ON paper, it was Karl Robinson’s strongest 11 taking to the pitch at stadium:mk on Tuesday night, writes Toby Lock.
The midfield trio of Shaun Williams, Stephen Gleeson and Darren Potter could arguably be the best in League 1. With Potter’s ability to control a game, Gleeson’s firey edge, and Williams’ confident swagger, they should be terrorising defences and passing teams to death.
But for one reason or another, Robinson hasn’t picked the three to play through the middle very often. The last fans saw of the preferred formation was against Fulham in pre-season. After the game, Robinson admitted his system didn’t work, but given time, it would.
Perhaps Tuesday night wasn’t the ideal time to be testing out the formation for the second time, with Notts County sitting second in the table when they came to stadium:mk.
Luckily for Dons fans though – who wrapped up warm for the first chilly evening of football this term – Robinson recognised that his side faced the serious risk of losing at home as his midfield pistons simply didn’t fire on all cylinders.
And it seemed clear from the off that the misfire in the engine room was County’s best chance of nicking something.
Jamal Campbell-Ryce looked racey on the right flank, and had the edge over Dean Lewington from early on. His break from the halfway line saw him breeze past the Dons captain before unleashing a drive on goal, which David Martin had to be at full stretch to keep out. It was to be one of the keeper’s busiest nights at the office.
Dons looked threatening at times, but there was no real punch to their attack, with many fizzling out without testing County keeper Bartosz Bialkowski.
Meanwhile, Martin remained the most tested of the stoppers, tipping Alan Judge’s 25th minute free-kick around the post.
But there was nothing he could do about Bishop’s strike to open the scoring. With time and space 30 yards from goal, the County captain lined up and rattled a shot towards goal.
After the game, Robinson claimed the shot took a deflection on the way through, but either way, Martin was left helpless to prevent it sailing into the bottom right-hand corner.
For the first time this season, Dons were losing at home. But it didn’t spark a fightback. In fact, County looked good value to double their lead when Campbell-Ryce again broke down the right, before slipping in Joss Labadie. But his left-footed strike probably concerned the linesman more than it did Martin as it rolled well wide of the mark.
Judge had Martin flying through the air to keep out another free-kick on the stroke of half time, as County took their one-goal lead into the break.
It was clear from the outset of the second half that Robinson had laid down the law to his players during the interval, with substitutes Jay O’Shea and Ryan Lowe out warming up very early on.
Williams’ shot just 30 seconds after the restart forced Bialkowski into a finger-tip save, but the writing was on the wall for the faltering midfield.
The unfortunate sacrifice of the experiment was Antony Kay. Without putting a foot wrong, the defender made way for O’Shea after eight second half minutes, with Williams dropping back.
The introduction of O’Shea, and 10 minutes later Lowe, saw the system change once more – Robinson reverting to the lesser spotted 4-4-2 as Lowe joined MacDonald on the front line. And within minutes, the partnership bore fruit.
Lowe’s break from half way saw him skip past a defender and spot his new partner in space ahead. Knocking the ball up to Charlie MacDonald, the striker neatly brushed the ball wider to O’Shea, who stood his man up before cutting inside and bending the ball around Bialkowski to equalise, much to the relief of the home side.
Keith Curle’s men seemed quiet comfortable to leave Milton Keynes with a point from the early stages. So when their goal came along, time wasting became a regularly employed tactic.
And things didn’t change when Dons netted their equaliser. Robinson managed to escape down the tunnel for a mid-half pit-stop and returned in the time it took Francois Zoko to amble across the pitch to be replaced by Enoch Showunmi.
With Gleeson and Potter beginning to find their way again, Dons looked the more likely to net a winner as the game wore on. In fact, after a busy first half, Martin was barely called upon in the second.
Dons though struggled to carve out a clear sight of goal. O’Shea laid the ball off for Lewington to strike late in the day, but a good block from Dean Leacock sent the ball wide, and that was about as close as they came.
A draw was probably a fair reflection of the game at the full time whistle – Notts County did no more than was needed to leave with a point, while Dons put their poor first half behind them to bounce back in the second.
But it wasn’t enough for Robinson who wanted all three points and his side’s 100 per cent home record to continue.
“I’m not at all happy with a point,” he said afterwards. “It was difficult in the second half because it just didn’t bounce for us.
“I thought Jay O’Shea made an impact when he came on, scoring the goal, Jon Otsemobor looked good at times.
“And the more the game went on, our two midfield players started to take the game on.
“We weren’t out-played for 90 minutes. It was an even first half, and they’re going home happy with a point. So we must have done something right.
“They came here with a game plan which nullified our strengths. We looked strong going forward, but we didn’t have that cutting edge.”
Up to seventh place in League 1, Dons face a trip Bury on Saturday. Last season’s disappointing 0-0 draw at Gigg Lane wasn’t exactly a match to write home about, but Robinson will be keen to see his side pick up their first win on the road this season before they fall too far behind the leaders, currently Tranmere Rovers.