“HOW have we not won that?” asked Karl Robinson after watching his side put in a good shift with little reward against Doncaster Rovers on Tuesday night, drawing 0-0.
Dons shrugged off the disappointment of last Saturday’s torrid 3-1 away defeat to Oldham – dubbed ‘appalling’ by the manager – to out-perform Rovers, who could have gone top of League 1 had they won at the Keepmoat Stadium.
With their dominance though, the players cut frustrated figures as they walked off the pitch after the game, knowing they needed a victory, for morale if nothing else, after three disappointing results on the spin.
“Did they even have a shot on target?!” Robinson questioned after the game. “We weren’t that bad at Yeovil, and we weren’t that bad until Ryan Lowe’s sending off against Bournemouth. We were appalling against Oldham. It wasn’t acceptable.
“I’m frustrated because I think we should have won the game. We knew we were wrong on Saturday, and we had to dig deeper.
“I went out for a meal for Valentine’s Day with my wife and it was probably the worst meal I’ve ever had – nothing tasted right. It really hurt me and the players.
“But we’ve come to a team who are second in the league and we deserved all three points.”
And deserve it they did. From the first whistle, Dons simply looked like they wanted it more – a stark contrast to Saturday’s shocking defeat up at Boundary Park.
The midfield, bolstered by the return of Luke Chadwick, looked keen and up for the task at hand, neatly passing on the difficult pitch. Ryan Harley and Darren Potter looked on the same page again, and both seemed to have fixed the problems in their radars which affected their passing game just three days earlier.
Izale McLeod played his first full 90 minutes since re-signing for Dons in January and was probably their top performer, causing the Rovers defensive line of Jamie McCombe and Rob Jones havoc at every opportunity.
He came closest to re-opening his Dons goal-scoring account after nine minutes when his strike went just wide of the mark, rippling the side netting just enough to have the 180 travelling supporters out of their seats in celebration – only to return to their huddled sitting positions in a bid to try and keep warm.
McLeod went close again when Chadwick and then Daniel Powell burst forward, but his strike bent just the other side of the post.
His saga continued when McCombe misjudged the bounce of a long ball forward, allowing McLeod in behind. But he couldn’t beat Rovers keeper Gary Woods who patiently waited for the striker to pull the trigger, making himself big and palming the ball behind.
The best chance of the half though fell to Billy Payner. With Dons furious that no foul was given for a rough challenge on Shaun Williams, Doncaster broke down the right. James Coppinger put a low ball into the mix and as it bobbled loose, Paynter went for power over placement, blazing the ball over the bar from eight yards as the home supporters howled in frustration.
Dons came out of the dressing room in the second half looking for a repeat performance of the first, ideally with a goal thrown in for good measure.
And they almost had it when Harley and Potter started a brilliant move with some slick one-touch passing in the centre, releasing McLeod, Chadwick and then Powell just inside the penalty area. But rather than hit it first time, he opted to cut inside onto his weaker left foot, allowing the Doncaster defence time to get back and get a block on his eventual shot.
Chadwick was once again playing the puppeteer like he’d never been away, central to so many of Dons’ forward moves. His quick feet and swift passing was beginning to get under the home fans’ skin – if not for his on-the-ball abilities then certainly for his more theatrical falls under pressure – as they grew restless at watching their side failing to make an impression.
They’d get their wish though, with an exhausted Chadwick replaced by Adam Chicksen with 16 minutes to go.
The card looked to be marked as a goalless draw when McLeod brilliantly chested Dean Lewington’s long ball up field into the path of Dean Bowditch, but the winger’s effort dipped too late, flying narrowly over the bar.
And Chicksen could have had the final say when, four minutes from dull time, he was part of a three man break with Powell and McLeod – the latter choosing to slip Chicksen through on the left, but his shot was well blocked by James Harper, who put in a lung-busting run to get back and save a point for Rovers.
As frustrating as the result was given Dons’ dominance, there were a few things to make the drive home from Yorkshire a little brighter – gone was the midfield unsure of what to do, Dons thoroughly outplayed genuine contenders for the play-offs and, most importantly, Izale McLeod looked a real threat in front of goal.
“He was brilliant,” said Robinson, praising his man. “People have said he’s lazy, he’s temperamental, he’s this and that – he once was! But he gave the centre halves a torrid time.
“Yes he misses chances, but we know what we’re going to get with Izale. Sometimes we get an erratic strike, but you get the one that fly into the top corner too.
“All of the chances he had he created himself. He ran the full length of the pitch, and the ball bobbled and he hit it over the top. I don’t mind that. Izale McLeod worked his socks off.”
While climbing to 12th in the table, results above Dons worked against them and they are now 10 points from the play-off spots, with a gap beginning to open between Yeovil in seventh on 54 points and Coventry one place below them, trailing by seven points on 47.
A weekend off from League 1 action might be a blessing in disguise, and a chance for Dons to put aside the poor run of form since the QPR game. But they know that whatever the outcome is against Barnsley on Saturday, they’ll need to work very hard to rescue their promotion aspirations between now and April 27.