The date of Sunday January 5, 2014 might not seem too significant for many outside of MK Dons, but it is probably when the wheels began to fall off this season’s play-off fight.
Saturday just gone was undoubtedly the day that Dons awoke from their play-off dream, but the morning after the heroic 3-3 draw at the DW Stadium left Karl Robinson with a different headache than a celebratory hangover.
That Sunday in January, of course, is the date when Robinson’s dream team, the team he spent all summer trying to piece together, fell apart.
Gone was his talisman Patrick Bamford: bound for Derby. Gone was Dale Jennings: the winger Robinson made no secrets about lusting after for several years. Gone was Jordan Spence: the defender who came in to plug an injury gap and became undroppable. Gone was Samir Carruthers: the midfielder who was beginning to run the show in behind Bamford. Fortunately for Robinson, he’d return, but it’d be short-lived.
Before the month was out, three departures became four when Shaun Williams swapped white for the blue of Millwall. What little money Dons got from the deal certainly came too late for Robinson to make any significant moves in the January transfer window, though it probably helped bring Spence back for the remainder of the season.
Robinson’s side were slow starters, but had finally clicked into gear just before Christmas. Winning at Molineux in early December against Wolves might’ve been seen as a fluke had Dons not gone on a run which would see them lose just once in 10. Since January 5, Dons have won eight, drawn three and lost nine times.
Like it or not, loan players are a huge part of recruitment for Football League clubs. It’s just the nature of the beast, but Dons unfortunately aren’t in a position to throw a couple of million pounds at a player of Bamford’s quality.
But it wasn’t just losing the loan players that sparked Dons’ downfall. Until that point, Dons had struggled with injuries, but not to the scale or magnitude they are today.
Dean Bowditch and Daniel Powell had missed the early part of the season, but the emergence of Carruthers, and later Jennings, was doing a good job glossing over the absent pair - so much so that the returning Powell could barely get a look in while Carruthers and Jennings were available.
There were blows too for Antony Kay, who missed three months, and David Martin, who was in out of the side for two months with recurring problems. But to an extent, their injuries could be covered while the squad was a bit deeper.
Come January 5 though, the injury list began to grow and it has barely looked back since. Carruthers’ season was ended in mid-February after a knee injury barely 15 minutes into the game with Preston, which would also see the end of Lee Hodson’s campaign. Robinson’s midfield Rolls Royces Darren Potter and Stephen Gleeson would soon follow, Ben Reeves had to hang up his goal-scoring boots for the season far too early through injury, and Bowditch’s returns would be fleeting, but a hamstring problem at Sixfields earlier this month would ultimately end his season before it ever started.
A replacement for Bamford’s goal never materialised either. Experiments with Chris Long and more recently James Loveridge have shown if nothing else, Bamford was a one-off. When Dons have needed guaranteed goals to keep them in the hunt, they’ve found themselves in a position risking youngsters with no first team experience. And with at least two high profile transfer deals for players with proven track records falling at the final hurdle, it’s hardly a surprise that goals have come at a premium in 2014. Dons have scored just 20 in 20.
There have been signs of life still among the squad since January, of course. Form away from stadium:mk has taken a dramatic uplift, with incredible scenes at the County Ground in Swindon and against Notts County at Meadow Lane. But the celebrations have been few and far between.
Robinson has suggested a clear-out in the summer could well be on the cards, and it’s not difficult to see which players the manager would have no hesitation in wielding the axe to.
What is most important for Dons now though is the head start they can get on their rivals in recruiting next season’s dream team. As it stands with Dons in eighth, four of the teams above them will remain in League 1 next season and will want out of the third tier just as much. But while those in the play-offs will harbour dreams of Wembley for another month or so, Robinson and his back-room team could already have key pieces wrapped up ahead of time.
With money supposedly at his disposal though, there little be little margin for error next season, and certainly no room for any more January 5s.