FIVE minutes of madness cost Dons dearly as they lost 4-2 to Stevenage on Tuesday night, leading to boss Karl Robinson apologising to the visiting fans.
Despite taking the lead just two minutes in through Jay O’Shea, Stevenage looked the better side and were level midway through the first half when Michael Bostwick’s low skimming shot beat David Martin from range.
Mathias Doumbe picked up a silly booking for picking up the ball when he thought he’d been fouled, and when he sythed down Chris Beardsley minutes later, he was given his marching orders. From the free kick, Scott Laird headed the Boro into the lead, and Darius Charles put the game out of reach two minutes later – Martin beaten by another header.
Tom Flanagan pulled one back with five minutes to go, but Gary MacKenzie put through his own net three minutes later to wrap up proceedings at the Lamex Stadium.
After the game, Robinson apologised to the fans who made the short trip to Hertfordshire and admitted his side weren’t good enough on the night.
“I’m sorry to the fans who came, that wasn’t good enough,” he said. “But it was five minutes of madness. I thought we started better and they came back into the game with their goal.
“But I thought we started the second half better and got right back on the front foot.
“Five minutes, a sending off, a goal, and another. It was just one of those days.
“At 3-1, a lot of teams would have died. We showed character and fought back but it was an own goal put them back in the driving seat.”
Robinson was without Darren Potter in the centre of midfield – the former Sheffield Wednesday man suffering with flu. He was replaced by O’Shea, with Luke Chadwick pushed into the middle of the field, while MacKenzie also returned to the starting line-up, replacing Saturday’s goal-scorer Flanagan.
Stevenage, playing in front of their new manager Gary Smith who was in the stands for the game, nearly took the lead within seconds of the kick-off as Chris Beardsley slid to meet Lawrie Wilson’s cross but the ball sailed well over the bar.
It took less than two minutes for Dons to take the lead, scoring with their first attack. Adam Smith crossed from the right, but his cross was well blocked by keeper Chris Day, however he only parried the ball as far as O’Shea who was able to side foot into an empty net unchallenged for 1-0.
There were shakes of the head from Robinson later though as Stevenage looked to get back in the game – but while the home side had the better of the play in the opening 15 minutes, they struggled to make Martin work.
O’Shea was looking like a man determined to make an impact and stake his claim for a regular first team place, and was the star performer in the Dons midfield.
But he could have done better with his 20th minute shot after some good skill saw him go past two players, though he sent the effort well wide of Day’s goal.
Stevenage drew level out of nowhere after 25 minutes though, when the ball was popped back to Bostwick 25 yards from goal, and his low skimming shot zipped past Martin at full stretch – harsh on the keeper who had hardly touched the ball so far.
The game threatened to be a thriller from the opening minutes of play, but chances were few and far between for both sides after that.
While Stevenage saw more of the ball and were able to play on the front foot, they created few chances of note in front of goal, with a deflected Charles effort their only real opportunity.
Dons though struggled to hold onto the ball on the slick surface, almost lost without Potter there to navigate in the middle of the park.
As the clock ticked towards the break, Beardsley nearly put Boro in front when Doumbe misjudged a routine header away, allowing the striker a free sight of goal in the penalty area. But strangely, he opted to take a touch rather than test Martin, allowing Dean Lewington to get back and send him wide where the chance was ultimately squandered.
Dons seemed to struggle on the wet surface, losing their footing often and watching their passes skip off the pitch and out of play as the Boro looked more comfortable in the light rain, though the sides went in level at the break.
The second half started in a similar fashion to the way the game kicked off – this time though Jabo Ibehre’s early shot hit the wrong side of the net as Dons went about retaking the lead.
Stevenage quickly found their feet and were soon back in the ascendancy, pelting the Dons box with plenty of high balls to test Martin and his defence.
O’Shea forced a good save from Day 10 minutes after the restart when he latched onto Smith’s long hopeful ball forward, but an unmarked Charlie MacDonald in the centre was probably the better option for the Irish midfielder.
And things took a turn for the worse just after the hour mark, sparking a five minute spell which put paid to Dons’ chances. Doumbe – who was needlessly booked for handball earlier in the half – picked up his second booking for a reckless challenge on Beardsley on the touchline, forcing Dons down to 10 men.
Robinson acted quickly to replace Dean Bowditch with Flanagan, but the defender could do nothing to prevent Laird from heading in the resultant free kick, giving Stevenage the lead for the first time in the match at 2-1.
And their lead was doubled just three minutes later when Martin was beaten by another header, this time from Charles.
It could have been even worse two minutes later when Beardsley put yet another header on target, but this time Martin was there to tip the ball over the bar.
Dons’ uphill task wasn’t helped by the fact that they still couldn’t get to grips with the slick surface, losing possession all too easily as they tried to take men on or play balls too long for MacDonald and Ibehre to chase as the game slipped away from them.
Dons gave themselves a lifeline five minutes from full time when substitute Flanagan headed home Stephen Gleeson’s cross to reduce the deficit to a single goal, making for a tantalising finale.
But all hopes of a miraculous comeback were crushed when MacKenzie scored at the wrong end two minutes from time.
Robinson questioned Stevenage’s mentality, accusing some players of surrounding the referee and encouraging him to book some of the Dons players.
“Their players were screaming for bookings every time a player went down – (Roberto) Mancini got hammered in the press for saying that,” he said. “A lot of their players surrounded the referee asking for yellow cards.
“But that’s what Stevenage do – they foul you first. People need to wise up about how they play. But you have to give them credit, I’m not bitter at all because in the end they deserved the victory and we’ll learn from it.”
For goal-scorer O’Shea, a return to the starting line-up began in the perfect manner, but he said that scoring means nothing to him if the team doesn’t win, but hopes he has made enough of an impression on his manager to play a more regular role in the side.
“It was a great start – Smithy went down the wing and you don’t normally get chances like that so early and I was there to slot it home. But we didn’t really push on and they got themselves back in the game. Our heads dropped when they took the lead, and we never got back on top.
“All I can do is take my chance when it comes along and hopefully I’ve given the manager something to think about.
“It’s been frustrating with the injury which kept me out for 12 weeks and then when I came back the team were doing so well, and I had to bide my time.
“Hopefully I’ve done enough to get in the manager’s plans from now on.”