Mellor (Sheffield Wednesday) at Liverpool and now Thomas Ince - all people I worked with when they were much younger who are coming back to haunt me. My biggest disappointment is that we did not win the game though.
“The killer penalty decision and sending off threw the game in favour of County, but it’s one of things you have to take.
“I had a very productive 20 minutes with the referee after the game, talking about the key incidents. Everyone in the stadium has seen a different game to him, so it’s disappointing to lose it so late in the game.
“In fairness to County, they had two great chances during the first half, but I thought Guy had the best chance of the lot. Then in the second half Lewis had another chance and then Jabo too.
“But to lose Wilbraham in the way we did was tough - I don’t know if it was even really a booking. We can only go by similar decisions made by the referee that went unpunished.”
Dons play host to Oldham Athletic on Saturday - a side who are on the brink of the play-off spots - and will be desperate to bounce back from a run of four straight defeats.
Stats: Referee: David Phillips. Attendance: 5,172
Notts County: Birch, Darby, Edwards (c), Chilvers (Pearce 36), Harley, Ravenhill, Bishop, Davies, Judge (Ince 80), Westcarr, Miller (Hughes 69). Subs: Nelson, Thompson, Woods, Haeley
MK Dons: Martin, Lewington (c), Doumbe (Ibehre 45), Mackenzie, Woodards, Gleeson, Carrington (Powell 87), McIndoe, Leven, Guy (Chadwick 69), Wilbraham. Subs: Searle, Flanagan, Hamann
Bookings: Ravenhill, Chilvers, Wilbraham, Lewington, Gleeson. Sent off: Wilbraham
Player Ratings: Martin - 7 - pulled off a series of great saves in the first half. Woodards - 6 - again looked more comfortable at centre half and at full back. Doumbe - 6 - his slip nearly allowed Davies to score. Mackenzie - 7 - was strong in attack and defence. Lewington - 6 - arguing with the referee got him booked. Gleeson - 7 - a linchpin in the midfield. Carrington - 6 - put in his usual reliable performance. Leven - 6 - too many set pieces went awry. McIndoe - 6 - had another anonymous game. Guy - 7 - showed good pace and skill to get in behind Notts. Wilbraham - 7 - unlucky not to win a penalty and to be sent off. Subs: Ibehre - 7 - changed Dons’ style to give them an attacking threat. Chadwick - 6 - didn’t really get into the game.