Dons make 'two steps forwards and one step back'
It was an unwelcome return to earth on New Year's Day for MK Dons as they went down 3-1 to Oxford United.
Two days earlier, they were on cloud nine, because with two men sent off, they had somehow held on to beat Peterborough 1-0 to win for the first time in league action since early November.
In a notoriously fickle industry, pressure was suddenly relieved of Dons boss Robbie Neilson’s shoulders, before having it piled right back on again as his side matched Oxford at the Kassam Stadium.
Gone were the defensive heroics of the Peterborough game, replaced by individual errors from the back line, costing them for each of Oxford’s three goals.
But for every positive result, Dons follow it up with a poor one. Only twice have Dons strung back-to-back wins together this season, and simply cannot build up a head of steam, any consistency or momentum to get them out of the trouble they find themselves in.
The significance of their most recent defeat wasn’t lost on Neilson. “Saturday (against Peterborough) was a turning point because it brought everyone together,” he said after the defeat at Oxford.
“The fans recognised the workrate. They’re obviously disappointed we didn’t win but the players gave 100 per cent for the club today.
“I don’t want to use tiredness as an excuse. The key was the decision making, letting in three silly goals. You can’t do that at any level.
“The players understand that, and the players who made them have taken responsibility. We move on as a group.
“At the moment, it’s two steps forward and one step back.
“This is a great club but we’re still building, developing. We will have difficult times but you can see the positivity in the group.
“We’ll hope for a positive result in the FA Cup but the game with AFC Wimbledon will be huge.”
And that’s an understatement. Saturday’s FA Cup clash with Championship side Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road is little more than a nice day out for Dons at this stage.
The club have met three times in the competition before, and was the scene of one of Dons’ most historic wins when QPR were a Premier League side, and Karl Robinson’s side ran out 4-2 winners having led 4-0.
This time though, the FA Cup comes as a welcome distraction from League 1 form, which has done little to flatter this season.
A strong performance, prehaps more important than the result in the capital on Saturday, will be vital ahead of a game which will be the most important of Dons’ season to date.
A win for Dons’ most vehement haters would see them climb above Neilson’s side in the table, lifting themselves out of the drop zone, and should Oldham pick up points too, MK would find themselves in the bottom four - an unholy trinity. It certainly makes for uncomfortable reading.
The Peterborough game, if anything, bought Neilson time in the job, showed his side still had the character and guile to fight for him.
It is likely it bought him the January window too, with the wheels already in motion to bring in new faces to the squad. But the questions of Neilson’s tenure will be asked with even more venom if they fail to win next time out at Stadium MK.