It’s certainly not a ground-breaking statement to say the last few months have been tough for MK Dons. The lengthy win-less streak at home, some embarrassing individual and team-wide performances, the loss of a long-serving manager, a month without anyone at the helm – pick your poison.
And heading into Saturday’s match against AFC had all the hallmarks of another tough afternoon, especially given their particular vehemence towards the fixture. But the landscape wasn’t the same come kick off time.
Robbie Neilson’s tenure may have only been a week old but there was a new fervour among the Dons ranks, and it was led by his key men – some of ‘Karl Robinson’s favourites’. Dean Lewington, George Baldock, Darren Potter and Dean Bowditch perhaps knew more than most the importance of the fixture, but more importantly, understood the significance of Neilson’s first home game. And the four dragged not only the best out of themselves but those around them too.
Lewington, playing in a position he outwardly admitted he doesn’t like, kept Tom Elliot firmly in his pocket, dominating the giant striker from the very first whistle in a mighty performance which settled Paul Downing after a difficult showing at Yeovil four days earlier as he made one of his best displays since signing from Walsall in the summer.
Baldock was up and down the flank all afternoon, determined not to be beaten while teeing up the equally impressive Bowditch, who covered every blade of grass in the attacking third, for a header admittedly he should have scored. He’d get his reward later though by scoring the decisive penalty.
Potter has been mighty since his injury picked up at Sheffield United at the end of October, once again reminding everyone of his oft overlooked physical nature, not just his eye for a clever pass.
And the influence of this quartet, each in key areas of the pitch, spread. Finding a poor player in a Dons shirt on Saturday was a tough ask.
The new manager effect was certainly evident – gone was the defensive dallying that has so often caught Dons out this season, replaced with the ‘if in doubt, get rid’ approach. And so often is the case, the new manager brings a new air of excitement, motivation and desire. Frankly, it looked like MK Dons wanted it more. They certainly needed it more.
Now though, as Neilson mentioned in his post match press conference, the bar has been set. The performance on Saturday is now the benchmark for which games going forward will be judged, and the senior players showed exactly why they were preferred under the old regime. They’ve gone a long way to endearing themselves to the new boss too.