THE unpredictability of League 1 has made the division the best in the whole country, according to Dons boss Karl Robinson after his side battled to win 2-0 at lowly Walsall on Saturday.
First half goals from Dean Lewington and Jabo Ibehre came after Saddlers keeper James Walker was sent off after 32 minutes for handling the ball outside the penalty area, and was replaced with defender Lee Beevers.
Walsall boss Dean Smith was also sent off for an incident in the tunnel with referee David Phillips at half time.
Results on the day helped Dons rise back to fifth in League 1 and Robinson believes you can’t take your eyes off anyone in the division.
“The league is possibly the best in the country at the moment because your predicted forecasts aren’t coming in. It’s exciting,” he said.
“If you look at some of the results in this league this week – you can’t have predicted them. There aren’t any ‘gimmes’ this year. It’s a competitive league from top to bottom.
“Charlton are running away with it, but arguably that was our best performance and we should have got three points.
“This season, we haven’t got a Brighton, Southampton or a Leeds. Charlton and Huddersfield are running away with it, but they’re not as good as the other teams were last year. Teams from the bottom to fourth, these teams have all improved and strengthened.
“So there are no bankers. Who’d have thought Exeter would go to Sheffield United and get a point? We went there (Sheffield United) last Tuesday night and should have got more than a point, out-played them and came away with nothing.
“Managers shouldn’t be scrutinised or questioned when they get beaten by teams below them, because any team can beat anyone on a given day.”
Walsall showed a lot of grit and determination – particularly in the second half as they went about getting something from the game, but Dons were too strong in defence, with Tom Flanagan and Mark Beevers standing firm against the Saddlers’ attacks.
The win was Dons’ first since beating Notts County on October 1, and had to be ground out, but the performance was pleasing for Robinson as it showed his side can win ugly too.
“It’s a win,” he said. “We’ve played great in some games and got nothing out of them. But if we had taken our chances in the second half, the game would have been out of reach.
“It was a huff and puff. You have to come to places like this, with the heavy pitch and they play a different style to ones we are used to, and they lost their shape going for the win.
“Some stupid people say we pass too much, we do too many things wrong and we don’t get the win, and yet when we get the win, they moan we don’t pass.
“But our boys stood strong, we got a clean sheet and we walk out with a 2-0 victory. We scored at the right times. The referee made the key decisions and got them spot on.”
The game got off to a slow start at the Banks’s Stadium, though Dons looked much more comfortable in possession than their opponents.
Flanagan and Beevers were dominant in the air as the long balls came over the top for Walsall striker Jon Macken to turn and chase.
The first 30 minutes saw very little given away by either side in front of goal. Dons opted to pitch long balls up for Ibehre to hold up, though the tight Walsall defence stood strong, outnumbering Charlie MacDonald as he struggled to make inroads.
But a moment of madness from Walsall keeper Walker gave Dons a huge advantage after 32 minutes. As Daniel Powell raced after a long ball forward, the keeper caught the ball outside of the penalty area, with the referee having no choice but to send him off. And without a keeper on the bench, Walsall manager Smith was forced to play Lee Beevers between the sticks.
Rubbing salt into the wounds, Lewington confidently stepped up to take the free-kick, bending the ball into the far corner of the net to put Dons into the lead – a set-piece even a regular goalkeeper would have struggled to keep out.
The sending off put Dons in pole position as they looked to extend their lead before the break. But MacDonald was caught the wrong side of the offside trap and Darren Potter’s audacious 40-yard lob attempt fell just over the bar, and fresh from scoring on Tuesday night, Stephen Gleeson rifled in a close effort which sailed just past the post.
But the second did come with a minute to go before half time. Luke Chadwick looked as though he had lost possession of the ball to keeper Lee Beevers, but the stand-in fumbled it straight into the path of Ibehre, who looked offside, but had the simplest of tasks in tapping into the empty net for 2-0.
Walsall bravely battled on though, and had two good chances in stoppage time to get one back but a brilliant block from Flanagan kept a goal-bound Alex Nicholls effort away.
Walsall appeared for the second half without manager Smith in the dugout – his choice of words in the tunnel proving too strong for the referee who sent him to the stands.
But Walsall continued to commit men forward, looking for a way back into the game. They won a series of corners in 10 minute a period of pressure shortly after the interval, but they failed to make David Martin work.
Walsall seemed galvanised by what had happened to them, and were really making Dons work for the result. But lady luck was not shining down on the Saddlers as Claude Gnakpa fired past in a shot that had Martin beaten, but cannoned agonisingly back off both posts before Flanagan cleared.
At the other end, Lee Beevers was proving to be a worthy replacement in goal. While he struggled to hold on to initial shots, he was quick to react to rebounds, pouncing on the ball bravely to keep his side in with a chance.
MacDonald was unlucky not to come away from the Banks’s Stadium without a goal for his efforts on his return to the first team, but he just couldn’t find that all-important yard away from his marker to get in a decent shot. He was replaced by Shaun Williams with 18 minutes remaining.
The home side continued to chip away at Dons and looked arguably the more likely to score in the second half. Jamie Paterson should have done better with his volley from the edge of the box, and he had another bite of the cherry with 10 minutes to go as he tried to bend one into the far corner.
Dons created chances too, but made things easy for Lee Beevers – too often firing straight at the keeper, giving him a chance to make some important saves. And he wasn’t the only one, with Martin called into action with a minute to play, leaping at full stretch to keep Paterson at bay once more as Dons held on for the win.
Afterwards, Robinson was full of praise for his captain, who scored his fifth goal of the season, admitting he doesn’t know why Lewington doesn’t take more set-pieces.
He said: “I don’t know why he doesn’t take free kicks, penalties, shoot more or cross more – his left foot is a wand!
“He said if their keeper had have been in there he wouldn’t have saved it, Potter is saying he would – I’ll let them argue that one!”
And with a sickness bug floating around in the changing rooms at stadium:mk, Robinson admitted that he had to field players who weren’t able to train during the week.
“We have had eight players off this week,” he said. “Four players who started didn’t train on Friday, and there is a bug going round the dressing room at the moment.
“Dean Bowditch got ill last night (Friday) while some had it earlier in the week. It’s not ideal, but it shows that we’ve got the strength in depth to cope with it.”