They may know all about swings and roundabouts in Milton Keynes – especially the latter – but although there are 11 matches still to play, this past week could well go down as the time when automatic promotion from League One swung away from the MK Dons and towards Preston North End.
As the home side meandered ineffectively round in circles, a third successive defeat allowed the Lancastrians to pull four points ahead of them in second place with a game in hand.
The Dons dropped to fourth, and even though a play-off place should be comfortably achieved, they will need to regain some form to have any chance of reaching the Championship for the first time in their short history.
A lack of belief may be spreading. The attendance was a disappointing 10,618, which even with a large and vociferous visiting contingent was some 5,000 fewer than for the game against leaders Bristol City last month. Impressive as the stadium may be, that means it was less than half full and the atmosphere suffered accordingly.
The Dons’ star man, midfielder Delle Alli, who has been loaned back to them after costing Tottenham £5 million, was missing, as was the captain Dean Lewington, and all went flat after Preston scored twice in four minutes midway through the second half.
The first goal was a shocking one to concede, when the home side lost possession in their own half and found the opposition bearing down on them with men to spare. Their leading scorer, Joe Garner, fed Callum Robinson for a cool finish low into the far corner of the net. In the next attack, Paul Gallagher’s corner was headed in by Garner.
There was little response, with Preston’s goalkeeper Sam Johnstone not having a shot to save in the whole of the second half. Much earlier, he was required to do a little more than hold a drive by defender Kyle McFadzean from fully 35 yards and hold his breath as a couple of dangerous crosses fizzed across goal with nobody on the end of them.
Striker Devante Cole, son of Andy, and on loan from Manchester City, promised more than he delivered and was taken off even when his team needed goals after falling behind. As the Dons’ manager Karl Robinson pointed out afterwards, Preston’s strength was emphasised by being able to bring on substitutes with the experience of Kevin Davies and Jermaine Beckford.
Not that he was making excuses, admitting: “The second half was men against boys. We looked weak in every area. This is as low as it gets and now it’s time to claw our way out of it.”
Milton Keynes Dons: (4-4-2) McLoughlin; Spence (Green, 81), McFadzean, Kay, Walsh; C Baker, Potter, Carruthers, Bowditch (Powell, 62); Grigg, Cole (Reeves, 73).
Preston North End: (4-4-2) Johnstone; Clarke, Wright, Huntington, Laird; Humphrey (Beckford, 86), Welsh, Robinson, Johnson; Gallagher, Garner (Davies, 86).
Referee: Lee Probert.
Man of the match: Johnson (Preston)
Match rating: 5/10Reuse content