TESTS won’t come much tougher than Tuesday night’s away game at Bournemouth – but against the odds, MK Dons passed it with a 1-1 draw.
Alan Smith’s 19th minute red card may have been dubbed dubious by boss Karl Robinson, but it mattered little as he watched his side battle for the remaining 71 minutes a man light and already a goal behind.
The dismissal was Dons’ third in as many games and left them fighting an uphill battle to stay in the game. But things weren’t exactly easy for Dons in the early stages, even before Smith saw red for the 12th time in his career.
The home side were playing some excellent football and had the visitors stretched right across the Goldsands Stadium pitch, and looking distinctly second best.
Lewis Grabban’s opener came with hints of offside in the build-up, but regardless, he turned Dean Lewington and slotted past David Martin – no more than Bournemouth deserved from their early pressure.
Smith’s challenge on Harry Arter 30 yards from goal earned him his marching orders, and from there it looked as though Dons would struggle against the tide and could have faced a heavy scoreline against them.
Martin continued his fine form of late, plucking crosses out of the sky with ease. And he had to be on his toes to keep out Joe Partington’s near post drive, when all the world expected him to cross into the packed box.
Dons survived until half time and with the home crowd rocking, you could have been forgiven for expecting more of the same in the second half – one of the Bournemouth attacks would eventually make it through to wrap up the victory, surely.
Cherries boss Paul Groves threw talismanic striker Steve Fletcher into the mix for the second half. The man who has a stand named after him has often been a thorn in Dons’ side over the years, but it was ironic that his appearance would signal the end of any threat that Bournemouth had of extending their lead.
Standing at 6ft 2in, Fletcher became the target for long lumps forward – a far cry from the effective passing style they enjoyed success with in the first 45 minutes.
The switch to a direct route gifted Dons the chance to get back in the game. With Lewington alongside Gary MacKenzie in the centre of defence, they comfortably won headers against Grabban and strike partner Lee Barnard, while the less mobile Fletcher was reduced to laying balls backwards just to keep possession.
Adam Chicksen – playing in his preferred left-back position – proved he was no longer the young inexperienced full-back fans saw glimpses of last season as he kept things quiet down his flank, while debutante Jon Otsemobor made up for a nervy start to the first half with a bullish display on the opposite side as Dons bunkered down.
But for a good dipping effort from Barnard, brilliantly saved by Martin, the keeper didn’t need to make too many stops.
Fielding ball after ball, Dons were able to begin their passing game once again. Despite being a man down, they still managed to carve themselves a couple of half-decent chances.
Daniel Powell – the key man in Saturday’s opening day victory over Oldham – was once again the dangerman for Dons as he skipped through the Bournemouth midfield with confidence.
The away dugout was up in arms when he ran clean through on goal before being barged out of the way by Cherries skipper Chris Addison – outside of the penalty area, but the last man all the same – who went unpunished for the apparent shove when he could easily have seen red.
But Powell would have his revenge with 28 minutes remaining. After a surging run forward from MacKenzie from yet another Bournemouth long ball, he found Darren Potter and then Dean Bowditch in space 35 yards from goal. Spotting Powell break in behind Steve Cook, Bowditch slipped the ball between the defence.
Still with a lot to do, Powell took a touch before neatly clipping the ball over the on-rushing Shwan Jalal, who until then had been nothing more than a spectator.
While Dons may not have deserved to be on level terms when it came to their attacking prowess in the game, their defensive display up to that point was certainly worthy.
Dons rode their luck at times though – Barnard was just offside as he met Eunan O’Kane’s cross ahead of Martin to toe into an empty net three minutes after Powell’s equaliser. And then Cook rose highest to meet Marc Pugh’s corner, but his powerful header crashed back off the bar.
Dons barely saw the ball in the final 15 minutes as the home side threw everything they had at their stern defence. Fletcher won a few balls in the box to set up pot-shots from the edge of the area, but Dons simply filled the box with as many bodies as they could in a bid to get something on anything heading goalwards.
That tactic has worked for many a team visiting stadium:mk in years gone by, but it nearly resulted in dire consequences for Dons with the final whistle in sight. A clearance came off Lewington and then Chadwick’s head, narrowly missing the left upright and bouncing safely wide.
At the final whistle, the travelling 271 fans celebrated as though they’d won the game, while the Bournemouth supporters were left scratching their heads as to what else their side could have done to get the ball over the line.
And in truth there wasn’t an awful lot wrong with what the Cherries had tried, it was just one of those nights where nothing wanted to go in.
Karl Robinson made his feelings known to the Oldham supporters on Saturday when he celebrated in their direction following the melee which came after the final whistle, and his celebrations were just as vigorous towards the away support again – though this time it was of genuine delight and met with just as much joy.
His post match interviews were given as though his side had won the game, and perhaps as though he knew that with a full compliment of players on the pitch, his side could make a real impact on the division this season.
“If we can put in performances like that with 11 men, we will be successful together,” he said afterwards.
League tables at this stage of the season mean little – unless yours is the side sat at the top – but the draw sees Dons remain unbeaten, and for what it’s worth, sixth.
“It’s a good start,” said skipper Lewington. “We’d have preferred six points, but going down to 10 men after 20 minutes when you’re already a goal down, you’d have snapped someone’s hand off for four points.
“We knew what we had to do. We dug in, put in good work, and put our bodies on the line. It might not have been a vintage or classic MK Dons performance, but it’s what you need sometimes to get the points.
“They went more direct towards Fletcher, and that’s all they had. He does win his headers, but you can react to the second ball because you know where it’s going to go.
“We knew if we could stay in the game, we’d only get two or three chances to get back in it.
“Powell had a chance a little earlier when he got tackled, and we thought maybe that was our chance, but the boys did brilliantly to give him another opening and he took it well.”
The tough trips don’t stop for Dons though as they dust themselves off to take on recently promoted Swindon Town. The League 2 champions have made a strong start to the new season and look a different beast under Paolo Di Canio compared to when they went down with Danny Wilson in charge.
Dons will go to the County Ground without three suspended players and several injured, but full of confidence and keen to maintain what has been a very encouraging start to the season.