One month to define a season, and the city

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THREE days of their lives could effect the reputation of the entire city, according to Karl Robinson, as Dons set their sights on the League 1 play-off final, writes Toby Lock.

After the heartbreak of losing out to Peterborough last season, the Dons boss admitted the club wasn’t ready for promotion 12 months ago, focusing too much on making the play-off semi finals seem just like any other game, when in truth, a lot more was riding on their success than they had ever thought.

Preparations for this season’s play-off games against Huddersfield Town are already laid out for the players. Robinson and his team have already booked hotels and planned days off down to the finest detail as they do everything in their power to ensure success.

In fact Robinson has even likened their preparation to that of a World Cup final as they look to right the wrongs of last year’s campaign.

“We’re doing it differently this year,” the manager said. “I’ll take full responsibility for not going up last year – we tried to be so relaxed between the first and second games, like that refereeing decision didn’t affect us, but come the first whistle in the second leg, it looked like it did.

“This year, we’re going away for a few days and the players will dedicate their lives to the club. We aren’t going to watch any other games, we don’t care who we play in the final, it’s all about getting to the final. We have planned everything, there will be no aloofness this year.

“Last year we tried to take the special element out of it and that’s what was done in the past.

“After Walsall, we’re going away for a night to put closure on the season. Then when we get home, we will start on the mini-season. We’ll play the first game, then we’ll go away, and everyone will be under lock and key.

“We’ll treat it like a World Cup final. We have to enjoy it together for the good of the team. I know the wives won’t be too happy with me – but I’m asking for two or three days of their lives which could affect 15,000 lives, and the city’s reputation.

“These people could make the difference in making the city a real dominant football force.”

Work has been done behind the scenes to build a lecture theatre, medical suite, and a new gym as Dons prepare for life in the Championship, and Robinson insists his side are mentally ready for football at a higher level – where the club began life in Milton Keynes.

“I believe that we’re ready for it now. We weren’t ready for the Championship last year, as much as I harped on about it last season.,” he said.

“We weren’t ready as a club, we couldn’t cater for bigger players, and our players have looked at their careers and decided whether or not to move on.

“All you have to do now is look around behind the scenes to see the new offices, the lecture theatre and the money invested downstairs, the stadium will be finished in the summer – we are ready. We are ready for the Championship.

“We started in the Championship, but we have had tremendous ups and downs over the last eight years, and the players want to give everyone the chance to watch Championship football again.”

Most frustrating for Robinson though is the fact that between Dons and their date with destiny stand the tricky challenges of already relegated Rochdale and Walsall, who are fighting for League 1 survival.

But he is keen not to let his players take their eyes off the prize as they concentrate on securing a fourth place finish and the psychological boost of having the second leg at stadium:mk. To achieve that, those next two games are vital.

He said: “It’s frustrating because in two games, you could lose momentum or get injuries. If we go up, we will go up with the smallest squad to ever get promoted.

“There are so many permutations that could have an effect on us. We want to end the season with five straight wins, that’s our target. The players don’t want to be rested, they feel fit and that’s a great call.

“We went through a lull at the end of March, and that cost us getting out of League 1 automatically, but that’s all ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ now. We have to get our tactics right against Rochdale and Walsall to round it all off.”

Since Saturday’s superb 1-0 win over automatic promotion hopefuls Sheffield United, the Dons boss has hardly had a moment to reflect on the superb result, concentrating on not getting carried away as his side finally confirmed their place in the play-offs.

But with that confirmation, Robinson now knows exactly what he has to do to prepare his side for Simon Grayson’s Terriors. While he started out the week with nearly eight potential game plans for the next month, Robinson says he is now down to just two.

“We’re down to two plans – whether we play Huddersfield at home or away in the second leg. That’s the beauty about knowing who we’re playing early,” he said.

“I don’t think the play-offs ever prepare you for the next one. We know what to expect, but there’s a different feel. Our strength will lie in that we know how it feels.

“Last year we were dealt the worst possible fate in losing our local derby, and that’s as low as it gets. We know how low it can be, and if it happens again this year, we know we weren’t good enough.

“But of course we know at the end of it is a tremendous prize in a trip to Wembley.

“It’s a remarkable achievement by the club. We now have to get over the line. We’ve tried in recent years, but it just hasn’t happened.

“It’s not through lack of effort or lack of bottle or not being able to handle the ‘squeaky bum time.’ It’s down to refereeing decisions and luck, which is nothing to do with the club.”

Saturday, May 26 and the play-off final may seem like a long way off at the moment, but the next four weeks will fly by, and define at the very least the next 12 months for Dons, Robinson and his players, if not many years to come. Now, they just have concentrate on getting there.