THE magic of the FA Cup proved it is alive and kicking as MK Dons failed to break the deadlock against non-league minnows Cambridge City, drawing 0-0 on Friday night.
An inspired defensive display from the Lilywhites’ back line, including some top saves from stopper Zac Barrett, kept the visitors out for the duration, though twice Dons hit the woodwork as they pummelled the City goal for nearly 90 minutes.
But the Southern League Premier Division deservedly held out for a draw, and will be eagerly anticipating their opportunity to play at stadium:mk later this month.
Karl Robinson stuck to his word and named the team he announced on Wednesday, making three changes to the 11 that won at Scunthorpe last Saturday. Jay O’Shea, Adam Chicksen and Ryan Lowe all came in, with Alan Smith dropping to the bench, while Daniel Powell was out injured and Angelo Balanta cup-tied.
There was a real party atmosphere at the Pro Edge Stadium, with the television cameras adding to the excitement for the City fans, who packed in to watch their club’s biggest game in years.
And they almost got off to a perfect start three minutes in when Craig Hammond, who already has 17 goals to his name this season, was picked out by player coach Adie Cambridge 20 yards out, but his cleanly struck shot was straight at David Martin.
But after a cagey opening five minutes, Dons began to dictate the game. Stephen Gleeson and Darren Potter, as expected, saw a lot of the ball in the centre of the park, pulling all the strings as Chicksen and O’Shea made breaks out wide. Shots came in from Shaun Williams, O’Shea and Potter but none of them worked Zac Barrett in the City goal.
He needed to be sharp though when Antony Kay was left unmarked as he attacked Williams’ 20th minute corner, keeping out the initial effort and Lowe’s toe-poke follow-up.
The striker probably should have done better with his strike three minutes later though, as he tried to bend the ball into the top corner from the edge of the box, but Dave Theobald did enough to put him off as it curled high into the trees behind the goal.
Try as they might, Dons couldn’t break down the stubborn City defence. There were even a few heart-in-mouth moments at the other end as Hammond and strike partner Mitchell Bryant looked to break the offside trap, too often though to no avail.
Bryant had Cambridge’s best chance of the game 10 minutes before the break too, rising highest to meet Joey Abbs’ free-kick, but he couldn’t direct his header goalwards.
As half time approached, the home side enjoyed a bit of a fightback, winning possession and stroking the ball forwards quickly as they looked to exploit the height of their strikers, but just like at the other end, the defences ruled out as both sides had to settle for a goalless first 45 minutes.
The trends didn’t chance as the game entered the second half, with Dons very much the more attacking team, forcing City to sit deep. Potter and Gleeson both had early shots from range, and Chicksen should have done better with his header six yards out which he put straight into Barrett’s chest.
He made another fine save 12 minutes into the half when Williams broke from deep to drive another shot towards goal as it was all Dons. Martin was left as the only man in his half for long spells as the visitors piled forwards, unable to get the killer touch to put one in.
But it was Cambridge who came closest to scoring as they hit Dons on the counter. Luke Allen did all the hard work as he broke nearly 50 yards to the edge of the penalty area, firing low and forcing Martin into a fine diving effort which spilled out for a corner.
With 25 minutes to go, Robinson threw 16-year-old Dele Alli into the mix and he almost had an impact immediately, controlling the loose ball in the penalty area, but his quick shot was blocked by the hard working Theobald.
The City side, although distinctly second best, stuck to their guns and didn’t give their visitors an inch, despite being made to chase. Theobald and Chaffey headed almost everything away in the penalty area, making for a frustrating evening for Lowe, and Hammond looked a constant threat as he tried to peel off the shoulder of Kay.
City rode their luck though as Gleeson somehow put his header, from a yard out, onto the post with 17 minutes to go, and Alli’s follow-up shot from range was deflected wide.
The chances kept on coming for Dons. Dean Lewington put one narrowly over, Alli again forced Barrett into an excellent stop with Lowe lurking dangerously, and captain Luke Chadwick saw a rasping low drive come back off the post as it looked like ‘one of those nights’ for Robinson’s men.
Things got worse though as Chadwick pulled up five minutes from time holding his hamstring, disappearing down the tunnel with physio Simon Crampton. Smith, who probably thought he’d get the night off, replaced him.
With just a minute remaining, Lowe made room for his best chance of the game, meeting Chicksen’s cross from the left with a bullet header destined for the net, but Barrett, determined to take the tie to a replay at stadium:mk, flew through the air to tip it magnificently over the bar, summing up Dons’ night in a single move.
The visiting side will feel slightly aggrieved not to have won the game comfortably, but the dogged Cambridge side fully deserved their moment in the limelight, defending admirably and making Dons do all the hard work to no avail.
Referee: James Adcock
Cambridge City: Barrett, Pepper, Brighton, Theobald, Chaffey, Cambridge, Allen, Prada, Hammond, Bryant (Lester 77), Abbs (Marriott 60)
Subs not used: Midgley, Nightingale, Death, Stynes, Ordonez
MK Dons: Martin, Lewington, Otsemobor, Kay, Williams, Gleeson, Potter, O’Shea (Alli 65), Chadwick (Smith 85), Chicksen, Lowe
Subs not used: McLoughlin, Doumbe, Galloway, Hickford, Rasulo