Dons can’t let cup run disrupt promotion push

editorial image

PROMOTION is a word Dons fans have used for many years now; it’s a notion that everyone has dreamed of and hoped for, but a concept that has evaded the club since 2008, writes Toby Lock.

This week though, fans have been whistling the tune to ‘Que Sera Sera’ without irony, and with a new spring in their step.

Dreams of Wembley might be a bit much, even if Dons are only two games away from a potential FA Cup semi-final date at the home of English football. Those dreams are worth holding on to, at least until the conclusion of the fifth round tie against Barnsley.

So much has been said and written both locally and nationally about the incredible scenes at Loftus Road on Saturday – taking a 4-0 lead against Premier League strugglers Queens Park Rangers, leaving Harry Redknapp with a face like thunder, while Karl Robinson desperately tried to keep a straight face and contain a grin wider than the Thames as he was once again thrust into the national spotlight for all the right reasons.

There’s no getting away from it, Saturday’s result was huge for the club. Dons will pocket in excess of £500,000 from the victory – including prize money and gate receipts – which will go towards all manner of things behind the scenes, and may even give Robinson a little bit to play with in the summer.

And for the fans, the game will live forever in their memories, ranking up there alongside the 4-0 victory over Norwich, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final of 2008, and Dons’ back-to-back away wins at Stockport and Bradford a month later, securing promotion and the League 2 championship.

Speaking after the game, Robinson urged a return to normality, reminding people that his mind wasn’t on the impending fifth round draw, but in fact on the return to League 1 football for the next few weeks.

As harsh as it sounds in the immediate aftermath of such a great result, Dons have achieved nothing yet. And Robinson knows that.

He said at Loftus Road: “I’ve told them that they can reflect on things in May. That’s how champions and the big clubs do it. Enjoy it in the summer.

“Go on your holidays, do your drinking, do your parties in the summer. Go away and enjoy it.

“Over the next few weeks, they have to dedicate themselves to the football club and make sure we can push our way up the table. If we want to get out the league, we’ve got to beat the best teams.

“There’s three months to go now. We have got to dedicate our lives to something worth dedicating your life to. There’s a real collectiveness in the group.”

But Tuesday night’s 2-1 defeat at Yeovil is a bit of an unwelcome jolt back into reality, and things are beginning to pull focus again.

Under the cosh in the opening 25 minutes, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Paddy Madden curled one into David Martin’s bottom corner following Kevin Dawson’s fine work on the Yeovil right.

They’d come close on a couple of occasions before that too, with only a good stop from Martin and a Madden effort just wide keeping Dons in it.

Without really looking threatening, Dons levelled the game 10 minutes before half-time when Antony Kay was left unmarked to head home Shaun Williams’ corner.

But two flashpoints had Robinson fuming at the full-time whistle. First, Byron Webster’s heavy first half challenge on Izale McLeod saw the Dons front man react angrily, before it looked like he took two punches from the Yeovil defender while still on the ground – referee Mick Russell handing out a yellow card to both players.

But arguably the decision which cost Dons the match came on the hour, when the two goal-scorers clashed on halfway, off the ball and behind the referee’s back.

Robinson later claimed: “(Madden) has run at Antony Kay. He stopped a millimetre from his nose. Antony has put his hands up to protect his chest, and the guy has gone down holding his face. He cheated. It’s not nice to say.”

Regardless of the he said, she said, Kay was given his marching orders – a second straight red card of the season for violent conduct.

With Dons a man light and with half an hour to play, Yeovil turned up the wick and eventually the pressure told with that man Madden again rising highest to nod in Dolan’s cross.

The defeat sees Dons down in 10th place in League 1, six points from the play-off spots, and now with only one game in hand over most of the teams above them. Even if they were to win that game in hand, they’d sit seventh, outside of the play-offs.

Throughout the FA Cup campaign, Robinson has been keen to point out that a cup run is nice and all, good for fan morale and the chairman’s coffers, but that his players had to keep their minds firmly on the primary objective of escape League 1 via the main exit.

But as stuttering league form continues to plague Dons, the effort now needs to kick into top gear.

Results like the one at Huish Park on a vile Tuesday night – on a churned up pitch, with harsh winds and rain in your face – aren’t going to cut it. The Dons boss even accused his men of being lazy on the night.

Robinson said: “It wasn’t great and it wasn’t us at our best. The problem for me was the first 20 minutes. We didn’t seem at it. We looked lethargic, lazy, sloppy and unorganised – not like us at all.”

Dons have never really looked comfortable in conditions like that. In fact, they rarely look comfortable playing away on Tuesday nights.

Their last midweek victory on the road came against Huddersfield in the play-offs – but of course they lost the overall tie. Before that, you have to look to Norwich in the League Cup or, ironically, to Yeovil in August 2011 for their last away success in League 1.

And there are some vital occasions coming up where that form will need to be reversed if they are to stand any chance of battling their way up the table in early 2013.

Road trips to Doncaster, Crewe and Portsmouth are all going to be of significant importance if Dons are to get their promotion dream back on track in the next couple of months.

It makes this coming Saturday’s home game against Bournemouth, who have played two games more than Dons, all the more important.

One of Dons’ finest results of this campaign was actually a Tuesday night away fixture though, coming at Dean Court in the reverse game against the now in-form Cherries.

Losing Alan Smith during the streak of early season red cards, Dons conjured up a draw despite spending the best part of an hour on the back foot – defending the artillery bombardment that was the Bournemouth long ball over the top.

Getting one over on one of their play-off rivals – with one defeat in 20 league games – will undoubtedly give Dons a kick in the right direction and might re-fire the engines as we get toward the business end of the year.

Of course, there is still a lot of football to be played between now and the end of April when league tables are at their most important. A lot of results will need to be ground out though and the hurdles in front of them will look that extra bit taller than before if their form remains patchy.

As much as the FA Cup run is good fun at the moment, not many people will look back on it quite as fondly if they’re heading back to Huish Park on a Tuesday night again next season.