DAVID might be remembered for giant killing, but MK Dons would prefer to be known as championship winners come the end of the season, writes Toby Lock.
That’s the message Dons manager Karl Robinson hammered home after his side lost 2-0 to Sunderland at stadium:mk on Tuesday night.
At the beginning of the season, none of Dons’ players will have made a note of the League Cup final in their diaries as a game they were likely to be playing in, but that fact still didn’t soften the blow as they trudged off the pitch at full-time, knowing they had put in a decent performance against their Premier League opponents.
“Not many people remember the giant killers,” Robinson said after the game. “They’re very rarely remembered. What people remember are champions. And that’s our goal this year. That’s what we want to be remembered for, not beating Sunderland.
“If you beat a Premier League team, you go on to the next one. But championships don’t come along often, and that’s what we’re fighting to do. We’re so driven to get success at the club.
“The players are gutted. I said that ‘I’m so happy’ too, because if one player had been laughing and joking, they’d have got it. The fact is that they’re hurting as much as me, and that makes me proud. I hope we use this and move on and concentrate on Crewe on Saturday.”
Making his first start for Dons, stand-in goalkeeper Ian McLoughlin couldn’t have asked for a bigger occasion to make his debut, but he might have wanted to be a bit busier to show off what he can do between the sticks as he deputised for the ill David Martin.
Dons’ well organised defence meant that he didn’t have to do an awful lot in truth. Adam Chicksen loudly banged the drum to remind the manager that he is worthy of a place in the starting line-up, while Antony Kay and Shaun Williams kept Louis Saha firmly in their pockets. Captain Dean Lewington barely put a foot wrong all night either.
But while Dons were fine defensively, Robinson was left frustrated by his side’s inability to pull the trigger in front of goal at the other end. If McLoughlin was under-used, Sunderland’s Keiren Westwood may well have been a spectator for the most part.
Alan Smith, taking over in the lone-striker role, suffered a similar fate to the ones which befell Charlie MacDonald and Ryan Lowe – he was left isolated, having to drop deep to get any of the ball and was withdrawn after an hour for one of the other striking options on the bench.
Sunderland showed glimmers of their top league quality, namely through youngster James McClean who made light work of Lewington, Dean Bowditch and Darren Potter as he showed them a clear set of heels when he skipped past the trio with a neat bit of skill.
After a fairly balanced opening half an hour, the game came to life when Lee Cattermole and Chicksen went for a loose ball in the midfield. The Black Cats’ captain lunged over the ball and caught Chicksen high on the knee. Referee Stuart Atwell wasted no time in brandishing the red card – Cattermole’s fifth in Sunderland colours.
With a new air of confidence, Dons felt the sending off gave them a new edge, and for a while it did. But once again, fans and the management were left questioning what has happened to Daniel Powell’s confidence in recent weeks as twice he got in behind the Sunderland defence, but opted to pass rather than have a dig himself.
Both times, Robinson did well to contain his rage, though his water bottle, and perhaps Mick Harford – who caught a bit of the splash-back as the boss launched it towards the dugout – might say otherwise.
And their inability to capitalise in front of goal cost them when Craig Gardner’s astonishing free-kick dropped out of the sky and into the far corner of the net eight minutes after the break.
The man who led Birmingham City to victory over Dons at St Andrews two years ago completely wrong-footed McLoughlin with his swerving strike from 25-yards, which straightened over the wall to dart in, handing Sunderland the lead.
From there, the visitors were happy to sit back and absorb everything Dons had to give them. Lowe and MacDonald replaced the anonymous Smith and tiring Luke Chadwick on the hour, and it prompted a bit more of an attacking threat from Dons.
Both strikers got into promising positions and pulled the trigger in instinctive fashion, but neither troubled Westwood as their shots skimmed the side netting.
And when Lewington smashed a ball across the box looking for a deflection, his shot caught MacDonald unawares and it bounced off his shin and over the bar from six yards out.
Last Saturday’s hat-trick hero Bowditch looked dangerous on both flanks and had Dons’ best chance when he linked up well with MacDonald to find space 10 yards out, but the bouncing ball didn’t drop and he cut across it, sending the ball high and wide of the mark.
The lack of killer instinct came back to bite Dons again, as McClean once again skipped over two challenges in the box to fire across McLoughlin and into the net, doubling the advantage and ending any chances the hosts had of taking the tie to extra time.
Chicksen, ever-growing in confidence, was pushed forward in the latter stages and had the crowd out of their seats when his deflected shot dropped agonisingly onto the roof of the net – the youngster still searching for his first goal.
At the final whistle, the players were visibly disappointed to have come away from the game with nothing – Gleeson in particular looked especially downtrodden, but it was not a performance to be ashamed of.
“We worked hard, we worked on our team shape, but ultimately we weren’t good enough on the day,” said Robinson. “I don’t care if they’re Premier League or not. I thought we did enough, even at 11 v 11, I thought we were the better team, we just didn’t take our chances.
“When you’re playing a team as good as they are, you’ve got to take your chances. Powell had two great chances. He got in on goal, but he took a touch and got tackled. Bowditch had one, MacDonald, had one, Chicksen had one.
“The margins are so small for the chances, so when they do come along, you’ve got to take them.”
While the League Cup adventure is over for another year, Dons are back to the bread and butter of League 1 action on Saturday against Crewe Alexandra, putting their giant-killing exploits on the back burner – until their FA Cup campaign starts later this year.