Play-off despair makes promotion essential next year

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ONCE again, Dons fans are left feeling the morning after the night before, contemplating another 12 months in English football’s third tier, writes Toby Lock.

For three out of the last four years, Dons fans have suffered this play-off hangover, wondering whether things will be the same when we kick off again in August and whether they can keep hold of the heroes of last season to guide the club to the Championship.

But despite the great turnout by the fans over both legs and some great periods of play by the side on the field, there is not a silver lining to staying in League 1 – not yet anyway.

While Dons’ fate was sealed by the 2-0 first leg deficit to Huddersfield at stadium:mk on Saturday it’s probably fair to say this season has surpassed everything that manager Karl Robinson and his squad achieved a year previous.

The signs were clear from an early stage, with Dons opening their 2011/12 book with one defeat in 10 – and that came on penalties against Brentford in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Robinson won the Manager of the Month award for August and Dons sat proudly atop the League 1 table.

The side were winning plaudits up and down the country for their new, attractive style of play, passing teams to death before one of the three-pronged strike-force inevitably put the ball away.

Inevitably, a wobble in September and October saw the league’s really big hitters, Charlton, Sheffields Wednesday and United and Huddersfield, begin to rise to the top of the table, along with Dons who looked more than capable of keeping up with them.

But results weren’t going their way against those big sides – losing away to the Blades, Addicks and Owls and having key players sent off in the process – and that would ultimately cost them in the play-offs.

When their chance of automatic promotion slipped away with a last minute equaliser at Wycombe in March, Robinson and many of his players admitted that their heads dropped at the prospect of another play-off lottery.

Slipping at the final hurdle against Walsall, they missed out on fourth place to Huddersfield – and the rest is history.

Now is not the time to carry out a postmortem on how things went wrong this season – the wound is still too raw – but nor is it right to accept what happened on Tuesday night blindly and with a smile.

Dons fans should be growing restless in League 1. Four seasons with three unsuccessful play-off campaigns is the heartbreaking scenario facing the club this week after putting on a tremendous show for all in the Championship to see who they might have had to face next season, with many surely breathing a sigh of relief that they won’t be given the run-around by the Dons midfield.

But this isn’t a blame game – there is no-one at fault. League 1 has been tougher this year than ever before, and that is why this season has been a stark improvement on the last.

The most important thing for Dons now is to make sure they keep hold of their star players. Darren Potter’s recent contract extension is a blessing, though the shadows of doubt continue over Stephen Gleeson’s future with the midfielder declaring earlier in the season that he would consider leaving stadium:mk to play Championship football if he didn’t get there with Dons. And his contract is up this summer.

But it doesn’t just count for players – keeping hold of Robinson will be no mean feat, with a host of clubs surely beginning to turn their heads towards the 31-year-old as the potential man to lead their side into the next division, though that could be to the bright lights of the Premier League.

His plans for Dons are long-term though – not really thinking of life away from stadium:mk despite being linked to seemingly every job going throughout this season.

To cure the (very few) mistakes of the season, the squad has to continue to improve in key areas with genuine quality. Robinson’s behind-the-scenes recruitment team have been working throughout the season to pick up the next stars of Milton Keynes, and in that respect the future looks bright. As ever though, signings could hinge on the players (if any) who decide their future lies elsewhere.

Perhaps it would be a little harsh to say there is nothing good about being in League 1 next season, but everyone has been so intently focused on the Championship in recent weeks that the thought of actually staying in the same division feels almost like relegation on the last day.

In the past I’ve written about how Dons need to shake off the small-club mentality, and accepting the play-off defeat is certainly a sign that MK Dons are content to be beaten by those they see as the ‘big clubs’ in the league.

I’m sure everyone at stadium:mk is heartbroken with the result and will be for few days yet, but perhaps this time it’ll mean something more and perhaps this time it’ll lead to even better things next year.

That’s exactly why there is nothing good about this year’s disappointment. We should be expecting to get out of this league now. MK Dons are a threat in their own right – not because it’s their go on the merry-go-round, but because they are good enough, and should be playing at a higher level.

That fact alone will make next year all the more important for the club. With the stadium nearing completion, the paint drying behind-the-scenes, and the club becoming ever more part of the community in Milton Keynes, it is now time to make the Championship dream a reality.