POTENTIAL suitors left impressed as Sam Baldock’s hat-trick helped Dons ease past Chesterfield to go top of League 1 on Saturday.
The 22-year-old has been subject to transfer speculation since he turned down a move to Peterborough in June, and scouts were in the crowd to watch his man of the match performance in the 6-2 win at stadium:mk.
But Baldock’s confident display could mean an end to his time at the club, and manager Karl Robinson admitted that if the right offer came in, he couldn’t stand in the way of his striker.
He said: “The world of football finances isn’t great at the minute. So an awful lot of money injected into the club will make us stronger.
“If Sam stays, he will play a big part in getting us into the Championship, but that’s a decision for the board to decide if the offer comes in and the money is right.
“People will now start listening to what we’ve been saying about how good he is. He’s an exceptionally gifted footballer.
“I think the world of the boy, but if something comes in that we can’t say no to and that he can’t say no to, then he goes with my blessing.
“He’s a great person to work with and we hope we have improved his all-round game. He’s a different Sam Baldock – one that wants to work hard, hold the ball up and run the channels.
“I know there were a number of people upstairs today watching him and I’d love to see what their reports say.”
And those reports would have surely started with his opening goal, coming after 12 minutes. Jabo Ibehre collected the ball in the midfield and played a brilliant pass in behind the Chesterfield defence for Baldock to latch on to. And at an impossibly tight angle, Baldock fired across keeper Tommy Lee, hitting the far side of the net and putting Dons into a deserved lead.
The hosts continued to search for a second, with Ibehre, Angelo Balanta and Stephen Gleeson all stinging the gloves of Lee but not finding the net.
But with nine minutes remaining in the first half Chesterfield pulled level, very much against the run of play.
Skipping past Dean Lewington’s challenge, Jordan Bowery got to the by-line and played a low cross across the face of goal, and despite David Martin getting a strong palm to it, Scott Boden was on hand top tap in.
That came with nine minutes of the first half remaining, and incredibly Chesterfield could have taken the lead four minutes later when Bowery once again proved tough to tackle, and found Jack Lester on the edge of the area, but the front man dragged his shot wide, much to the relief of the home fans.
And their relief turned to joy 14 minutes after the interval when Ibehre fed Baldock again for a carbon copy of Chesterfield’s equaliser as Dons went 2-1 up.
Two minutes later, Dean Bowditch capitalised on a slip by Drew Talbot to put Dons 3-1 up as they threatened to run riot.
But they were pegged back by Boden’s second after a scramble in the penalty area popped up for the striker to head past the ailing Martin to make it 3-2 with 23 minutes still remaining.
Chesterfield though were the makers of their own downfall as Dons’ two goal lead was restored just three minutes later.
A mix-up between Dwayne Mattis and his keeper allowed Baldock to pinch the ball off Lee and play in Luke Chadwick, who had only been on the pitch four minutes, to easily slot home for 4-2. But the best was still to come.
The scouts will certainly have been impressed with Baldock’s work rate in the second half in particular, and he did himself no harm in front of any potential buyers, including West Ham boss Sam Allardyce in the crowd, when he blasted home his hat-trick goal with a rocket from outside the box, putting Dons three goals to the good at 5-2.
His work was done and he was given a huge standing ovation by the home crowd when he was replaced by Jay O’Shea with 14 minutes to go.
And the substitute had the chance to score his first goal for the club when he was downed in the box seven minutes from time by Aaron Downes, smashing home the penalty and sending Lee the wrong way, completing the rout at 6-2 with four minutes to play.
With Charlton and Sheffield United both conceding late equalisers, O’Shea’s penalty meant Dons were going to the top of the table on goal difference going into their Carling Cup clash with Premier League new boys Norwich City on Tuesday night.
Though scorelines can be deceiving, this one really wasn’t. All but a 10 minute spell in the first half, Dons were by far and away the better side on the pitch.
Bowditch and Ibehre may have only had one goal to their collective tallies at the end of the game, but their contribution to the game cannot be underestimated.
The pair were excellent going forward, and with Daniel Powell and O’Shea too, look like an extremely deadly partnership, should Baldock leave in the transfer window.
Dons’ dominant second half performance is one fans are used to seeing at stadium:mk, but Robinson said for the first time, his players were downbeat at the break.
“I went in and for the first time, I saw heads down,” he admitted. “They performed at a really high level, but they were disappointed that the score was 1-1.
“It was up to me and John (Gorman) to make sure it wasn’t like that after 90 minutes. I said to them that we had to go out there and change it – play our football, pass it, move it, play around corners, with pace, craft and guile. Like we know they can so that we’d come away with a win and not a draw.
After creating so many chances against Hartlepool on the opening day of the season, and then again against Exeter and Yeovil, Robinson said he expected a side to feel Dons’ full force sooner rather than later.
“I thought we created so many chances in the first half and got into some really good positions and our final ball wasn’t great,” he said.
“In the second half we were even better. They tired towards the end and a few errors by their defenders let us in.
“But our energy levels showed how fit we really are. It showed we were on the road a lot last week, but that we have been able to come here and perform.
“We’ve played really well all season, but the only difference was that today all the balls went in the back of the net.
“It was a wonderful performance. But we have to put it to the back of our minds and concentrate on Norwich.”
Tuesday’s trip to Carrow Road for a Carling Cup second round tie might be a distraction for Dons as they concentrate on getting out of League 1, but now all eyes will be on whether Dons can keep hold of hat-trick hero Baldock before the August 31 deadline.