MK Dons sent out a warning shot to the rest of the division by hammering fellow promotion rivals Swindon 3-0 at the County Ground to keep their fight for second place very much alive.
After a thrilling first half remained goal-less, Daniel Powell finally broke the deadlock on the hour mark. Rather than fire Swindon into life though, it kick-started Dons’ dominance of the remaining half an hour, and another Will Grigg brace put the result beyond any doubt.
The win sees Dons leap-frog the Robins into third place, now just five points off Preston in second place with seven games remaining.
With so much riding on the match for both sides, Karl Robinson named his strongest squad available. Without Ben Reeves and Carl Baker, the Dons boss could welcome Dele Alli back after ankle ligament damage had ruled him out since mid-February. Dean Bowditch and Will Grigg also both returned to the starting line-up.
Neither side showed any big game nerves in the opening stages though, and the opening 10 minutes was an early showcase of talents in both shirts.
While Swindon looked to have the early advantage in midfield, Dons began to get on top. Wes Foderingham was tested twice when Will Grigg and then Daniel Powell got in behind the open Robins defence - Powell in particular should have fired Dons into the lead.
There was a huge bone on contention after just 11 minutes though, stemming once again from a dubious refereeing decision, or lack thereof. Sent clean through again, Alli was clearly pushed to the ground by Samuel Ricketts, but referee Paul Tierney waved away Dons’ furious protests. Despite jeers from the home fans, the huge screen broadcasting the match, and replays, quickly silenced them.
Foderingham had to be at his very best to then keep out Grigg once more, as the striker was put through by a sensational pass over the top from Darren Potter, but didn’t have to do anything as Alli then sent a boomer over the bar.
As the game flowed from end-to-end, Nathan Byrne thought he’d put the home side into the lead when he was the man over to latch on to Ben Gladwin’s ball from the left flank. But he didn’t count on Dean Lewington making a block on the goalbound shot as he lay on the ground, head in hands.
Both sides were clearly on top of their games, but everyone inside the County Ground was astonished it was still 0-0 when another Gladwin ball across the face was met this time by John Swift at the far stick, but he sent it wide of the mark as yet another chance went begging.
Referee Tierney’s afternoon was dealt another blunder on the half hour mark when Bowditch’s ball into the danger area looked destined for Grigg eight yards out, though Ricketts again got on the wrong side of the striker and a tangle of legs sent the Dons man to the ground. Once again, nothing was given.
The second half continued in the same vein, with both sides looking increasingly dangerous going forward while open at the back. Despite a string of corners, Swindon didn’t cause a lot to threaten David Martin, while Foderingham was keeping the home side in it as he kept out Carruthers’ free kick with another great stop.
But despite the keeper’s best efforts, there was nothing he could do to prevent Dons taking the lead on the hour mark. Alli waited patiently on the edge of the box for Lee Hodson’s run, the full back’s strike was well hit but saved by Foderingham. But the ball popped up perfectly for Powell who headed calmly into the empty net to put the visitors ahead.
And it got even better for Dons 13 minutes later. Despite Swindon piling forward in a bid to get an equaliser, Dons pounced to make it 2-0 with a superb move worthy of any division. Carruthers launched the counter attack by winning the ball and spinning his man 30 yards from his own net, and unleashing Alli on the left. Alli had Grigg and Carruthers racing up with him, the teenager gave it back to the latter on the edge of the box, who in turn laid it out to Grigg. With his first touch, Grigg bent it left footed into the top corner, leaving Foderingham with no chance but to pick the ball out of the net.
Carruthers was given a standing ovation when he was withdrawn from the action with four minutes remaining, having run himself into the ground while being part of everything Dons did at both ends of the pitch.
Grigg put the icing on the cake with two minutes to go when Hodson over-lapped on the right, sent a low ball into the box, and wasn’t put off by Lewis Baker’s dummy at the near post, easily turning the ball home for Dons’ third.
Referee: Paul Tierney
Attendance: 10,087 (896)
Swindon Town: Foderingham, Branco, Thompson, Turnbull, Byrne, Ricketts (Kasim 62), Stephens, Luongo, Gladwin (Obika 81), Swift (Williams 62), Smith
Subs not used: Belford, Toffolo, Rodgers, Hylton, Obika
MK Dons: Martin, Hodson, Kay, McFadzean, Lewington, Potter, Alli, Bowditch (Baker 75), Carruthers (Spence 86), Powell, Grigg (Cole 90)
Subs not used: Burns, Green, Hall, Hitchcock