THE start of 2013 will be vital in MK Dons’ push for promotion out of League 1, according to manager Karl Robinson.
Without eight first-team regulars for Saturday’s FA Cup tie at Sheffield Wednesday, Dons more than held their own against their Championship opponents, but couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net, meaning a replay at stadium:mk next week.
But with players beginning to get back to full fitness, and Dons still only eight points from top spot in League 1, January and February are set to be the most important months of the season so far.
That crucial period gets started with a home game against struggling Bury at stadium:mk this Saturday.
“We don’t want to fall adrift of the pack and it’s important to get the win on Saturday,” said Robinson. “We feel like we have a strong enough squad to compete for whatever the game has to throw at us.
“Tranmere have 50 points – that means they are safe. That probably would have been their aim back at the beginning of the season! We only need to worry about ourselves, and we will see how many points we have at the end of the season.”
What makes the opening months of 2013 even more vital are the fixtures that are beginning to stack up. The FA Cup third round game at Hillsborough shifted the scheduled match at Yeovil Town to a midweek affair, and now the replay against Wednesday will feature at some point next week. And if Dons beat the Owls, their home game with Doncaster will be in midweek too.
And with the away fixture at Rovers postponed due to a waterlogged pitch in December, it means Dons will have at least four midweek fixtures to fulfil in the next two months.
Robinson said: “Some of our best results have come when we have a busy time. We don’t fear that, we’re going to embrace it.
“We played Notts County after we had played a lot of games and put in a performance which was magnificent. We can adapt to games thick and fast.
“It’s an opportunity to put points on the table very quickly. When you’ve got four or five games in a couple of weeks, it could catapult you up the table, but it can also slingshot you back down it.
“Every game now is important. It’s a long run in, and there’s two or three months still to go. I can’t wait.”
It is a tough time at the moment. Without Dean Bowditch, Daniel Powell, Luke Chadwick and Stephen Gleeson, Dons are light on numbers. But with Ryan Lowe scoring goals after a shaky start to the season, and Antony Kay making the centre of defence his own alongside Shaun Williams, Robinson believes that his summer signings are beginning to flourish in the side.
He said: “I think all the players we introduced in the summer are now starting to show their worth. Ryan Lowe, Antony Kay, Jon Otsemobor has had a bit of an injury lately. Even Alan Smith has been fantastic in the last two weeks. That’s the strength in depth we have at the club.
“I want 15 or 16 good players. If a fan moans that someone isn’t playing, that’s good. If we can all pick the team really easily, then it’s we have a weak squad.
“You’ll always upset some fans because they have their favourite players, but the sign of a good squad is that you can have these debates.”
Fortunately for Robinson, as the weeks go by, his players get closer and closer to full fitness. Chadwick is believed to be just a month away after early indications suggested he could be out until April, while Bowditch and Powell are expected back imminently, but Robinson was coy on admitting they’d be back in time for Saturday.
He believes that, with those players coming back at the right time, Dons are nicely placed to mount their best promotion challenge yet.
“We’re in a good position and you haven’t seen the best of us yet,” he said. “Well, you have – back in early to mid-November. Sheffield United and Tranmere away. That’s when we had a full squad.
“And when we get everyone back, we’re going to give this a right good go. We’re all excited and pushing in the right direction. Recruitment wise, we’ve pulled off a coup getting Ryan Harley in, and Izale McLeod. Keeping Zeli Ismail was big for us.
“Luke Chadwick could be fit in four weeks, Gary MacKenzie is coming back, and Dean Bowditch and Daniel Powell are going to be fit very, very shortly.
“Tom Flanagan will be back in early February and then it’ll just be Stephen Gleeson we are waiting on, and he’ll be back at the beginning of April. So other than him, who we do really miss, we will be as strong as we can get.
“The boys have been magnificent. This is the hardest time I’ve had with injuries. The players have conducted themselves well and the performances have been really good. Other than the Walsall game, I don’t think that we’ve deserved to lose any of the games we have been in.”
One man Robinson is very much looking forward to working with is Izale McLeod. Having served his one match ban alongside being cup-tied on Saturday, McLeod looks likely to go straight into the squad to face Bury.
“I’m looking forward to having Izale in the squad,” said Robinson. “I’ll have to make the decision as a manager as the game comes closer.
“He’s a wonderful player to have in the squad. He’s settled in really well.
“He’s completely different to the player he was when he left here, and that is one of the big reasons we’ve brought him back.”
But a player who looks like he’s on his way out of stadium:mk is Charlie MacDonald.
Robinson was ‘forced’ to name just five substitutes at Hillsborough, but he admitted this week that he simply left MacDonald out of the side in favour of 15-year-old Giorgio Rasulo.
When asked about MacDonald’s future at Dons, Robinson said: “We don’t know yet. He was not in the squad for Saturday – it was just a decision of mine.
“He had one or two things that want sorting. I just knew that we had young Giorgio who could fill in in that position.”