DAVID Martin saved a controversial late penalty to earn Dons a 1-1 draw against Huddersfield Town on Saturday.
Manager Karl Robinson admitted he made mistakes with his tactics as Dons looked distinctly second best during the opening 45 minutes against the west Yorkshire club, and were lucky to only be behind to a Scott Arfield goal as the sides went in at the break.
A classic second half fight back from Dons saw them get back into the game though with Dean Lewington’s third of the season making it 1-1.
When Gary MacKenzie and Alan Lee clashed off the ball, a penalty was awarded to Town with just five minutes to play, and the defender was given his marching orders. But iMartin saved the day, and Lee Novak’s penalty, as Dons held on for a valuable point which sees them fourth in League 1, just behind Huddersfield in third place. Charlton still lead the way at the top of the table ahead of Sheffield United.
Robinson admitted making a mistake with the way his team approached the first 45 minutes, but said his players spared his embarrassment with their second half performance.
“I got it wrong in the first half,” said the Dons boss. “I tried something that worked for 10 minutes, but not for the last half and hour.
“We changed it second half and we looked the better team. So I’ll hold my hands up. But the players gave us everything and got me out of trouble.”
The late penalty awarded by referee Chris Foy sparked controversy on many counts – it appeared the initial foul had been committed by Huddersfield’s Lee as he slid in on MacKenzie who was shielding the ball back to Martin in goal. No free-kick was given and Martin threw the ball out wide to create another Dons attack.
But as play continued, Lee grabbed MacKenzie by the throat, before the defender reacted, headbutting Lee to the ground. After consulting with his linesman, Foy sent MacKenzie off, and awarded a penalty to the Terriers, much to the shock of the Dons players, and to Robinson on the touchline.
“First of all, it’s a blatant foul on Gary MacKenzie,” he said. “Lee has come through the back of him.
“Then there is a coming together and Lee has MacKenzie by the throat. Was that not a sending off?
“MacKenzie stupidly does something I can’t condone. He knows he is in the wrong. He will take his punishment like a man. It’s a part of his game he knows he has to cut out.
“He will be intimated by centre forwards, but he knows he has to deal with that mentally. He has to show he’s a better footballer than that, not having to resort to what he did.
“But the two incidents leading up to that – I really can’t understand how they’ve missed it. If it’s a free-kick on MacKenzie, then it can’t be a penalty, because the ball isn’t in play.”
Huddersfield went into the game on the back of 33 league match unbeaten run and were immediately on the front foot, with Danny Ward’s spectacular 11th minute volley beating Martin but not the crossbar.
The visitors continued to knock on the door for the opening goal, and came close again when Scott Arfield breezed past a static MacKenzie, but luckily for the defender, Arfield’s ball across the box was well behind Lee.
Town were becoming wasteful in front of goal, and should have been 3-0 up on the half hour, but despite Lee’s excellent chip over defender Mark Beevers to put him one-on-one with Martin, his shot was poor and straight at the keeper.
Stephen Gleeson and Darren Potter were both declared fit in the build-up to the game, but struggled to have an impact in the opening 45 minutes as Dons’ usual slick passing game came unstuck in a packed Terriers midfield.
Eventually the pressure told and Town took the lead in the 37th minute. Damien Johnson crossed the ball in from the right side, but the Dons back line stepped up too late. Lee somehow managed to hit the base of the post with his unmarked header from five yards out, and with Dons’ defenders still stood still, three Town players could have stepped up to fire in. In the end Arfield took the honours to slot past the vulnerable Martin.
After a ‘strong’ team talk at the interval, Dons looked like a new side in the second half and set about chasing the equaliser, but were dealt an early blow when Adam Smith was forced off through injury and replaced by Adam Chicksen.
Shaun Williams could have pulled the hosts level after 65 minutes but his shot was well stopped by Town stopper Ian Bennett. However, it was from the resulting corner kick that Dons did get back into it.
MacKenzie’s initial header on goal was beaten away by Bennett, but it fell straight to Lewington’s right foot, and he rifled into the top of the net for 1-1.
The goal certain awoke the Dons fans, but Huddersfield weren’t to be buried yet as Lee brilliantly turned on the edge of the 18-yard box and fired just wide.
And a brilliant move from the visitors with 15 minutes remaining should have put them back into the lead, when substitute Gary Roberts broke from his own half, exchanged passes with Novak, and appeared to have beaten Martin with a neat shot, only to see his effort cleared off the line.
The final 20 minutes saw some real end-to-end football being played, with both sides creating decent chances to go on and win the game, although neither keeper was forced into any real action.
The late flashpoint between MacKenzie and Lee marred the end of what turned out to be an excellent second half, but Robinson said he was pleased with a point out of the game against arguable the favourites for the League 1 title this season.
“They’re a good team. They have so much strength in depth – I’ve not got a squad to compete with theirs, but we have the heart and desire to do it, and that’s what counts,” he said.
“I think after our goal, we deserved something out of the game. We had chances of our own in the second half like they did in the first. But it wasn’t to be, and we have to accept the point.
“It means a lot to get something out of the game against Huddersfield, because a lot of people see them as outright favourites to go up this year.”
There were no doubts as to who the hero on the day was though as Martin added to his penalty save against Huddersfield last season to keep Dons’ unbeaten home record alive.
But the incident which sparked the penalty controversy went unnoticed by the goalkeeper, who was too busy concentrating on catching Town on the break rather than what was going on behind him.
He said: “When the ball came down, I just went to get it. I knew Gary was shielding me from Lee but as soon as I picked the ball up, I ran to the other side, so I didn’t see any of it.”
And on the subject of saving the penalty, he said: “I had a way in my head – based on the way he took his run up. You just have to believe you’re going to save one. The last penalty I saved was against Huddersfield so I like playing against them. I felt like I was going to save it.”
And Martin admitted the half time team talk was more heated than it had been in recent weeks, but was pleased the team responded well.
He said: “It was a bit strong! But the boys reacted well to it and we got the result. I think we came out in the second half and showed what we can do.“