Harry Darling looks crestfallen after MK Dons’ play-off defeat to Wycombe Wanderers on Sunday. Darling was one of Dons’ stand-out performers this season.
And just like that, the season is over. There would be no happy ending for MK Dons as their do-or-die performance against Wycombe Wanderers on Sunday came up a goal short with their best season in seven years ending with a screeching halt rather than with fanfare and jubilation.
As the dust begins to settle on the season, here is a look back at the 2021/22 season.
Having built the club's culture, style and 'process' in 18 months, Russell Martin oversaw a huge overhaul of the club’s backroom operations, introducing Sporting and Performance Directors to dramatically change the way the club operates. The recruitment team went into overdrive to alter the face of the squad, bringing in the likes of Scott Twine and Mo Eisa, while key man Scott Fraser would depart. But it would be another departure which would send the new-look Dons into a dangerous spiral before a ball was even kicked.
Martin’s contentious move to Swansea City almost as soon as the final whistle blew in Dons' Carabao Cup thrashing at the hands of Bournemouth a week before the League One season kicked off left the club with next to nothing behind-the-scenes.
The 'process' though would uncover Liam Manning - a little-known coach in the second tier of Belgian football. Arriving on the eve of the club's second game of the season, his first team-talk sparked a new-look Dons into life against Sunderland, and they were unlucky not to snatch a point against the Black Cats.
Most that day would have looked at Sunderland as potential candidates to go on and be a part of the automatic promotion fight. Instead, it would be Dons who would find a new gear under Manning and push on.
All change again
Staying in and around the hunt for a play-off spot, it was not really until the January transfer window which Dons really mounted their push. Despite the huge disruption they faced, with nine players departing, key new men came in while the coffers were lined with the sales of Andrew Fisher and Matt O'Riley in preparation.
But losing to bottom club Doncaster Rovers in January was a potential sign of things to come in light of Dons' massive upheaval. In fact, that too would prove to be a false dawn. From there, Dons went on a 15-match unbeaten run: beating off play-off rivals, snatching points when they weren't always deserved, and perhaps crucially winning with 10 men against Rotherham in their own back-yard to close the gap even further.
Down to the wire
Remarkably Wigan, Rotherham and Dons all had wobbles towards the end of the campaign and it seemed as though none of them wanted to go up without the drama of the play-offs, and so it led to a final day where any of the top three could have finished in any of the top three places.
Needing to win at Plymouth on the final day and for Rotherham's result at Gillingham to go their way, Dons held up their end of the bargain in emphatic fashion with a 5-0 thumping win, but while the travelling supporters had eyes on the game at Priestfield, the Millers did their job too, ensuring a play-off campaign for Manning’s men after a fine third place finish.
The play-offs have not been kind to Dons in their history. In four previous attempts, they have never made it beyond the semi-final stages, and this season would be no different.
Defeat in the first-leg to Bucks neighbours Wycombe Wanderers though would be the killer blow. A disappointing performance at Adams Park saw them head into Stadium MK needing to win by two goals just to force the tie into extra time. And despite one of the most one-sided games of the season, Dons could only reduce the deficit by a single goal.
Given a standing ovation by the supporters as they left the pitch, the pain was plain to see on the players’ faces and was shared by those who stayed to clap them off after a quite brilliant season came up short.