Ask anyone in the stadium last night and you’ll be told the same thing; the better team lost.
That’s not taking anything away from Milton Keynes, they also played well and contributed to what was a fine game of football. They got a good early goal and certainly kept us on our toes throughout the first period.
In the second half, one team wanted to win and the other did not want to get beat. We managed 26 shots, seven on target and yet couldn’t break through the resolute defence. One thing I’ve always felt about Paul Tisdale sides is that they’re tight at the back; perhaps not so tight they stopped shots, but tight enough not to conceded goals.
The big team news revolved around Cian Bolger and I guess some fans will believe we should have kept the back four the same as the Southend game. After all, Cian had played four and conceded none, yet the first minute without him on the pitch we let in a goal. It was sloppy too, wasn’t it? It’s rare we don’t start a game switched on, but just like Mansfield last season we were undone by still being in the dressing room.
After that, I thought we got back into the match really well. Tyler Walker proved he’s going to be the striker fans hoped we’d sign every season for the last decade; one who can score 20 goals. He’s already on two and this was his first from open play. It was a smart finish, that of a player with confidence. He spent lots of the early exchanges looking a little isolated against MK’s three at the back, but he never stopped working.
The game would likely have swung our way if not for a huge stroke of bad luck. They got back in front with a wicked deflection which seemingly had fans in uproar. Some felt that the initial challenge by Williams was a free-kick, suggesting he climbed on Neal Eardley to win the header. I’ve seen them given, in fact at other moments last night I saw decisions jut as debatable given, but in truth it would have been harsh.
When the drive came back into the area, Williams was laid in an offside position. The ball deflected off him and into the back of the net. Danny wasn’t happy, our players weren’t happy and looking back I can see why. However, these things do even themselves out and I wouldn’t lay the blame for the defeat with the referee or his linesman, who should have spotted it. I’ll be vocal if it keeps happening, but I’d rather have the ambiguity than VAR.
For the record, if VAR had been in play last night, it would still have been 1-1. After that, who knows? What would also have happened is three minutes of deliberation and us still playing at around half ten. VAR? No thanks.
After that, it was clear MK were protecting their lead and they shrank further back, with us piling on the pressure. The ball moved from left to right, backwards and forwards, all the time us looking to unlock their back five. I thought by the time the half time whistle came it was fair to call it an even first half despite the score and looked forward to a second that brought more goals.
Jack Payne was an obvious one to highlight as a key player in the opening exchanges, but Tyler Walker did very well too. He didn’t get a lot of change out of those defenders, Regan Poole in particular caught my eye, but he never stopped trying to get the better of them. I suppose that is a prerequisite of being a footballer, but I’ve seen players easily get frustrated with a tactic or the attention of too many defenders. Walker didn’t, he kept on pushing forward.
The second half wasn’t so much of a contest as a battle of wills. Despite having played less football than us this season, MK looked to get very leggy and tired. We didn’t, we kept playing our passing game, probing for openings and looking for a way back into proceedings. Jorge Grant looked hungry, getting a strike away within minutes of the restart. He’s growing into the team with each outing and when Bruno came on to find a way through the eleven-man wall, Grant looked just as creative through the centre.
Harry Toffolo, Steve Thompson’s Man of the Match, was incredible busy up and down the left flank and he set up Jack Payne who lashed over. It felt like Payne’s night, he was as industrious and available as ever, always wanting the ball and always desperate to get a shot or a pass off. Mickey, Bruno and Joe Morrell all had efforts saved, deflected or blocked as we poured forward.
MK did look dangerous on the break, Kieran Agard’s pace certainly gave them an outlet every so often, but the second half made us look much like the home team. They were hanging on to the three points with their fingertips as we kept punching, hoping for a knockdown. They always say as these games tick away that you get one chance; one last chance.
Ours came right at the death, Joe Morrell finding the head of Jason Shackell who looped a header at goal. It bounced back off the crossbar and within seconds, the whistle went as did our 100% record.
I recall playing MK Dons back in 2006/07 at Sincil Bank. We lost 3-2 and I left the ground almost happy. I’m never happy when we lose, never, (okay, I wasn’t unhappy after Colchester last season, but that’s different) but that afternoon in 2006 I knew I’d seen a side capable of beating anyone on their day, undone by a strong opponent. To a degree, I felt the same again last night. Sure, a defeat stung and of course, I wanted to see us at least grab a point, but it was refreshing to know we’ve come away from a loss as the better team.
Danny doesn’t see it that way, he was scathing in his criticism after the game, angry at the sloppy goals and refusing to label it a good performance as we’d lost. He’s a perfectionist and he knows we could have come away from the game with our record intact. Listening to Danny made me wonder if I might be angry, especially when you consider we had 26 shots. Surely, from 26 efforts, we should have scored more than one, right?
If this had been a fourth league game without a win, or we’d been in the middle of the pack, maybe I’d feel differently. I just can’t help but think we need to take the positives from this; we never stopped trying to find a way through and we were certainly the better side. Paul Tisdale said after the game he thought we’d evolved massively since we first crossed swords and anyone who saw the two legs against Exeter in the play-offs in 2018 would have to agree; back then we didn’t have a potent attacking threat, but now we do. We are evolving and changing but we’re never going to win every game.
What we must do, all the time, is attempt to win every game. It sounds obvious, but at times last season we retreated from a winning position and tried not to get beat, much as MK did last night. There’s no shame in that, it worked for us with the squad we had, but when you’re losing you have to look like you’re going to do something about it. I feel this season, as exemplified last night, we have the means to win games against resolute and stoic defences. I felt at times last season, Cambridge and Northampton being case points, we didn’t quite have the tools to do the job.
Ironic really, that a game in which we’ve failed to break down a bank of eleven is the game I feel showed that we have the means to do just that. The exception proves the rule and all that.
SW Man of the Match: Jack Payne