IT’S looking like the rollercoaster ride that is the League 1 play-offs for Dons after they conceded a late equaliser against relegation battling Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday.
Daniel Powell avenged Jay O’Shea’s first half penalty miss to put Dons ahead just after the break, but Wanderers were resolute and managed to nick a point at the very death when Stuart Beavon met Gareth Ainsworth’s corner in the 1-1 draw, sharing the spoils in the Buckinghamshire derby.
It’s not inconceivable that Dons could yet sneak the final automatic promotion spot though – they’re seven points adrift of Sheffield Wednesday who currently occupy second place, and Dons have a game in hand too.
And Karl Robinson’s men are still to face Wednesday’s bitter rivals United at stadium:mk next month. But Huddersfield look in imperious form once again, and Robinson admitted after the draw at Adams Park that he must now motivate his side to get to Wembley for the play-off final.
“It’s all about how we respond to this result,” he said. “I think finishing second now is a distant hope. We now have to cement our place in the play-offs and, if you could guarantee success, it’s the way you want to go up – at Wembley in front of 60-70,000 fans.
“That’s our goal now. We’re picturing Wembley and picturing that final.”
Saturday’s result was the seventh 1-1 draw Dons have had in 2012, and yet another they felt they should have taken the spoils from, missing chance after chance to get more from the game.
Wycombe went into the game on top form, keen to distance themselves from the relegation zone with one defeat in their previous seven games.
Dons though were comfortable favourites to claim the ‘pride of Buckinghamshire’ crown in front of 1,200 travelling fans.
And when referee Jock Waugh pointed to the spot after 10 minutes, many could be forgiven for thinking that it’d be a long afternoon for the home side. Alan Smith, returning to the starting line-up after missing Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Leyton Orient, showed the Wycombe defence a clean set of heels as he raced through on goal before Marvin McCoy brought him down as he was about to shoot. Robinson later admitted to be dumbfounded that Basey was allowed to stay on the pitch without even a booking to his name.
But with regular penalty taker Dean Bowditch on the substitutes bench, form man O’Shea stepped up but saw his spot-kick brilliantly saved by Chairboys keeper Nikki Bull.
Despite the set-back, Dons looked by far the better side during the first half but couldn’t make the incisive move to open the scoring. Stephen Gleeson returned to the side after serving a three match suspension but sent a speculative shot over the bar after an O’Shea free kick was cleared.
Both sides recognised the importance of the fixture and the midfield battle was looking a feisty affair, with some heavy challenges coming in from both sides as the referee tried to keep a lid on things to prevent tempers boiling over.
Sensing luck might be on their side, Wycombe too had good chances to take the lead – most notably when Beavon’s long-range effort appeared to be a bread-and-butter catch for David Martin, but swerved at the last second, forcing the keeper to fumble. Fortunately for the keeper, he pounced on the loose ball on the goal line before Ben Strevens racing through could force the tap-in over the line.
But the move of the game presented O’Shea with a chance to redeem himself. Daniel Powell won the ball and broke down the right, and with Charlie MacDonald and O’Shea in support, picked out the Irish man at the far post. But once again, Bull did brilliantly to keep Dons at bay, saving with his feet.
At the other end Beavon failed to test Martin again when he raced in behind Shaun Williams, but managed to blaze his shot well over the bar, letting the Dons defence off the hook just before the break.
And he would be made to pay for the miss just 49 seconds into the second half. Darren Potter scooped the ball forward to MacDonald on the edge of the box, his neat lay-off found Powell in space and the winger shot across Bull and into the corner of the net, giving the away side the lead.
Dons could have doubled their lead shortly after too when Powell again found space in the box, but this time Bull made the stop to keep the visitors out.
Mathias Doumbe has been a regular scorer this season and nearly added to his tally with a right-footed volley which went just over the bar as Dons tried to put the game out of Wycombe’s reach.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic though and Strevens should have done better from two yards out when a Wycombe corner bounced around the penalty area before the striker headed just over the bar.
Robinson had the luxury of being able to bring on Jabo Ibehre and Dean Bowditch in the second half to continue their threat up front but the home side were resolute in defence, putting themselves on the line to keep their side in with a chance of nicking a point late in the day.
And their efforts were rewarded when, in the second minute of time added on, Beavon headed in the equaliser from Gareth Ainsworth’s corner, more or less ending Dons’ hopes of automatic promotion while greatly improving Wycombe’s chances of survival.
“That’s football isn’t it?” Robinson said afterwards. “It’s sickening with the penalty miss, sickening with the six or seven chances we missed.
“I think we should have won the game but certain people helped the game flow.”
And his grievances with the man in black Mr Waugh may be taken further after the Dons boss went to a meeting about referees and their interpretations of rules, seeking clarification on a number of issues.
He said: “The referee said to me at half-time that Alan Smith wasn’t in control of the ball. I went to a referee’s convention and it was confirmed that if a player is clear through on goal with the ball bouncing ready to strike, a man clearly brings him down because he got the penalty: it’s a sending off.
“Two or three minutes later, Smith gets his legs tangled on the half way line and he got booked. Darren Potter clearly got slapped and he did nothing. He (the referee) saw it because I was looking right across the pitch.
“The good thing about football today is that we have modern technology and we can have a good look. I told the referee that if I’m wrong, I’ll apologise, if I’m not, I’ll take it as far as I can.
“I think he gave some key decisions against us, but I thought they (Wycombe) were harshly dealt with in certain parts of the game too so maybe he is the one that people will talk about today when it shouldn’t be that way.
“You can blame people and use excuses but we didn’t take our chances during the game and that’s the bit we have to learn from.”
There’s hardly time to reflect on what might have been as Dons face their seventh game in a hectic 24 days as they welcome Carlisle to stadium:mk on Tuesday night.
This fixture was scheduled originally for January, but overnight frost and a partly-covered pitch ended in embarrassment for Dons as the game was called off just an hour before it was due to kick off.