Other results really let MK Dons off the hook as they struggled to a 4-2 defeat to Gillingham at Priestfield on Saturday.
Defensively at sea all afternoon, Dons went behind after just 10 minutes when Cody McDonald fired in from the edge of the box as the visitors looked well off the pace. Dons were back in it when Devante Cole pulled one back, but the lead lasted just a minute as Bradley Dack fired Gills back ahead before the break.
Ben Reeves came on early in the second half and changed Dons mentality completely, firing in an equaliser from the penalty spot. But once again, Dons struggled to hold on to the lead, as Bradley Garmston fired Gillingham back in front, before John Marquis put the icing on the cake nine minutes from time.
Fortunately for Karl Robinson’s side though, both Bristol City and Swindon lost their games on Saturday, leaving Dons still just a point from the automatic promotion spots.
There was an unfamiliar look and feel to Robinson’s side which lined up against Gillingham. Ian McLoughlin made his first league start of the season as David Martin missed out through a thigh injury. Keith Andrews, making his second start since his return to the club, began at the heart of the Dons defence, and Devante Cole started up front.
Despite the patchwork team, there was little anyone in a red shirt could have done about Gillingham’s crafty opener in the 10th minute. Straight from the training ground, a free kick 25 yards out was shifted infield, with skipper Doug Loft used as a decoy, allowing Cody McDonald to drive a low effort from the edge of the box, in off the upright.
And for a spell, it could have been even more. Dons midfield went to pieces after the opener and the home side exploited it with some good territory. And had it been someone other than defender John Egan gifted a free header 10 yards out, it might have been a different story to one that ended with the ball going over the bar.
Having seen enough from the stands, Robinson’s self-imposed touchline ban in the Director’s Box lasted barely 20 minutes, and he furiously blasted his message loud and clear to the players out on the pitch, and it appeared to do the trick. Dons began to find their feet, and their passing game. And they should have been level when Samir Carruthers wriggled himself some space after a strong run from Jordan Spence, only for Stuart Nelson to pull a save out of the top draw.
The keeper nearly had egg on his face though when barely two minutes later, he nearly spilled Carl Baker’s cross into the path of Cole, before pouncing on the loose ball.
And as the visitors began to get on top, they found an equaliser nine minutes before half time. Dele Alli’s ball from the left was touched by Daniel Powell into the path of Cole, who needed no second invite to shoot into the bottom corner to bring Dons back on level pegging.
But the lead lasted barely a minute as Dons defensive frailties were exploited once again to allow Gillingham to retake the lead. The ball from wide managed to evade Andrews’ header attempt, leaving Bradley Dack with the freedom of the penalty area crash home from close range, leaving Ian McLoughlin with absolutely no chance.
Gillingham could have had the match wrapped up six minutes into the second half. McLoughlin, making his first appearance since August, looked like a man void of confidence and it showed when Dack pulled the trigger from just inside the box. His swerving effort completely confused the Irish keeper, who got just enough of a shoulder on it to deflect it onto the post.
Things began to chance though with the introduction of Ben Reeves for Samir Carruthers. The front line looked far more secure, with Baker taking over on the left flank. And he was instrumental in creating chances for the visitors, although guilty of not finishing them off. First, he orchestrated a hole on the edge of the box but saw his strike deflected over, before firing straight at Nelson after a quick counter attack sparked by Powell inside his own half.
But he made amends by slotting home the equaliser in the 68th minute from the penalty spot. Baker burst into the penalty area but was scythed to the ground from behind by Gavin Hoyte. Really, it should have been a red card, but referee Keith Stroud didn’t even talk to the Gills defender. Regardless, Reeves converted to bring the visitors level.
It was looking all one way traffic after that, with Dons really pushing to go ahead for the first time. But they were given a stark awakening when Jermaine McGlashan’s rapid break through the midfield caught Spence far too narrow, allowing Bradley Garmston time and space, but sparred Dons’ blushes by firing wide.
The visitors didn’t learn though, and were trailing once again with 15 minutes to go. This time, Garmston took the ball on further and fired the ball across from a tight angle. It took a deflection off Andrews, and evaded McLoughlin’s dive to nestle into the far corner, leaving Dons once again chasing the game.
And the final nail was hammered home nine minutes from time when John Marquis once again capitalised on yet more weak defending on the Dons right, drawing McLoughlin out of his net before rolling in Gillingham’s fourth.
Referee: Keith Stroud
Attendance: 5,107 (321)
Gillingham: Nelson, Garmston, Egan, Ehmer, Loft, Hesenthaler, Marquis (Norris 89), McDonald, Galbraith (McGlashan 64), Dack, Hoyte
Subs not used: Martin, Legge, Morris, German, Dickenson
MK Dons: McLoughlin, Lewington, Kay, Andrews, Spence, Potter (Hitchcock 85), Alli, Powell, Carruthers (Reeves 56), Baker, Powell, Cole (Grigg 71)
Subs not used: Hodson, Green, Clarke-Harris, Burns
Booked: Potter , Marquis, Loft, Carruthers, Kay, McDonald, Hessenthaler