AUTOMATIC promotion is still very much on the agenda for Dons as they prepare for a gruelling last four months of the season.
Having taken on League 1 play-off hopefuls Notts County and Stevenage in recent weeks, Karl Robinson’s men have also faced promotion rivals Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday in a hectic start to 2012.
And the tough fixtures don’t stop coming, with Bury visiting stadium:mk on Saturday and a trip to The Valley to take on league leaders Charlton next Tuesday.
But while Dons have picked up just one win this year, they are still just eight points from the last automatic promotion spot and four clear of Stevenage in the final play-off place.
“Automatic promotion is still a realistic target,” Robinson said. “We showed on Saturday that we can mix it with the sides up there too. We’ve drawn with Huddersfield, we played better than Sheffield Wednesday, and we were better than Charlton at stadium:mk.
“We’ve not beaten these teams, but they’ve not blown us away. Last year there was a big gap between the sides.
“Collectively we’re getting stronger. But this league is really tough. We’ve assembled a young, hungry group of players who want to be successful together.
“And that’s no disrespect to the players who have been here in the past. But the whole squad is as strong it has been, even though it’s the smallest.
“We’re happy with where we are. It’s us against the world now, and we will fight for every inch, and blade of grass. The players are willing to put their bodies on the line for the club and they were fuming after the Huddersfield game. They wanted to win that game.
“I’ve seen a shift in mentality in the last week. Results might not show it yet, but it will. There’s a new direction about them that is getting stronger and stronger.
“We look good and strong. I think they’ve got a togetherness that wasn’t there last year.”
Results haven’t been going Dons’ way recently. Having beaten Colchester 1-0 at stadium:mk on January 2, Dons haven’t been able to pick up a win in their last six games.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. They have only lost twice – once to Premier League QPR in the FA Cup and to Stevenage in the league – and have performed well throughout January.
There have been some bumps along the way though – Robinson was sent to the stands on two occasions and assistant John Gorman once. Mathias Doumbe was also given his marching orders and Gary MacKenzie was unfortunate to find the net twice at the wrong end of the pitch.
And there have been some questionable refereeing calls go against Dons too, which arguably cost them points and a place in the FA Cup fourth round.
Robinson admitted that on paper the results in 2012 don’t look good, but he’s confident that fans who have seen them play in January aren’t hitting the panic button just yet.
He said: “It’s a strange start because the results haven’t run parallel with the performances.
“Referees haven’t helped us. There were two decisions that went against us at Brentford, the penalty at Notts County which was never handball, the handball and offside against QPR, and the handball on Saturday was incredible!
“We’ve had two penalties given against us when our arms have been down by our sides, while the two we didn’t get were with hands above their heads. How can they not be given?
“If we had got all the right decisions, we’d have beaten QPR, beaten Notts County and beaten Huddersfield. We’d have been sitting here saying ‘what a fantastic start to 2012’ but it has been a strong start.
“Colchester at home was tough for us and Notts County away is always hard. The Stevenage game is probably the only blot on the list, but Mathias Doumbe shouldn’t have been sent off there.
“We could have been ridiculously better off but we’re not. But we feel we’re so much stronger than we were last time, and we’re mentally in a fantastic place.
“I feel that the first six week of this year won’t define our season. It’s been a difficult start to the year, with Charlton and Bournemouth to come. I think we’ve come through it mentally and physically sound.”
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Dons during January. After the euphoria of signing Premier League ace Alan Smith on loan from Newcastle United, Robinson was shocked to hear of Tottenham’s decision to recall Adam Smith from his season-long stint at stadium:mk.
And he was disappointed to hear that the England U21 man had been loaned out to Leeds less than 24 hours after being recalled.
“Tottenham always said that if he was going back to be in the first team, or to get bought, then he could go back,” Robinson explained.
“I didn’t accept that he could go back out on loan, and I thought that was very disrespectful to us.
“Having these deals in place doesn’t help clubs like us. But he did a fantastic job for us, and Tottenham did us a huge favour by letting us have him. It’s just a shame it turned sour at the end.
“I got a call at 4.45pm and a letter three minutes later saying he was recalled, 24 hours before the deadline. That night we stayed at the ground until 2am, working around the clock.
“By the time we woke up, I had three right backs and my pick of them. Many years ago, we’d have struggled to cope with the short notice, and jumped into signing someone we didn’t know.”
Robinson moved quickly to sign highly rated Newcastle full-back James Tavernier, and completed the deal just before the transfer deadline. Dons also snapped up Celtic winger Paul Slane, who is yet to link-up with the team.
Tavernier made his first appearance in a Dons shirt in the 1-1 draw Huddersfield on Saturday, marking the experienced Danny Cadamarteri. While he initially struggled to keep tabs on the lively winger, he came into his own in the second half and looks to be a real threat going forward.
Alan Smith also impressed in his first start for the club, getting more valuable minutes on the pitch as he regains full match fitness.
Robinson said: “I thought Tav’s debut on Saturday was excellent. He started a little nervous but as the game progressed he showed he’s a class act. He has played a lot of games for Carlisle and Sheffield Wednesday and you can see why they wanted him back.
“Alan Smith is just a lovely man and a great character. The myth around his attitude is exactly that – he’s grounded, well mannered, hard working. But a winner.
“We’ve injected a lot of aspects into our squad, and we’ve saved money.”
So for now there’s no need to panic – the team is playing well, the players are motivated, and there is still plenty of time before the season is over. But Dons have to return to winning ways quickly before another opportunity of achieving automatic promotion out of League 1 passes them by.