KARL Robinson was left questioning the referee once again as a late equaliser from Heidur Helguson broke Dons’ hearts at stadium:mk on Saturday.
The Icelandic international looked offside when he latched onto a long ball over the top of the Dons defence before coolly slotting into the empty net with David Martin out of position, forcing the FA Cup third round tie against QPR to a replay at Loftus Road.
It should have been so different for the home side though. Dean Bowditch gave Dons a second half lead after a mistake from Helguson allowed the striker to shoot across Rangers keeper Radek Cerny into the corner of the net for a well-deserved lead.
Dons had already had the ball in the back of the net in the first half, though Jabo Ibehre was offside before tapping in. But when a two-handed block from Clint Hill in the penalty area wasn’t flagged for a spot-kick, every one of the record-breaking 19,506 supporters inside stadium:mk was left questioning why.
Dons more than matched their Premier League opposition and looked the more worthy of a spot in the fourth round draw – the winner of the Loftus Road replay will welcome a visit from Premier League giants Chelsea.
But Robinson was delighted with his side’s performance, even if he was left questioning some decisions by the man in the middle.
“I’m proud, but I’m gutted for the players,” Robinson said. “What a class act – that’s the way football should be played. Not hoofing it, or playing off throw-ins. We got the ball on the floor, passing it, worked hard and enjoyed what we do.
“Playing in front of the highest attendance here in the greatest round of cup football in the world – it had everything. Regardless of who you support, you’ve got to sit up and look at us and see how well we played.
“One or two players aside, that was as strong as QPR can go. It’s not as though we’re walking away from here saying they fielded a weakened side. We missed two or three gilt-edged chances and had a goal ruled offside that started with one-twos on the edge of our own box. We played with freedom.
“I thought every player and every fan deserved the victory and it’s a little bit embarrassing that it was taken away from us.
“It was offside. I made a big mistake last week (against Colchester) and I’ve apologised, but I’m going to get penalised. Other people make mistakes and don’t.
“Away from the game, the referee on the whole was excellent, the way he spoke to me, conducted himself was to be applauded.
“But there were two big decisions that didn’t go our way. The handball – I’ve never seen a player go to ground, put two hands above his head and a penalty not given. And the offside for the goal.”
Both sides settled into their styles of play quickly, and it made for an exciting opening 10 minutes with chances at both ends. Bowditch was just inches from getting on the end of Daniel Powell’s cross from the right after four minutes, while former Don Jamie Mackie blazed over the bar for Rangers.
As the game settled, QPR began to see more of the ball in the midfield playing with a high line for the majority in Dons’ half. But a quick break after a 21st minute Rangers corner saw Ibehre and Chadwick racing through on Cerny’s goal, but the latter’s finish was rushed and straight at the keeper.
But Dons were left dumbfounded when they had a stonewall penalty claim turned away. Powell’s initial air-shot fooled everyone and he was able to cross at the second attempt. And his ball across was clearly blocked by Clint Hill’s hands, but the referee instead gave a corner, and his assistant was equally unmoved by Dons’ protests.
Despite two divisions difference between the sides, it was Dons who looked the better going forward for much the first half. Adam Smith frequently joined the attacks on the right, out-numbering QPR left back Hill. But there seemed to be a distinct reluctance to shoot from promising positions so by and large, Cerny hardly had to make a save. And it was just the same for Martin in the other net – but for a Faurlin free kick straight at him.
At the break, the 0-0 scoreline was a fair reflection of the game, though Dons could argue that a penalty decision should have gone their way.
Robinson was forced into making a change at the interval, with Gary MacKenzie being replaced by Mathias Doumbe.
The away side started the second half the brighter, penning Dons into deep for the first five minutes, but it was the League 1 side that had the best chance to open the scoring when Powell broke into the Rangers half before slipping Smith through, but the full-back’s shot was off target and too strong for the unmarked Bowditch to get on the end of at the far post.
At the other end, QPR really should have taken the lead in the 54th minute when the tricky Macheda sent over an excellent ball to the far post, but the unmarked Campbell could only head wide with the goal gaping.
Neil Warnock obviously wanted things done and dusted on the night as he threw Heidur Helguson on in place of Campbell, but his side were given an uphill task when Dean Bowditch fired Dons in front. After failing to clear a 64th minute corner, Shaun Williams found acres of space in the channel and looked to clip the ball back across goal to the unmarked Bowditch.
It appeared Helguson would intercept the cross, but he slipped allowing Bowditch time to compose himself before firing across Cerny into the corner of the net, sending the capacity crowd into raptures. And it was no more than they deserved.
On-loan forward Federico Macheda looked the most biggest threat for Rangers as he operated down the left flank, but was substituted with 20 minutes to go for Jay Bothroyd. And while the visitors showed glimpses of their Premier League quality, it was Dons who looked the more comfortable in possession and most likely to add to the scoring as they poured forward looking for the killer blow.
The QPR fans were letting their players know just what they thought of the performance with boos and jeers as attacks broke down.
And they were dealt another blow with 10 minutes to go when Faurlin landed awkwardly after winning the ball in front of Darren Potter – the midfielder stretchered from the field of play, later to be diagnosed with cruciate knee ligament damage, ruling him out for the rest of the season.
And with the away side having made three substitutions already, they were forced into playing the remainder of the game with 10 men.
But it was going to take a mistake from Dons for Rangers to get back into it, and it came from David Martin. Chasing down a long ball to Helguson, who looked offside, the keeper lost possession to the front man, who was left with a simple task of rolling the ball over the line to equalise for the Premier League side with two minutes remaining, forcing the tie to a replay at Loftus Road.
But goal-scorer Bowditch doesn’t think it’ll be any easier for Rangers in more familiar surroundings.
“We’ve got to go there now and get a result,” he said. “But we’re not fearing that. At times, their fans were getting a bit frustrated and that was good for us. It was good to dominate the game but their fans will be delighted with a draw. They’ll think they can take us back there and beat us, but I don’t think so.
“We’re in the draw, but we’re disappointed to have lost the goal at the end. We should have won the game, we didn’t deserve to draw and get a replay.
“You can’t underestimate a team like QPR, they’re playing in the Premier League for a reason and they’ve got some great players.
“We went out there and played as well as we could and matched them, if anything we looked better. We dominated chunks of the game, which we’re pleased with.
“But you cannot afford to make the mistakes we made at the end, especially with someone like Helguson around. He’s a top quality player and put it away nicely.”
And Robinson echoed his striker’s confidence about the replay, scheduled for Tuesday January 17.
“I want to go down there and really enjoy the occasion against a really good QPR team,” Robinson added.
“We’ll have a go at them, we will leave nothing in the tank at the end. But we’ve got to concentrate on Carlisle in the meantime now.”