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This time Dons columnist Dominic Damesick says the team looked resigned to mid-table mediocrity at Carlisle.
It looks set to be Ince’s second season all over again: high expectations, all the components to make a concerted promotion challenge, but a spectacular decline in form leading to the season fizzling out. All it needs is Robinson to turn on the fans and the comparison will be complete.
It feels like there is perhaps one chink of light left, and that is a win away at Portsmouth on Tuesday night resurrecting the Dons’ diminished confidence and lost dreams. Portsmouth are a broken club right now – in administration for over a year, a caretaker manager seemingly out of his depth, a squad made up of mercenary has-beens and youth players called upon before their time, relegation looming and a winless run stretching back weeks.
If the Dons don’t win this one, bearing in mind that the side is already languishing in 14th place, then any promotion aspirations would seem to be all but over.
I do not mean to suggest that the Dons are entitled or guaranteed to beat Portsmouth, but promotion is now looking an extremely tall order, and will require the Dons to put together an impressive run of results: that must surely include beating the side that is bottom of the table. A win for a promotion-chasing MK Dons on Tuesday is not so much an expectation as a necessity, if those pre-season aspirations have even the faintest chance of still being realised.
Saturday against Carlisle was almost the opposite of the game against Barnsley the week before. The Dons started strongly, and looked very comfortable and composed in the first half, moving the ball crisply and limiting Carlisle to only one clear-cut chance. Robinson’s side deserved their half-team lead, and looked ready to push on for three points.
In the second half, though, Carlisle raised the tempo, looked to close the Dons down quickly, and were keen to test Dons’ sub goalkeeper Ian McLoughlin with a bombardment of crosses into the penalty area. McLoughlin failed to convincingly deal with any ball that was put into his 18-yard box, and did absolutely nothing to suggest that he is ready to give David Martin a run for his money as the Dons’ number one.
The Dons lost their shape and their composure, resorting to hopeful (but mainly hopeless) long balls to Ryan Lowe, who was comfortably out-jumped and out-muscled by the Carlisle back-line. While the Dons’ passing style has attracted more than its fair share of detractors, the second half on Saturday was crying out for some calm, patient, possession football, to take the sting out of the game, and frustrate Carlisle into taking risks and making mistakes.
Yet, the side failed to retain the ball, and dropped deep, inviting pressure onto themselves, and after looking comfortable for so long in the game, it was the Dons who were clinging on for dear life in stoppage time. By the end Robinson was probably relieved to leave Cumbria with a point.
Robinson’s charges looked devoid of self-belief; they looked lethargic; some of them lacked fight – the cardinal sin. Players who have performed well in the past, or who have arrived with good reputations looked well off the pace. Chris Lines was abysmal; Ryan Harley was completely anonymous; and Luke Chadwick was completely wasted on the wing. The side look resigned to mid-table mediocrity. Tuesday night is perhaps their final chance to change that.
Play Chadwick in the hole, give McLeod a run-out against his former team and hope that Martin is fit. It seems overly dramatic to be speaking of a must-win game with 15 fixtures left of the season, but Tuesday’s game just has that feel about it. It really does feel like it is now or never for the 2012/13 season – can Robinson deliver?