There is more than meets the eye to Dons' defeat to Bolton
Losing 1-0 to the team bottom of the league and still in negative points only tells half the story of Dons' trip to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the headlines ultimately do tell the most important facts, but while many who weren't there may be hitting the panic button, the 306 away fans in attendance will have seen the best MK Dons performance for several months. It's just a shame it wasn't at Stadium MK.
Bolton's season cannot be judged on their league position. Starting the season harboured with a 12-point deduction, no senior players and days away from folding entirely, they limped through the opening stages of the season with their youth section just to keep the club ticking. A rescue mission gave them a few quid to rub together, hunting down free agents to try to help them out of their troubles, and after a period of stability, are finally finding their feet. And now, with three consecutive wins, Bolton Wanderers are League One's in-form club.
But until the 66th minute and George Williams' red card, Dons were more than a match for their opponents, and in fact, should have been in front. Remi Matthews got something on the impressive Joe Mason's effort in the first half, diverting it onto the post, though the striker - incidentally the last man to score a league hat-trick for Bolton - should have done better with a strike in the second half which he ballooned into the stands.
Mason was perhaps something of a forgotten man in the early stages of the season when Dons were doing fairly well. Rhys Healey and Sam Nombe were leading the line capably, with support from Kieran Agard and Jordan Bowery. But with injury and suspension, Mason's absence became more load-bearing. Making his first start for the club though, he showed what he can do. Lively, clever and tricky, Mason looks to be an answer to the questions many have been asking about Dons' front line.
And whatever Russell Martin told Jordan Bowery, it worked because he put in his best performance in an MK Dons shirt.Callum Brittain looks a strong candidate for Player of the Year already after an excellent show in midfield, and Joe Walsh too stood up to questioning - not that many can have questioned his form this season. Early signs are that Jordan Moore-Taylor's injury, which saw him leave the field in the first half, is not a long-term one.
Simply put, Dons were better than they've been for a long time. They had a purpose, a direction, a route to goal, and a bit of self-belief. But that all changed when Williams was sent off.
It's hard to single out one player or an incident which fundamentally changes a game, but when Mr Reliable caught Thibaud Verlinden in the face in front of the referee, it altered the course. Dons were just beginning to get on top again, but it gave Bolton a drop of blood in the water and a sense that they could snatch more than a draw. Piling forwards, Dons looked like they were going to hold on, especially when Lee Nicholls made yet another penalty save to keep out Daryl Murphy. The striker though, would break their resolve in stoppage time - just two minutes after his penalty miss - snatching the headlines, altering the message many will have gleaned from the result and the result alone.
Martin's influence on the side was clear on Saturday. Changes have been gradually coming in during his first two games, but they all came together at Bolton. He has called for more composure on the ball, a bit more confidence in front of goal and belief that if things do turn, they can get out of trouble. And it all appeared to be there or thereabouts on Saturday.
Results though are what matter. Results are what everyone turns to, what will decide games, and will sway people's opinions whether they have seen the game or not. And even if confidence elsewhere has dropped, the 306 who made it to Bolton will have reason to be confident things can turn around.