THE Christmas period is one that football fans look forward to with anticipation, but it didn’t exactly go to plan for MK Dons this winter.
It didn’t exactly get off to the ideal start, with the repercussions likely to be felt long into the New Year. On the eve of Dons’ trip to Doncaster Rovers, Stephen Gleeson and Luke Chadwick went down injured – Gleeson with a broken foot and Chadwick with knee trouble. Both, who have been influential this season, look set to be out for at least the next three months.
The shockwaves of their injuries were instantly felt, but the match at Doncaster was called off at the 11th hour because of the incredible rainfall, waterlogging the Keepmoat Stadium pitch.
While it was a disappointment for the fans who had made the 120 mile trip to Yorkshire, Karl Robinson must have breathed a sigh of relief, having lost two of his key players the night before the game, and with barely any time to work on a contingency plan.
With back-to-back home games against Walsall and Coventry City ahead though, Dons were expected to come away with a handful of points to bolster their promotion chances.
But that wasn’t to be either. The 4-2 defeat to Walsall on Boxing Day certainly made the left over turkey taste just that little bit drier afterwards. Fans left stadium:mk dumbfounded as to how a side that had only conceded six goals at home all season could suddenly ship four to a side who barely had a kick otherwise.
Robinson reacted furiously in the media, blasting the players in his side who ‘weren’t fit to wear the shirt’ and admitting that some could even be shown the door if they didn’t sort their acts out by the time in-form Coventry rolled into town three days later.
While the performance against the Sky Blues was drastically improved, the result was effectively the same, going down 3-2.
Dons looked good value for the victory at half time though. Ryan Lowe continued his fine scoring run and Daniel Powell bounced back after disappointing against Walsall by netting the opener. But a dramatic five minute spell at the beginning of the second half saw Coventry overcome the 2-1 half-time deficit, turning it into a 3-2 advantage of their own, and one they held until the end.
Everyone knew changes needed to be made, and fast, to replace Gleeson and Chadwick in the centre of the park. Not to put a slight on Alan Smith or Dele Alli – who both filled in during the games at stadium:mk – but it was always going to be tough replacing arguably the team’s two main midfield contenders.
Gone was the main thrust of the team, the attacking drive and that battling mentality which made Gleeson and Chadwick stand out as contenders for player of the season.
Robinson made no secrets in his chase for Brighton’s Ryan Harley after the Coventry game – a player he has been chasing for nearly two years.
Harley’s move was completed on New Year’s Eve in preparation for a tough encounter against Notts County at Meadow Lane a day later.
The manager said Harley looked like he had been made to wear the Dons shirt after his first performance, and he certainly looked right at home after six minutes when he knocked the ball into the box for Darren Potter to head Dons in front against County.
And when Daniel Powell doubled the lead seven minutes later, it looked like the New Year had got off to a brilliant start. But for Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s second half penalty, it did.
The defensive woes which befell the side on Boxing Day weren’t there any more as Shaun Williams and Antony Kay headed away cross after cross, while David Martin plucked the ball out of the sky whenever it entered the six-yard box.
Robinson described the victory as his finest since taking over the helm. Meadow Lane has been notoriously tough on Dons in recent times, so to come away with a win was just the start to 2013 everyone needed.
Robinson said: “This could have been a disastrous Christmas period. As it is, we’ve come out of it with only three points from nine, but we have a few days now to prepare ourselves for a nice FA Cup tie.
“It’s important when you lose games not to get despondent. Each defeat hurts me, but it’s about how you respond and get over it the next day is important too. And I thought they were excellent.”
One thing that slightly smeared the occasion was yet another injury to a key player. Dean Bowditch went down shortly before half-time with what appears to be a groin strain. Filling in, in the hole, Bowditch was one of the first half’s top performers and it will make the coming fixtures even tougher should he too be restricted to the sidelines with an injury.
Fortunately for Robinson and Bowditch, next Saturday is the FA Cup third round tie against Sheffield Wednesday. While a cup run is always a nice money-spinner and an exciting occasion for the fans, it’s certainly not a game Dons will terribly mind losing, as long as they give a good account of themselves.
It also gives Robinson time, should he need it, to wrap up a few loose ends in the transfer market, namely the signing of Izale McLeod to add even more fire-power at the business end of the pitch.
The early part of the year is shaping up to be a busy period too. With the trip to Hillsborough, the scheduled game against Yeovil has now been rearranged for Tuesday, January 29, and the game against Doncaster is still yet to be pencilled in, though it will inevitably be another midweek encounter, likely now to be in early February.
The Christmas period will never make or break a season. The games come thick and fast, some even get called off! But while Robinson may look back on the Christmas of 2012 a little disappointed with the way his side defended at home, the important result against Notts County will give him food for thought.
Dons are still well in the hunt for promotion and keen to make 2013 a year to remember.