MK Dons closed the gap in the race for the League 1 play-offs as they came from behind to comfortably beat struggling Stockport.
Goals from Jermaine Easter, Aaron Wilbraham and a first in Dons colours for Andros Townsend rendered George Donnelly early opener markedly insignificant. But it was only thanks to goalkeeper Willy Gueret that the Dons were able to prevail, after the Frenchman critically prevented Donnelly doubling Stockport's lead from the penalty spot.
It was arguably the game's defining moment, a notion amplified by former County man Easter wiping out the advantage just two minutes later with his 17th goal of the season. And despite missing a string of glaring chances before the break, the visitors rarely looked back after Wilbraham delightfully curled them in front on 57. Comfortable though the win eventually was, it came at a price for Ince's men, with top-scorer Easter collecting a 10th booking of the season and key defender David McCracken suffering a calf strain.
Easter will subsequently miss Tuesday's Johnstone's Paint Trophy crunch at Southampton and next week's trip to Carlisle. McCracken's fate, while not so certain, is likely to be at least equal. With Mathias Doumbe and Darren Powell both injured, it leaves the Dons frightfully short on central defensive cover, though Danny Woodards, filling in alongside McCracken from the start, again showed ample ability to deputise.
It wasn't an easy start for anyone on a pitch better-suited to show-jumping than football, but Stockport, without Dons loaness Jemal Johnson and Jabo Ibehre, but fielding former Dons Danny Swailes and Richie Partridge,&nbsp;predictably adapted quicker. Making his league debut on loan from Plymouth, Donnelly had already seen an angled drive well-blocked by Gueret in the opening few minutes.
But the Frenchman had no chance with his next shot - curled over the Dons 'keeper's reach from 20 yards after smart work from Partridge. Peter Leven and Stephen Gleeson were outstanding in the Dons midfield. It should have got worse nine minutes later when Woodards stretched to prevent Donnelly going clear, only to be judged to have clipped the lively forward in the process. Referee Jock Waugh deemed it inside the box, but Gueret's heroics denied Donnelly a second.
Tails up after that reprieve, the visitors typically levelled with their next attack - Peter Leven's corner retrieved and crossed by Dean Lewington from the right and Easter smashing home after Owain Fon Williams had kept out his initial header. Gueret had to deny Donnelly from range on 33 minutes, but the Dons were seizing control and should have been home and hosed by the break. Dons players celebrate Jermaine Easter's equaliser.
First Sam Baldock was denied by Johnny Mullins' last-ditch tackle after being sent clear by Easter, before another Easter centre was fired straight at Fon Williams by the off-balance Wilbraham. Easter then wasted two of his own - slicing wildly off target after great work from the elusive Townsend and then thwarted by Fon Williams after being sent clear by Leven's defence-splitting pass.
But the Dons' control on proceedings was becoming increasingly evident - Wilbraham causing more and more problems for former team-mate Swailes and the Hatters' defence with his trademark clever hold-up play while Leven and the outstanding Stephen Gleeson bossed the midfield area.
And on 57 minutes it was former Stockport man Wilbraham that edged the Dons in front with a piece of quality that defied the treacherous surface beneath him. Seizing on a Johnny Mullins mistake in the inside left channel, Wilbraham showed great presence of mind to slip inside the desperate Paul Huntington and curl a measured 18-yard show beyond the despairing reach of Fon Williams. A fifth goal in five games at Edgeley Park since the 30-year-old striker left Stockport six years ago. It left the hosts' flimsy confidence shot.
Townsend's reward for a lively performance came with 16 minutes remaining, the on-loan Spurs winger turning full-back Mat Sadler well before crashing into the top corner from 14 yards. And it could have been more had substitute Dean Morgan's powerful drive found the inside rather than the outside of the post. But a win will have pleased Ince ahead of Tuesday's trip to St Mary's, especially given that only one of the seven sides above them managed to register three points.
Now they turn their attention to fighting for a Wembley place, albeit without some key personnel.
Stockport County (4-4-2): Fon Williams; Mullins (c), Huntington, Swailes, Sadler; Partridge (Pilkington 72), Tansey, Perkins, Griffin; Donnelly, Poole (Vincent 79).
Subs not used: Gerrard, Barnes, Turnbull, Darkwah.
Goals: Donnelly 11 Booked: Mullins, Sadler, Pilkington
MK Dons (4-4-2): Gueret; Howell, Woodards, McCracken (Stirling 46), Lewington (c); Baldock (Gobern 79), Gleeson, Leven, Townsend; Easter (Morgan 75), Wilbraham.
Subs not used: Carrington, Davis, Randall, Flanagan.
Goals: Easter 23, Wilbraham 57, Townsend 74
Booked: Easter, Woodards, Townsend, Gobern
Attendance: 3,720 (229 away)
Referee: Jock Waugh (South Yorkshire)