WITH a quarter of the season now gone, Dons are shaping up nicely. But there are a lot of teams who can boast a similar start, and this year’s crop of League 1 promotion hopefuls is looking even better than this time 12 months ago, writes Toby Lock.
There have been some really difficult games in the opening 13 so far. Looking at the table, with Dons in fifth, they have played everyone above them and lost only once – away to a Sheffield Wednesday side now third behind Charlton and Huddersfield. Dons have also lost to Oldham, but the less said about that the better.
However, Dons still face difficult journeys to Charlton, Huddersfield, Notts County and Preston later in the season where their credentials as a candidate for a top two finish will really be put to the test.
It’s going to be a tough challenge to get automatic promotion this season – not because Dons aren’t good enough, but because their rivals for the two spots might just have a little bit extra in reserve when it comes to strength in depth when it really matters.
When everyone is fit, Dons have a very good squad. The quality runs right through the side, and the manager’s decision who to leave out is an unenviable one.
But as soon as there’s an injury to a key player, it’s immediately apparent that Robinson struggles with options if he needs to change a game.
Take September for example. Charlie MacDonald made an explosive start to his Dons career, scoring three goals in as many games and things looked like they were going swimmingly until he got injured. Robinson was then forced to move quickly to secure the services of Clinton Morrison even before many of us realised MacDonald was even sidelined.
With Jabo Ibehre also injured for the best part of the last four weeks, options have been thin on the ground when things have needed to be changed. There are plenty of attacking players in the squad, but sometimes an out-and-out striker is what is required to bundle the ball across the line in times of need – exactly what Morrison was able to do 10 minutes from time on Saturday against Bournemouth.
Robinson was quite candid on Saturday, perhaps a bit more than usual after that draw. He finally admitted that Dons were having a blip – something he vehemently denied two weeks earlier after the win over Notts County, their only win in the last eight.
But he also revealed that some of his players needed to step up to the plate and chip in with more goals or face losing their place in the starting line-up.
Anyone who has seen Dons play this season will tell you their recent lack of goals is not through a lack of chances created. Dean Bowditch could easily have had two on Saturday but for some excellent goalkeeping from Darryl Flahavan, though his second good chance – a header from very close range – really should have been converted.
When it does go right, as seen against Chesterfield, Dons will score five or six when they play to their potential at stadium:mk.
But too many of their shots are often ‘range-finders’ particularly in the first half and a number of games should have been killed off well before the half-time whistle.
And that is probably the biggest criticism you could have of the team this year. That killer instinct would have won them games against Hartlepool, Charlton and Bournemouth at home, and on the road against Bury. And with those results, Dons would have been well clear at the top of the pile.
This is the first season that Dons have been shown in a really positive light in the national media.
Robinson’s easy-going manner when a microphone is shoved under his nose has certainly added to the reputation of the club as they step ever further away from the dark days of hostility they once faced. They are now a club that the media are eager to track – a subtle but huge step in the right direction.
But it’s the style of football on the pitch that has really made people sit up and take notice to what’s happening in MK1.
Watching the team every week, it’s easy to become complacent about the style Dons fans are treated to. But when national newspaper reporters ask ‘do they really play like that every week?’ you quickly realise that there has been a remarkable step made in the last 12 months.
And when they heap praise on what you take to be a typical Dean Lewington performance, you know he’s doing a much better job than he’s given credit for!
On the whole there are no real causes for concern. Dons have proved in the first quarter of the season that they will be well in the hunt for at least the play-offs we get to the business end of the campaign – because on their day, they can and will beat anyone in the division.
But unless they improve in front of goal, they will draw games they should be winning, and it could end up costing them their chance of reaching the Championship.