Play-off pain for unlucky Dons

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DONS dominated the majority of their League 1 play-off semi final tie against Huddersfield – yet it’s the West Yorkshire side going to Wembley next weekend, writes Simon Downes.

A disappointing 2-0 home defeat in the first leg at stadium:mk on Saturday was followed by one of the most gutsy performances you could ever wish to see on Tuesday night as Dons won the second leg 2-1 at the Galpharm Stadium. But the damage had been done, and it will be an all-Yorkshire final affair between the Terriers and Sheffield United on Saturday, May 26.

A lot of the pre-semi final focus was on how Dons would go about stopping Huddersfield front man Jordan Rhodes, and with 38 goals to his name before the play-offs, it was little wonder why.

The 22-year-old went on to score two of his side’s three goals in the two matches, and set up the other for Lee Novak.

But while Huddersfield were so heavily reliant on one man, Dons should be applauded for a quality and incredibly spirited all-round team performance that so nearly saw Karl Robinson’s men pull off one of the greatest comebacks in the 26-year history of the Football League play-offs.

Goals from Daniel Powell and Alan Smith gave Dons victory in the second leg – but after laying siege to the Huddersfield goal for the majority of the tie, that was the very least they deserved.

It wasn’t enough though, and in fact the full time whistle was met with deep breaths of realisation that promotion just wasn’t meant to be for another year.

Maybe fate wasn’t on Dons’ side. Perhaps they were destined to fall short from the moment that Dean Lewington lost the coin toss that saw them unusually kick towards the Cowshed in the first half of the first leg on Saturday.

Or you might say Dons simply lost to the better team. Whatever the case, it is exactly the sort of occasions like Tuesday night that brings people closer together, and the universal feeling from players, staff and fans in the aftermath of the defeat is that they should all take great pride in what they have achieved.

So another season in League 1 awaits for Dons, but in the words of boss Robinson after the game: “This club will get there one day.”

Dons have fallen at the play-off semi final hurdle in three out of the last four campaigns, and Robinson couldn’t help but make comparisons to Dons’ defeat to Peterborough United almost exactly a year ago.

But the general feeling from the boss and his staff is that their defeat in West Yorkshire doesn’t hurt as much as that at London Road – partly due to the fact that budget cuts from last season have lowered expectations slightly, and also because there wasn’t much in the way of controversy this time.

Robinson felt Dons should have been awarded a first half penalty for a foul on Charlie MacDonald, and was critical of the officials after the game on Saturday for allowing Huddersfield’s Lee Novak to return to the pitch in the lead-up to the Terriers’ second goal of the game.

But there was not the same sense of injustice as there was following the 4-3 aggregate defeat to Posh, which is still fresh in Robinson’s memory.

“We don’t get the beauty of having cameras at all of our games and we’ve seen it over and over again,” he said.

“We lost the play-offs last year by one of the worst refereeing decisions I have seen, and this year we conceded a goal in the first leg from the official putting a player on which led to their goal.

“And now there was a blatant penalty that wasn’t given.”

After Rhodes scored his second goal in three days against Dons to give his side what looked to be an unassailable lead in the 18th minute – completely against the run of play – Robinson’s men didn’t let their heads drop, and continued to boss the game playing in an ambitious 4-3-3 formation.

Huddersfield looked uneasy all night, and their nerves were not helped by an injury to keeper Ian Bennett, replaced by Alex Smithies after hurting himself while smothering a low Dean Bowditch centre.

And the first thing Smithies did was pick the ball out of his net five minutes before the interval when Powell created space and fired home from just inside the penalty area.

Then came the shouts for a spot-kick when striker MacDonald appeared to be nudged from behind by Sean Morrison, but referee Scot Mathieson wasn’t interested in the Dons appeals.

The break couldn’t have come quick enough for the home side, but Simon Grayson’s half time team-talk did little to address his side’s problems as Dons continued to force the issue in search of a crucial second goal, but unfortunately, for all the trying, it just wouldn’t come.

Luke Chadwick, Jabo Ibehre and Alan Smith were all thrown on in the final 20 minutes, but Smithies’ goal continued to lead a charmed life.

In the dying moments Powell’s close range shot was tipped over the bar and from the resulting corner Smith finally found the back of the net from a diving header, but there was hardly any time left for Dons to launch another attack.

After their first leg defeat and falling 3-0 behind on aggregate on the night, Dons did incredibly well to get close to forcing extra time.

And it was because they finished on a high – and went down fighting – that Robinson was able to take the positives from his second play-off experience as manager, even if he felt his side should have reached the final.

“We were class,” he said. “I thought we should have won both legs. We’ve played the better football.

“What a night of football it was. The players deserve to play in front of these sort of crowds ever week. You see what happens when they play in front of a big crowd.

“We felt this would be a ground that we would remember forever. We wanted to show what we are all about, and what we are capable of.”

There was much talk about second leg home advantage in the lead-up to the play-offs, but even though they had it, Huddersfield must have felt like the away side for most of the game as Dons controlled the action on the pitch, and their 900 fans were making themselves heard in a crowd of just over 15,000.

The only regret for Dons will be that they failed to do themselves justice at stadium:mk on Saturday, leaving them with an uphill task from the first whistle at the Galpharm.

Some say the play-offs are the best way to win promotion – the drama, the big day out in front of tens of thousands of fans at Wembley – but Robinson and everyone connected with the club will surely be sick of them now. And so will Huddersfield if they fail to finish the job for a third year on the spin.

They will take on a Sheffield United side who just edged past Stevenage 1-0 on aggregate – giving Sky TV the final they always wanted – and with Rhodes back in red hot form, they are probably slight favourites to earn a place in the Championship next season.

As for Robinson, he said he’s going to dedicate the next month to his family, before plotting Dons’ attempt to get out of League 1 in 2012/13. And he thanked the noisy Dons fans who made the trip to Huddersfield to cheer them on no matter what the outcome.

“I want to say thank you to the fans,” he said. “I’m sorry we ultimately let you down, but we will dust ourselves off and go again.”