Pete Winkelman raised a lot of eyebrows when he chose Roberto di Matteo to lead the newly promoted Dons into League One territory.
Let’s not forget this was a team forged by one of the best defensive midfielders this country has ever seen. To go for a Chelsea Legend reknowned for his flair and technical prowess was a surprise, especially since di Matteo has effectively slipped off of the footballing radar.
Still, Pete loves a big name, and no doubt perfectly qualified contenders such as Ian Holloway were overlooked for the glamorous appointment of Roberto di Matteo.
The lack of preseason organization was derided, and a terrible preseason led into a first game of the season against a Leicester City side playing in the third tier for the first time.
The Dons, devoid of any direction, lost out 2-0 to a vastly superior Leicester City. They were a complete polarization of the Dons; their new manager Nigel Pearson had clearly pumped a ruthless aggression into their side, big Steve Howard dominating physically at the top, allowing his pacey teammates to exploit any holes in the Dons defence. Dons target man Aaron Wilbraham hardly had a touch of the ball all game.
The fans listening to Five Live on the way home were treated to an embarrassed sounding di Matteo trying to shrug off the result.
One thing was for sure, with two home games coming up in the next seven days he needed to get the team working quickly.
He started from the back. Both results involved the Dons keeping a clean sheet. Norwich came to stadium: MK in the League Cup, and a great defensive display kept the Canaries out. Sam Baldock’s strike was the only goal of the game as the Dons progressed to round two.
The other fixture was the visit of Northampton town, for the first time ever. Three thousand away fans filled the North Stand, but the Cobblers failed to get past the determined pair of Sean O’ Hanlon and Danny Swailes. Wilbraham netted his first as the Dons got their first three points of the season.
It was the springboard for some great form. Come December the top of the table had MK Dons etched comfortably in the top two.
Then came the 28th of February. Top of the table Leicester, more than 20 games unbeaten, came to Milton Keynes as the Dons looked to cut down their lead at the top of League One. It was a true first versus second tie, end to end. Matty Fryatt, now with more than 30 goals under his belt, gave the Foxes the lead after just six minutes, but two goals from now talismanic midfielder Peter Leven meant the Dons took a lead into injury team.
What followed was farcical. Nine minutes of injury team were played, allowing Max Gradel to put a sweet free kick past Willy Gueret, and snatch a point for Leicester.
Cue amazing scenes from the Leicester bench. Nigel Pearson celebrated madly with his coaching staff. Perhaps the relief shown on the Foxes bench was testament to the class of di Matteo’s team, testament to how worried the Italian’s free flowing team had gotten Pearson.
That leads us, rather unfortunately, to a bit of March madness from the Dons. What started with a failure to close out games against the far inferior Swindon and Huddersfield, finished with a string of very disappointing results.
Defeat at the hands of promotion rivals Millwall, failure to beat lowly Crewe and Yeovil, and defeat at the hands of a resurgent Leeds United meant the Dons ended March with just one win, over a very out-of-form Oldham Athletic.
April had to offer better form, and, to be fair to di Matteo, it did. Four straight wins put the Dons in a head to head race with Peterborough United for the last promotion place, Leicester City? Long Gone and already celebrating promotion.
The Dons failed to live with the pressure, and defeat at home to a poor Walsall side meant Peterborough joined Leicester in securing a place in the Championship next season.
Di Matteo has been left to prepare for the playoffs, and in the last two games the team has performed well enough to effectively relegate Northampton with a 1-0 win on their patch, and secure the same scoreline away to already relegated Hereford.
To finish third, and set up a two-legged tie with Scunthorpe is, in reality, a fantastic season, and better than most could have hoped for, especially after the bleak start.
The big question is though, just how good has the gaffer been? Well quite frankly, some of his decisions have raised some serious questions.
His reliance on scoring more than once to win a game isn’t really arguable when you look at the season as a whole, but a special mention to those last two games has to surface, and hopefully give the back four some confidence against Scunthorpe.
His persistence to keep picking Shaun Cummings is admirable, the Chelsea loanee has been struggling all season, but the boss has remained faithful to the right-back, especially considering the good performances of Luke Howell, who surely must have his eyes on the position.
He seems to still see something in Tore Andre Flo too; despite the Norwegians failure to get a goal all season. He’s made some bad decisions, that’s for sure, but can we really have forgotten all the good decisions?
Luke Chadwick is famous across the country, not just for failing to be the most glamorous of footballers, but for his incredible talent that saw Sir Alex Ferguson pick him for several years at Old Trafford.
Getting him, first on loan and then on a free in January, was a masterstroke by the Dons’ Don. Chadwick is a local lad and will inspired to prove his worth to Milton Keynes.
Jason Puncheon was another fantastic coup. Puncheon was one of the players who came to Milton Keynes with Wimbledon when they moved. He was a bit of a fan favourite back then, but attitude problems saw him fall out with Danny Wilson and eventually he was released.
Paul Fairclough sorted him out, and Puncheon made the League Two team of the year last season, attracting the interest of Plymouth Argyle in the process.
Argyle took him on, but he fell out of favour with boss Paul Sturrock after the Devon side hit some poor form. He was shipped to Milton Keynes on loan, and he’s repaid the Dons fans second welcome with incredible performance.
Indeed, when he’s on the ball, it doesn’t look like he’s ever going to lose it, see Brighton away back in last December if you really need more proof of this kid’s ability.
Perhaps the biggest and best decision of all by di Matteo however, was to be the first manager in Milton Keynes to show some confidence in local lad Sam Baldock.
Sure, the youngster has been far from prolific, but he’s shown bags and bags of quality since been given his run in the first team.
A defender’s worst nightmare, he will chase the boy all day long, move into channels, and generally cause a nuisance whenever he can.
If Sam Baldock can hit his better form in the playoffs, the Dons will be at Wembley come the end of May. When Baldock shines, he scores, braces against Millwall and Colchester prove that.
It’s when he’s forced onto the wings, when he’s made to run into a dead end, that’s when the team struggles as a whole.
It wouldn’t be right to say he’s the heartbeat of the team, that honour has to lie with Peter Leven at the moment, but Sam Baldock is, when he’s on song, the difference maker.
Di Matteo has some big decisions to make ahead of the playoffs it seems. Firstly, Luke Chadwick’s fitness has been to and fro since the new year, do you risk him in both ties, or save him for stadium:MK? Mark Wright has had a run in the team of late, whilst Jemal Johnson has been sublime all year, and whilst it is a good problem to have, it’s a problem nonetheless.
Secondly, if Ali Gerba is fit, just who will he play up front. He seems to stick with Baldock no matter what. Wilbraham has 16 goals, but Gerba is by far in better form.
And lastly, the infamous right-back problem. Shaun Cummings is fully fit again after short appearances against Northampton and Hereford, and will most definitely be considered for the slot against Scunthorpe.
That said, Luke Howell nabbed his first professional goal against Hereford and will want to feature, whilst Carl Regan, who has been filling in for Cummings, has been impressive.
Whoever di Matteo opts for, the side needs to step up for the big occasion, they can’t afford another performance like that against Walsall, they just won’t be good enough if they freeze like that again.
Most importantly of all however, the back four needs to keep its unity even under the sort of hard pressure they were under against Northampton last week.
Scunthorpe proved they have the mental strength when they sealed their playoff spot late in the game against Tranmere. Now Roberto di Matteo needs to somehow inspire his side to do the same. Cummings or no Cummings, Regan or no Regan.
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