THEY had to wait 87 minutes for it, but MK Dons got the goal they deserved to beat Tranmere Rovers and move one place behind them at the top of League 1.
Karl Robinson’s men were exceptional at Prenton Park, but it looked destined to be another win that slipped through their fingers until Stephen Gleeson’s late tap-in settled the contest.
Throwing everything they had at the hosts, Dons should have been out of sight by half time, but after Tranmere fought their way back into it in the second half, Gleeson’s winner was no less than their superb play – and 22 efforts on goal – deserved.
The Tranmere fans enjoyed singing about being top of the league, but their side were completely outplayed on the night, and Dons’ victory moves them to within five points of Ronnie Moore’s men – albeit just for a few hours.
Dons welcomed back Jon Otsemobor, Darren Potter, Luke Chadwick and Angelo Balanta from Tuesday night’s win against Cambridge City, while winger Daniel Powell – who hadn’t featured since limping off against Scunthorpe United last month – returned to the bench. Charlie MacDonald didn’t even make the squad.
Doing well to quieten a boisterous Tranmere crowd, Dons made their attacking intentions clear from the off. Knocking the ball around at their best, they were a joy to watch, with Chadwick picking the ball up in the middle of the park, turning, and providing countless opportunities going forward.
A couple of days before his 32nd birthday, Chadwick was also making his 200th Dons appearance, and Tranmere couldn’t live with him. The visitors always had options in attack, but just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net.
Dons should have opened the scoring after seven minutes when Shaun Williams’ long ball forward was horribly missed by Ash Taylor, but when one-on-one with keeper Owain Fon Williams, Ryan Lowe bent his shot wide of the far post. The striker almost had too much time to think about it, but certainly should have scored.
And the visitors had another decent chance five minutes later when Chadwick produced a good turn of pace to beat two defenders before trying to bend the ball into the far corner – forcing Fon Williams into a good save.
Potter was the next to have the Tranmere keeper worried when his dipping strike from outside the penalty area flew inches wide of his right-hand post. Despite the home fans doing their best to rouse their side, the Dons chances kept on coming – Dean Lewington the next to force Fon Williams into a good save as he tipped the defender’s free-kick over the bar.
Pressing high up the pitch, Dons gave Tranmere very little time on the ball, but the league leaders did remain a threat going forward, particularly with the division’s leading scorer, Jake Cassidy, floating around up front. However, the closest the on-loan Wolves striker came to an 11th goal of the season was a scuffed effort from a James Wallace cross when under pressure.
Wallace then had a go at goal himself, but his half-volley flew high and wide past David Martin’s goal. Back at the other end and a good through ball from Lowe found a rampaging Lewington who could only fire straight at Fon Williams, before Chadwick bent another curling effort wide of target.
Dons looked set to end the half with another glorious one-on-one chance, but Dean Bowditch’s almost perfectly-timed run towards goal was stopped by the linesman’s flag after Otsemobor’s superb defence-splitting pass.
It was one-way traffic in the first half, but frustratingly, Dons had nothing to show for their dominance, other than 14 efforts on goal. If Tranmere had been 3-0 down, they could have had no complaints.
Attacking towards their favoured Kop in the second half, Tranmere made a change at the break with ineffective striker Jake Jervis – on loan from Birmingham – replaced by midfielder Danny Harrison as Moore switched his system to add more bodies in the middle of the park.
And with the fans behind the goal in great voice, Tranmere looked like a different side after the break – Liam Palmer causing panic in the Dons penalty area when his shot was deflected.
Dons were almost in again when Williams’ well-spotted ball over the top was almost collected by Potter who would have found himself through on goal. But with Chadwick’s influence on the game slightly diminished in a more crowded midfield, Robinson went for a change up front as Alan Smith replaced Lowe.
Martin was forced into his first meaningful save of the night when he kept out a long-range strike from Wallace on the hour mark. Suddenly it was Tranmere forcing the issue.
Robinson made his second change when Balanta – probably the one Dons player to have a quiet night – was replaced by Powell. And Dons were next to go close when Bowditch forced a corner out of Fon Williams after a good one-two with Smith on the edge of the area. From the resulting corner, Lewington’s effort was cleared off the line by Harrison.
With a quarter of an hour left to play, Dons still looked the more likely to score – Williams producing a good burst forward to get the next shot on target, before Antony Kay fired well over the bar.
A pretty frantic contest was briefly paused when Martin took a knock to the head from Cassidy as he chased the ball down towards goal, marshalled by Williams. And when play restarted Dons had another glorious chance, but Bowditch’s low drive from the edge of the area was deflected just wide.
Dons showed fantastic energy to keep going at Tranmere looking for the winner they deserved – and in the 87th minute they finally got it. Bowditch, who had been superb all night, did well to dig out a cross and fire the ball across the face of goal, and Gleeson was the man to get the decisive touch to beat a stranded Fon Williams.
Tranmere won their first corner of the game two minutes from time as they threw everything they had forward in search of an equaliser. In response Robinson made his third change with the outstanding Chadwick replaced by Mathias Doumbe, while the hosts brought on Cole Stockton for Adam McGurk in a last-ditch attempt to find a goal.
They couldn’t find it though, and Dons held on to pick up all three points – on the sort of night that league champions are made.
Tranmere: Fon Williams, Holmes, Taylor, Bakayogo, Gibson, Palmer, Wallace, Robinson, Cassidy, McGurk (Stockton 90), Jervis (Harrison 46)
Subs not used: Mooney, Goodison, Kay, Kirby, Power,
MK Dons: Martin, Otsemobor, Lewington, Kay, Williams, Gleeson, Potter, Chadwick (Doumbe 89), Bowditch, Lowe (Smith 58), Balanta (Powell 64)
Subs not used: McLoughlin, Chicksen, O’Shea, Sekajja
Booked: Gibson, Jervis, Smith
Referee: Michael Naylor