KARL Robinson was determined to focus on the positive of Saturday’s defeat to Southampton, despite it realistically ruling Dons out of the League One automatic promotion race.
It really was a case of what might have been for Robinson’s men as they opened up a two-goal lead early in the second half, only to throw it away in the space of 11 minutes as super sub Jonathan Forte scored twice in 60 seconds before Lee Barnard snatched what proved to be the winner.
The Dons game plan had gone completely to plan for the first 66 minutes as they looked on course for their first ever win at St Mary’s - and a win that would have blown the race for promotion wide open.
Gary MacKenzie’s header from Peter Leven’s inswinging corner put Dons in front after 34 minutes before Sam Baldock doubled the visitors’ lead with a powerful strike from a tight angle seven minutes into the second half. And so at around a quarter past four, Dons were sat third in League One and just five points adrift of Huddersfield in second.
But 11 second half minutes changed the game, and it’s now the Saints who look like the only side who could yet challenge the status quo at the top. Brighton booked at least a play-off place on Saturday when they picked up a draw at Rochdale, while both Peterborough and Bournemouth saw their hopes of overtaking Huddersfield all but disappear when they played out a draw on Friday night.
The good news for Dons is that the Saints now look well placed to leapfrog The Terriers, meaning they might avoid another trip to the south coast in the play-offs. But despite seeing Dons’ St Mary’s hoodoo continue, Robinson insisted it was a day to be proud of his side.
“I’m very proud. We’ve been here on a number of occasions and just been brushed aside and embarrassed, but that wasn’t the case this time,” he said.
“They had a 20 minute period of pressure with the crowd behind them, and it was an intense atmosphere in which we didn’t defend too well. I can’t knock the back four though because for large parts they were outstanding.
“For me it’s a proud day and it shows how far we have come. We have a young team, had a lot of knocks, yet we have come here and dominated for large periods of the game. We got ourselves 2-0 up, but unfortunately we threw it away. But onwards and upwards, and we will come back stronger.”
Dons’ collapse came just after second goal scorer Baldock was forced off injured, leaving Robinson with no strikers on the field until the introduction of Jabo Ibehre, after Rowan Vine had also just been replaced. But the boss believes the changes didn’t influence how the following few minutes panned out, with Saints netting three times to take control. Instead, Robinson was critical of referee Mick Russell.
“We lost Sam when he rolled his ankle and they scored twice quickly, so it was hard for us to get back on track,” said Robinson. “But in the last 10 minutes we were on the front foot. We should have had a penalty - it was blatant and I don’t know how it has been missed.
“And Keanu Marsh-Brown was two or three yards on side in the build up to their third goal, so I think the referee got two decisions wrong. He apologised if he got it wrong, but he will have to assess it. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and fair play for the honesty, but it was blatant.
“I don’t think the substitutions have changed the balance of the game, but it was hard for the new boys to come on and get into such a frantic game.”
Baldock now looks a doubt for this weekend’s clash with Carlisle, but it is hoped that he’ll recover in time to play a part in the final few games, and then the play-offs.
“It’s probably worse than we first thought. We will have to wait for a few days to assess how bad it is, and see where he is for next weekend,” said Robinson.
“It’s a big loss for us - he’s a top goal-scorer and a constant threat. We lost a bit of momentum when he went off and a little bit of belief.
“But we can go on another run. I think you have to keep your sights high and we will keep aiming for the automatic places. I think if you shorten your ambitions, you’re cheating yourself and your fans and the club. If we do get it, we will be punching massively above our weight - we’re the 13th or 14th biggest spending club in the division. So where we are is a fantastic achievement at the moment.”
There looks set to be a lot of jostling for position in the final five weeks of the season, and although a couple of sides could yet break into the top six, Dons remain well placed to extend their season and compete for a place in the Championship.