DONS will face a Tuesday night play-off decider in Huddersfield after they fell to a lacklustre 1-0 home defeat to Walsall on Saturday.
Emanuel Ledesma pounced on Tom Flanagan’s 19th minute slip to curl the ball round David Martin to put the visitors in front as Dons failed to register a shot on target.
With Huddersfield winning 2-0 against Yeovil, they leapfrogged Dons into fourth place, securing the vital advantage of the second leg at home.
“It doesn’t matter where the second leg is – look at Chelsea!” said assistant manager John Gorman afterwards. “It would have been nice to bring them back here, but we’ll learn a lesson from Peterborough last season, go up there and be hard to beat like we have been all season. We don’t mind playing home or away.
“We cannot make excuses, we weren’t at the races and it was one of those days that we’ve had few and far between home and away this season.
“But we’ve had a fantastic year, the manager has done extremely well. The style of football we’ve had all season hasn’t happen today, but we just couldn’t get it going.
“There’s no rhyme nor reason for it. That’s what happens in football – it’s a funny old game.”
Walking out onto the stadium:mk pitch, players and staff from both teams formed a guard of honour for Dons assistant manager John Gorman, who announced his retirement from football last week after more than 40 years in the game. He was accompanied onto the pitch with his two grandchildren.
Walsall barely touched the ball in the opening 10 minutes as Dons put on a master-class of passing over the crisp looking stadium:mk pitch. But ironically it was the visitors who should have taken the lead in the 11th minute when Will Grigg’s shot deflected into the path of Emaniel Ledesma who’d beaten the offside trap, but was slow in reacting and could only poke at it, kicking it straight at David Martin who raced off his line to close the angle.
And from there, the Saddlers began to look the better side. Ledesma fired into the side netting two minutes later, but it was Grigg who handed the away side the lead on 18 minutes when he capitalised on Tom Flanagan’s slip to race into the box and bend a shot into the far corner of the net for 1-0.
Dons struggled to find their way in the game after the goal, allowing Walsall to dictate much of the proceedings. It was all too narrow from the home team, barely making use of Dean Bowditch and Daniel Powell on the flanks. When they did get the ball, both looked dangerous in attacking their full-backs, but the busy centre of the park restricted their opportunities to cross.
Ledesma was proving to be a real thorn in the side of Dons’ defence and he could have doubled Walsall’s lead 10 minutes before the break when he raced onto another ball in behind the defence. But Shaun Williams kept in touch and slid in at the right time, putting off the striker as his tame strike rolled safely to Martin.
Dons threatened with a corner just before the break, but it was quickly turned around into another counter-attack, though Martin again was wise to the move, shaking his head in despair as he watched his defence part too often during the first 45 minutes.
The home side came out with renewed vigour in the second period, and kept a lid on Walsall’s counter-attacking system but still failed to test Saddlers keeper Jimmy Walker at all as the clock ticked over to the hour mark. Jabo Ibehre, Jay O’Shea and Luke Chadwick were introduced at the expense of Bowditch, Alan Smith and Adam Chicksen. The changes certainly lifted the crowd for the first time in the game and it had the desired effect on the pitch too as Dons set up camp in the Walsall half. However, the finishing of Gleeson and Potter left a lot to be desired as both blazed shots well over the crossbar from range as Walker remained untroubled.
Dons were dealt a huge slice of luck though when Darren Potter tried to play offside in a rare Walsall attack, but Alex Nicholls went clear and somehow put the ball wide when he was one-on-one with Martin, to the surprise of everyone in the ground.
In the melee, Chadwick pulled up as he raced to get back and after receiving treatment, went straight down the tunnel, reducing the home side to 10 men for the remainder of the game.
Despite the home side seeing more of the ball, the chances on goal were few and far between and horrendously off target when someone dared pull the trigger from long range.
It wasn’t the ideal send off for Gorman, ending his Football League career with defeat. And the outgoing assistant admitted he was surprised by the guard of honour ahead of kick-off.
He said: “I didn’t want the hullabaloo anyway! It was nice to see the boys in their t-shirts minutes before the game, and the guard of honour.
“I walked out with my grandchildren, and it was emotional, but I just wanted to get on with the game! It has turned out to be a very bad game for us – our worst performance of the season.
“But that’s football, and you have to accept it. We’ve had a tremendous season, we’re disappointed not to finish fourth but it has been a very good season and you cannot knock us for one bad performance.”
Of the 10,600 fans in attendance, barely any remained in their seats as the players and staff returned to the pitch for the traditional end of season lap of honour, though the atmosphere in stadium:mk was lacking throughout, with perhaps both the players and fans looking ahead to the play-offs.
Gorman added: “I’m disappointed for the fans to leave us at the end when we needed them just because we didn’t play well.
“When you play well, it’s easy to get behind us, but we needed a lot of support here and we didn’t get it. I felt a bit strange after the game on the lap of honour, we did it for the young fans. They’re the future and they deserve it. But we need more support.
“The fans have to get behind us in the next two games to get to Wembley”
But Gorman said Dons won’t dwell on the defeat for too long, saying they only need to look back to their previous home game - the victory over Sheffield United - to remember the highs of football and cast the Walsall result into the back of their minds.
He said: “Why shouldn’t it? Last time we played here we beat Sheffield United! And they didn’t go up because of that. That was a great atmosphere and the lads responded, with an excellent performance – today was just a bad day.”
It was a disappointing end to the regular season, with Dons perhaps keeping half an eye on the play-offs rather than the task at hand.
Ultimately though, they’ll be back at stadium:mk next Saturday for the first leg against Huddersfield.