ALAN Smith’s first goal in five years not only secured all three points as MK Dons beat Sheffield United 1-0 at stadium:mk, but also booked their place in the League 1 play-offs.
Karl Robinson and his team now know that two games against Huddersfield Town now stand between them and a final spot at Wembley and a chance at playing Championship football next season.
Smith’s 16th minute winner against Sheffield United – his first goal since scoring in Manchester United’s 7-1 demolition of Roma in April 2007 – was enough to separate the two sides in front of nearly 16,000 fans, and was one that his manager said put a smile on his face.
“It was fitting,” Robinson said. “A Leeds lad scoring against a Sheffield team – I think he enjoyed that!
“He’s the linchpin to everything we do. If we want to go long, he is good aerially and can win his headers. If we want to play on the ground, we can play off him, or drop him into midfield and allowing Gleeson to get in beyond the strikers and he has created more fluency in the way we play. And when the goals come along, we’ll take them too!
“But it was symbolic when he dedicated the goal to the fans chanting his name. That’s why he’s here, to enjoy playing football.”
United knew that a win over Dons, matched by a defeat for rivals Sheffield Wednesday, would see the Blades win automatic promotion to the Championship. But they were dealt a huge blow on Friday when leading scorer Ched Evans was found guilty of rape and was jailed for five years.
Dons though, knew that a win would guarantee their spot in the play-offs but knew they couldn’t afford to drop points if they were to pip Huddersfield into fourth place.
In a frantic opening 10 minutes, both sides were keen to assert themselves early, looking good in possession of the ball and dangerous going forward. Dons had an effort cleared off the line as United failed to clear a Shaun Williams corner, while at the other end, Matthew Hill’s cross was agonisingly out of reach of Will Hoskins as it flew across the face of goal.
Alan Smith was looking like a man possessed in the hole behind Charlie MacDonald, and was probably lucky not to have picked up a booking in the first 10 minutes after a couple of rash challenges, but his passion spurred on the home fans into full voice.
And he had them raise the roof when on 16 minutes, he got the final touch on another messy corner, this time delivered by Dean Bowditch to put Dons into the lead. He risked referee Dean Whitestone’s wrath once again by celebrating in front of the Sheffield United fans, but still avoided the book – perhaps taking pity on Smith after scoring his first league goal since 2006.
And the opener settled the home team. They looked good on the ball, making United chase, particularly in midfield as former Sheffield Wednesday man Darren Potter pulled the strings for Dons. Most importantly though, the goal silenced the 5,500 travelling Sheffield United fans who helped make for a fantastic atmosphere at stadium:mk.
Smith was integral in a move which should have put Dons two ahead on the half hour. Bowditch did brilliantly to win the ball on the touchline and exchanged a neat one-two with the goal scorer, who appeared to be clipped after the ball was played, but scuffed his shot wide from 18 yards.
The visitors were struggling to get a foothold in the game, and could build a decent spell of possession for put Dons under any significant pressure. So much so, that David Martin was hardly needed throughout the opening 45 minutes, but to catch Harry Maguire’s weak header from a Lee Williamson corner just before the break.
Gary MacKenzie had a great opportunity in stoppage time when he had a relatively free header six yards out as United struggled again from the corner, but the defender couldn’t direct his effort on goal as Dons had to settle for the single goal lead at the break.
United came out of the blocks with renewed vigour and enjoyed their best spell of the game and for the first time, looking better in midfield than the home side. But with MacKenzie and Williams looking in fine form, it was hard for Hoskins and Chris Porter to make any headway.
And it was the big Scottish defender who had another great chance on the hour mark from Dean Lewington’s free kick on half way. This time he connected with his header but saw it come back agonisingly off the foot of the post before it was hoisted away for a corner. And from the corner, Smith could have doubled his tally for the day but Hill was on hand once again to clear off the line.
But as the grey skies rolled in, Dons were dealt a serious blow when Daniel Powell clashed with Hill on halfway, and referee Dean Whitestone flashed him a second yellow followed by a red card with 25 minutes to play. John Gorman reacted furiously on the touchline and had to be restrained by Karl Robinson as he tried to remonstrate with the fourth official.
And United’s man advantage led a much more open game, but also a nerve-wracking finale for the Dons fans in attendance. But the home side kept their foot on the gas looking to double their lead. Bowditch had a shot well saved by Steve Simonsen, while the introduction of Jabo Ibehre and Luke Chadwick with 22 minutes to go added some experienced heads to the front line.
Despite all the pressure coming from Sheffield United, they could not create a clear-cut opportunity on goal. Any sight they had of goal saw rushed shots, straight at Martin and easily gathered by the keeper as Dons’ back four remained resolute.
Restricted to counter-attacks, Ibehre could have put the game to bed eight minutes from time when he raced clear but was forced wider than he’d have liked by Neil Collins, but still managed to get a solid shot away, forcing Simonsen to parry away.
And he came within inches again two minutes later, this time only denied by the post as he got in behind the Blades’ defence once more.
But United should have been level a minute from time when former England striker James Beattie was millimetres away from a ball across the face of goal with Martin beaten, but it just wasn’t to be their day as Dons held on for their third victory in a row and a play-off spot for the third time in four years.
The result sees Dons remain fourth, level on points with Huddersfield after Lee Novak’s last minute winner saw Town past Scunthorpe at the Galpharm Stadium. And with the pair picking up maximum points on Saturday, it means they will face each other for the right to play at Wembley in May.
But rather than worry about how to deal with another Yorkshire club, Robinson was just pleased to be able to say his club would be in the play-offs once again.
He said: “I’ll worry about Huddersfield in two weeks! It’s another win for us, regardless of who it is against. We beat Brighton at a similar stage last year, didn’t go up in the play-offs so it means nothing!
“It’s a great achievement by everyone at the football club to get in the play-offs two years in a row with the budget we have is sensational.
“People don’t realise how hard these players work, and how a lot of these players could have moved on for more money but they stayed to chase the dream we all believe in.”
And while he will be without Daniel Powell for the trip to relegated Rochdale on Saturday, Robinson was delighted with his side’s performance against Sheffield United.
“I thought we were by far the better team. They started to come into the game when we had a player sent off. I can’t argue about the second booking, but I will about the first because Daniel Powell got a clear elbow to the face and the officials missed it.
“The first half was all us. I had to ask David Martin if he had to do anything in the first half! It was a very good day for us all.”