Welshman Jermaine Easter celebrated his international recall with the only goal of the game as MK Dons earned a determined win over Walsall at stadiummk.
The Cardiff-born striker, called-up to John Toshack's Wales squad to face Liechtenstein next week, netted his ninth goal of the season from Aaron Doran's 32nd-minute cross to settle a hard-fought encounter against the well-organised Saddlers. It was a performance Dons manager Paul Ince described as less than vintage, but having lost influential defensive duo Dean Lewington and David McCracken to first-half injuries, a win of any sort was welcomed by the Dons faithful.
The extent of both injuries will become clear in the coming days, Lewington's departure to a nasty-looking arm injury looking particularly concerning, but each was somewhat ironic as it came at a time when Ince could finally see light at the end of an injury-jinxed tunnel.
At one time or another, Ince had been without a staggering 16 different members of his squad since the start of the season. Though some longer-term absentees remained sidelined and Stephen Gleeson was on international duty, the returns of Jason Puncheon from suspension and Sam Baldock from international duty had the Dons looking at their strongest so far this term. So strong, in fact, that Mark Carrington, scorer of a wonderful goal against Southend in midweek, was not even among the substitutes.
But it wasn't long before normal treatment room service was resumed - McCracken hobbling off with a hip complaint on 18 minutes after clashing with Troy Deeney and Lewington following him down the tunnel after being caught by the stray boot of Steve Jones. They were changes that seriously disrupted the Dons' rhythm and they might have been behind had Darren Byfield not been so wasteful five minutes in, having exchanged passes superbly with Deeney on the edge of the box.
But with young Southampton loanee Oscar Gobern and evergreen Luke Howell slotting into the defence seamlessly, the Dons started to create a platform. Aaron Doran created the Dons goal for Easter. &nbsp; Howell started their first move of note, his ball down the right played out to Doran via Easter before the on-loan Blackburn winger skipped round full-back Jamie Vincent. Easter was making tracks to create trouble in the box and, when Doran's cutback came towards him, only a Dwayne Mattis intervention prevented a certain goal.
Doran's good work continued as he tricked his way into the area once more to set up Jemal Johnson for a blocked shot, but two minutes later he found the cross he needed. Taking on three Walsall defenders as he came darting into the box, the young Irishman feinted and dummied his way to the byline before fizzing across the goal-line to give Easter a tap-in.
A huge lift for a team stripped of two big performers so early on, but they shouldn't have been in front for more than six minutes. Mathias Doumbe, switched to central defence following McCracken's departure, was just beaten to a high ball by Deeney and Mark Bradley was able to push the ball through to Byfield.
With the whites of Willy Gueret's eyes in his sights, Byfield should have stuck a pin in the Cowshed's optimism, instead Gueret raced out to deflect his shot into the ground and over the bar. It was a fine save from the Dons' French goalkeeper, and he followed it up with another excellent block to deny Bradley from the resulting corner.
The home side showed some promise in the early exchanges of the second half - Easter seeing a shot saved by Rene Gilmartin after a defence-splitting pass by Peter Leven on 57 minutes, but they were unable to piece together the outstanding form that saw them tear Southend apart four days previously. Peter Leven beats Mark Bradley to the ball. &nbsp; At the other end, Byfield continued to look Walsall's most likely source of an equaliser and he forced another good save from Gueret with 17 minutes to go.
Baldock's introduction lifted the Dons' tempo in the final 15 minutes and the England Under-20 international went close to sealing the points when his low drive on 85 minutes shaved the outside of Gilmartin's post. Easter then had the ball in the net from Doumbe's header down, only for the goal to be ruled out for Puncheon's corner swinging out of play.
They were nearly made to rue that when Walsall substitute Sam Parkin headed marginally over from a Peter Till cross. But a third successive clean sheet made it a third straight win for Ince's side, who now climb to fourth in the table.
MK Dons (4-4-2): Gueret; Doumbe, Darren Powell, McCracken (Howell 18), Lewington (c) (O. Gobern 24); Doran, Puncheon, Leven, Johnson (Baldock 75); Wilbraham, Easter. Subs not used: Searle, Ibehre, Morgan, Swailes.
Goals: Easter 32
Walsall (4-4-2): Gilmartin; Weston, Hughes (c), McDonald (Smith 52), Vincent; Jones (Till 74), Mattis, Bradley, Richards; Byfield, Deeney (Parkin 83). Subs not used: Ince, Nicholls, O'Keefe, Westlake. Booked: McDonald, Hughes.
Attendance: 8,919 (424 away)
Referee: Darren Sheldrake (Surrey)