DONS may now be looking over their shoulder rather than up the League 1 table as Brentford dealt their automatic promotion chances a killer blow by winning 2-1 at stadium:mk on Saturday.
Clayton Donaldson and Jonathan Douglas put the Bees 2-0 up at the break, and despite a spirited fightback and a Shaun Williams penalty, it wasn’t enough to prevent Dons losing two on the bounce for the first time this season.
Dons’ case wasn’t helped by dubious officiating from referee Gary Sutton, who missed several key incidents, including two which should have seen Brentford reduced to nine men.
“I can’t believe how someone can raise their hands into the back of someone’s head in front of the referee and not get sent off,” said Dons boss Karl Robinson in the aftermath of the defeat.
“It’s a disgrace. Sam Saunders clashed with Alan Smith in the first half in front of the assistant. He saw it and he didn’t give it.
“I spoke to the referee about the decisions we had against Carlisle and they said they were so, so sorry!
“So we’ve not had lady luck on our side either, but if we keep doing the right things and put in the effort like we did today, you earn your luck. The disappointing thing is that we got nothing out of it.”
Dons have now lost three of the last five at stadium:mk, but Robinson can rest a little easier knowing that the likes of Dean Bowditch, Luke Chadwick and Mathias Doumbe – who all missed out last Saturday – could be fit to face Preston North End at Deepdale this coming Saturday.
Keen to avenge Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Carlisle, Dons started with a fire in their bellies. Stephen Gleeson came close to opening the scoring after five minutes with a shot from range, well saved by Bees keeper Richard Lee, and Tom Flanagan rose highest from the resultant corner but had his header blocked.
Smith then came close as his sliding effort started a goal-mouth scramble and Daniel Powell forced Lee into a spectacular stop with his shot from the edge of the penalty area in a breathless opening 10 minutes.
Brentford were limited in their opportunities early on but should have done better when Donaldson beat the offside trap and broke to the byline, but his ball across was cut out by the retreating Darren Potter.
But Donaldson made amends 60 seconds later when once again he got in behind, this time opting to go it alone as he cut inside Flanagan and rifled into the roof of the net to hand Brentford a 1-0 lead after 12 minutes.
Dons were nearly level immediately when Smith, enjoying his advanced position in the hole behind Charlie MacDonald, struck from the edge of the penalty area, but saw hit shot got agonisingly over the bar.
The stadium:mk pitch was cutting up easily under foot and the bobbly surface was playing havoc with Dons’ usual one-touch passing style, allowing Brentford extra time to smother the home side in midfield, preventing them from going forward as the half wore on.
The goal gave Brentford a shot in the arm and they began to look the side more likely to score again. David Martin did well to hang on to Saunders’ cross from the right and Shaleum Logan tried his range, though his effort tested the strength of the seats behind the goal rather than the keeper’s hands.
But it was Dons’ lack of creativity going forward that meant chances were few and far between. And ultimately it would cost them as Brentford doubled the lead 25 minutes into the first half.
Doubling up on Dean Lewington, Logan found Saunders in acres of space inside the penalty area and he was able to wait for Douglas to join the attack before rolling the ball into the midfielder’s path.
Douglas’ finish was nothing short of spectacular as he bent the ball up and over Martin into the opposite corner of the goal – giving the visitors a deserved 2-0 lead.
Shell-shocked, Dons began to find their feet towards the end of the half but their finishing still left a lot to be desired. Powell and Jay O’Shea did well to keep the ball alive in the area as a scramble ensued, but Potter shot high into the stands and James Tavernier made Richard Lee work with his shot from the angle, but it was a comfortable diving catch for the keeper.
The reserve fixture saw Brentford overturn a 3-0 deficit at half time to draw 3-3 at Griffin Park, and Dons would need something equally as special to get back into the game in the second half.
But despite the fire that should have been in Dons’ bellies, it was Brentford who looked the more assertive as the second half bedded in, comfortable in possession and stroking the ball around neatly in midfield, making Dons do much of the leg work.
Running low on ideas, Dons’ main source of attack came from playing long balls up the field for MacDonald to chase – a fruitless affair against two huge central defenders in the shape of Harlee Dean and Karleigh Osborne.
Attention quickly turned to referee Sutton though, with a series of questionable decisions and cards being thrown about against the home side, including a dubious booking for MacDonald for handball, though it seemed clear to everyone he had headed the ball wide of the upright.
Potter was still running the show for Dons and came closest to pulling one back when his cross looked to be dipping in at the near post, but Dons struggled to combat Brentford’s dogged defending, aided by some misplaced passes and pointless long balls up to the overwhelmed MacDonald.
It could have been so much worse for Dons too with 15 minutes to go but for the feet of Martin. Lewington’s header was easily collected by Logan who easily skipped past last man Potter on halfway and raced clear. With Saunders in support, Logan went it alone, but Martin was quick off his line to close the angle, and Logan’s shot was poor and straight at the keeper.
There was to be another twist courtesy of Mr Sutton’s refereeing handbook, as substitute Marcus Bean clattered into Lewington from behind when play had stopped, resulting in just a booking for the Brentford man.
Dons were given a late lifeline with three minutes remaining when Adam Thompson fouled MacDonald outside the penalty area – but in a typically bizarre decision, the referee awarded a penalty kick, with Williams making no mistake from the spot to reduce the deficit to 2-1.
And with six minutes added on, the 11,000 strong home crowd urged their side on, and nearly lifted the roof off when Jabo Ibehre hit the crossbar.
A flurry of late chances had Brentford hearts in mouths, but it was too little too late for Dons as they slipped to their third home defeat in five.
But Robinson directed his disappointment at the stadium:mk pitch as they once again struggled on the surface the manager deemed now ‘one of the worst’ in the division.
He said: “I’m frustrated but proud of the players. It wasn’t one of our best performances but there was so much effort.
“We found it hard in the first half to play out so we had to take a different approach because we can’t go anything on that pitch.
“In the second half, we still weren’t at our best because the pitch is so slow. We have to take two or three touches when usually we’d only take one. It’s now one of the worst in the league.
“The boys tried to put it to one side but they showed tremendous effort.
“We still tried to play, but it’s just so slow. Taking another touch allows other teams to close us down.
“We weren’t at our fluid best, but if you take four first team players out of any side in any league, you’re going to feel weakened.
“But you have to give credit to Brentford, because I’ve never seen a team throw themselves in the way of shots like they did.
“We had so many shots blocked, but we have to brush ourselves off now and prepare for the Easter period.”
With six games remaining, Dons are 12 points behind Sheffield United in the second automatic spot, while sixth placed Carlisle could move pull level on points with Robinson’s men if they win their game in hand.
“We had a blip in late October,” said Robinson. “But this isn’t a blip because we’re playing well at the moment and we’re just not getting the results our performances deserve.
“We hit the post in the dying seconds which is unfortunate, but when teams get the chances against us they seem to take them.
“It was a plus for us to have him back, but this season has been so difficult for us, with things going against us off the field.
“But we have soldiered on, we’re still in the play-off race and will only be looking forward towards Huddersfield and we won’t stop until we get there.”