TEN man MK Dons survived a late Sheffield United onslaught to secure their place in the play-offs with a 1-0 win at stadium:mk.
Alan Smith headed home his first goal in a Dons shirt on 16 minutes as United failed to deal with Dean Bowditch’s corner. The visitors struggled to create anything in front of goal throughout, while Dons looked comfortable going forward and could have doubled their lead when Gary MacKenzie hit the post with a header. But they were handed a huge advantage 22 minutes from time when Daniel Powell picked up his second booking. Despite a late surge from United, Dons still carved out the better chances in front of goal, with Jabo Ibehre hitting the post late on.
Sheffield United were without leading scorer Ched Evans after he was found guilty of rape on Friday and was jailed for five years, while Dons were able to name the same squad which beat Scunthorpe 3-0 at Glanford Park last Saturday.
In a frantic opening 10 minutes, both sides were keen to assert themselves early, looking good in possession of the ball and dangerous going forward. Dons had an effort cleared off the line as United failed to clear a Shaun Williams corner, while at the other end, Matthew Hill’s cross was agonisingly out of reach of Will Hoskins as it flew across the face of goal.
Alan Smith was looking like a man possessed in the hole behind Charlie MacDonald, and was probably lucky not to have picked up a booking in the first 10 minutes after a couple of rash challenges, but his passion spurred on the home fans into full voice. And he had them raise the roof when on 16 minutes, he got the final touch on another messy corner, this time delivered by Dean Bowditch to put Dons into the lead. He risked referee Dean Whitestone’s wrath once again by celebrating in front of the Sheffield United fans, but still avoided the book – perhaps taking pity on Smith after scoring his first goal since 2007.
And the opener settled the home team. They looked good on the ball, making United chase, particularly in midfield as former Sheffield Wednesday man Darren Potter pulled the strings for Dons. Most importantly though, the goal silenced the 5,500 travelling Sheffield United fans who helped make for a fantastic atmosphere at stadium:mk.
Smith was integral in a move which should have put Dons two ahead on the half hour. Bowditch did brilliantly to win the ball on the touchline and exchanged a neat one-two with the goal scorer, who appeared to be clipped after the ball was played, but scuffed his shot wide from 18 yards.
The visitors were struggling to get a foothold in the game, and could build a decent spell of possession for put Dons under any significant pressure. So much so, that David Martin was hardly needed throughout the opening 45 minutes, but to catch Harry Maguire’s weak header from a Lee Williamson corner just before the break.
Gary MacKenzie had a great opportunity in stoppage time when he had a relatively free header six yards out as United struggled again from the corner, but the defender couldn’t direct his effort on goal as Dons had to settle for the single goal lead at the break.
United came out of the blocks with renewed vigour and enjoyed their best spell of the game and for the first time, looking better in midfield than the home side. But with MacKenzie and Williams looking in fine form, it was hard for Hoskins and Chris Porter to make any headway.
And it was the big Scottish defender who had another great chance on the hour mark from Dean Lewington’s free kick on half way. This time he connected with his header but saw it come back agonisingly off the foot of the post before it was hoisted away for a corner. And from the corner, Smith could have doubled his tally for the day but Hill was on hand once again to clear off the line.
But as the grey skies rolled in, Dons were dealt a serious blow when Daniel Powell clashed with Hill on halfway, and referee Dean Whitestone flashed him a second yellow followed by a red card with 25 minutes to play. John Gorman reacted furiously on the touchline and had to be restrained by Karl Robinson as he tried to remonstrate with the fourth official.
And United’s man advantage led a much more open game, but also a nerve-wracking finale for the Dons fans in attendance. But the home side kept their foot on the gas looking to double their lead. Bowditch had a shot well saved by Steve Simonsen, while the introduction of Jabo Ibehre and Luke Chadwick with 22 minutes to go added some experienced heads to the front line.
Despite all the pressure coming from Sheffield United, they could not create a clear-cut opportunity on goal. Any sight they had of goal saw rushed shots, straight at Martin and easily gathered by the keeper as Dons’ back four remained resolute.
Restricted to counter-attacks, Ibehre could have put the game to bed eight minutes from time when he raced but was forced wider than he’d have liked by Neil Collins, but still managed to get a solid shot away, forcing Simonsen to parry away.
And he came within inches again two minutes later, this time only denied by the post as he got in behind the Blades’ defence once more.
But United should have been level a minute from time when former England striker James Beattie was millimetres away from a ball across the face of goal with Martin well beaten.
But Dons rode the storm and booked their play-off spot with the three points, remaining in fourth place in League 1.
Referee: Dean Whitestone (Northamptonshire)
Attendance: 15,938 (6,135)
MK Dons: Martin, Lewington, Chicksen, Williams, MacKenzie, Gleeson, Potter, Powell, Bowditch (O’Shea, 74), Smith (Ibehre, 68), MacDonald (Chadwick, 68)
Subs not used: McLoughlin, Flanagan
Sheffield United: Simonsen, Lowton, Hoskins (O’Halloran 60), Doyle, Williamson, Collins, Maguire, Porter (Beattie, 76), McDonald, Quinn (Flynn, 60), Hill
Subs not used: Howard, Taylor
Booked: Quinn, Williamson, Lewington, Gleeson, Powell, Martin