MK Dons pulled themselves back into the promotion pack and dented Tranmere Rovers’ lead at the top of League 1 with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Prenton Park on Friday night.
Rovers have been in impressive form all season, but the Dons showed their mettle in a dominant performance at the League leaders’ home and it was thanks to a scrappy Stephen Gleeson goal three minutes from time that Karl Robinson’s men went home victorious.
The Dons had seen chances galore fail to crack the Rovers defence, yet the late showing would have pleased Karl Robinson with the win sending the Dons into second place, although results on Saturday afternoon will change the standing come the end of the weekend.
The night was always going to be billed as a big game with Rovers boosting top of the League status going head-to-head with promotion hopefuls MK Dons. It had clearly captured the imagination of Rovers fans, added by an excellent ticket deal, as they packed out their home end.
While Rovers have been free-scoring this term, the Dons have proven to be the meanest defence in the League which set the tie up to be a close and edgy encounter.
The Dons had a golden opportunity in the eighth minute when a long hopeful ball from Shaun Williams caught out Ash Taylor as the defender knocked the loose ball into the path of Ryan Lowe, who had acres of space around him, yet as Owain Fon Williams was expecting to pick the ball out of the net he saw the early chance flash past the far post.
Rovers’ earliest chance came 60 seconds later when a Adam McGurk free-kick was curled into the box and flicked-on by Jake Cassidy, but Jake Jervis could not steer the ball home at David Martin’s near post.
In midweek Williams netted a sensational 35-yard strike against Cambridge City in the FA Cup and the Irishman tried his luck once more however, thunderbolts rarely strike twice as the midfield-turned-defender quickly learned while his effort rose into the stands.
While many would approach the dangerous Rovers side with caution, the Dons did the exact opposite and looked to reap the rewards for their bold style. Full-back Jon Otsemobor broke down the right and was brought down, yet Luke Chadwick continued the hunt to cut the ball back. The initial shot was blocked and Darren Potter was unfortunate to see his follow-up fall wide.
McGurk could have fired the hosts into the lead soon after when he raced down the left, turned inside the box and curled a decent effort past the right of the goal.
Dons, however, were creating their own good chances in front of goal and making the Super Whites fans nervous as skipper Dean Lewington curled in a fine free-kick, following a trip on Lowe, only to see Fon Williams tip the delivery over the bar.
Rovers were on the back foot, but it was an all-too-familiar story for the Dons as their dominance failed to show in the score line with Stephen Gleeson and Chadwick watching shots blocked, with the former also firing over from the edge of the box.
A sign of how attack-minded the Dons were came when Lewington pushed forward to play a one-two with Lowe before drilling a low shot at Fon Williams.
As half-time approached the home side had a late surge of possession but with little reward with the sides on level terms at the break.
With the Dons winning the battle in midfield the interval allowed Moore to re-address his team and the re-start brought the introduction of Danny Harrison, to sit in front of the back four, in place of strike Jervis.
As a result of the switch Liam Palmer was looking to play in a more advanced role which saw him weave his way through the defence before calling on Williams to make an excellent block in front of Martin to prevent the hosts from taking the lead.
The tactical change appeared to work for Moore’s side as it broke up the fluency that the Dons had demonstrated in the opening 45 minutes, so Robinson opted to make his first substitute of the match. Recognising a physical presence was missing up front Alan Smith took the place of Lowe to lead the line while Chadwick provided support.
It was the Dons’ goalie who was tested next though, with Martin called into action to parry clear a low effort from James Wallace.
The game was still flowing in Rovers’ favour so Daniel Powell, returning from a spell on the sidelines, entered the fray looking to use his raw pace and power to the visitors’ advantage.
Dons went close to finally breaking the deadlock in the 69th minute when a fine corner from Bowditch caused disarray in the Rovers box, allowing Lewington to flash a header goal-bound but a Tranmere marker on the line proved to be in the right place at the right time to clear.
Robinson’s side were throwing everything at Rovers with Tranmere old-boy Antony Kay also venturing forward to brush through midfield, only to send a wayward shot over.
Rovers had a spell of pressure to no prevail, and when the Dons broke they looked likely to score as Otsemobor and Bowditch linked up well on the edge of the area before the Dons forward watched his low effort deflect wide.
The deadlock was eventually broken in the 87th minute when Bowditch’s work-rate for the evening was finally rewarded as he found space down the left and was able to cut the ball back from the byline, but as Chadwick tried to get on the end of it he clashed with the ‘keeper Fon Williams and Gleeson arrived in time to turn in the loose ball.
As the final whistle blew, the Dons’ celebrations showed what a huge result three points at Prenton Park could prove to be over the season.
The Dons, who have played three games in ten days, will return to action on Tuesday night when they travel to Shrewsbury Town.
Tranmere Rovers: Fon Williams, Holmes, Taylor, Gibson, Bakayogo, Robinson, Wallace (c), Palmer, McGurk (Stockton 90), Cassidy, Jervis (Harrison 46).
Subs not used: Mooney (GK), M Kay, Goodison, Power, Kirby
Booked: Cassidy, Jervis
MK Dons (4-2-3-1): Martin; Otsemobor, A Kay, Williams, Lewington (c); Gleeson, Potter; Bowditch, Chadwick (Kouo-Doumbe 90), Balanta (Powell 65); Lowe (Smith 54).
Subs not used: McLoughlin (GK), Chicksen, Powell, O’Shea, Sekajja.
Goal: Gleeson 87
Referee: M Naylor (South Yorkshire)