MK Dons ended 2019 in superb style, beating in-form Portsmouth 3-1 at Stadium MK.
Rhys Healey opened the scoring with a well-taken goal on 35 minutes with Conor McGrandles doubling the lead before half-time courtesy of a stunning curling strike.
Alex Gilbey then made the game safe in the closing stages with a chipped finish, as Russell Martin’s secured their third straight home victory and moved level on points with 21st in the Sky Bet League One table.
Healey made his first start in almost four months as one of three changes made by boss Martin. There was also a return for George Williams, who had been out since November due to suspension, while the other switch saw David Kasumu replace Ben Reeves in midfield.
MK Dons made a composed start and it was one of their additions to the line-up who won them an early free-kick, five yards from the edge of the area. The striker took the free-ick himself but saw his low effort blocked by the Pompey wall.
Portsmouth threatened for the first time soon after. First, Ben Close had a drive blocked by Conor McGrandles, then midfield partner Andy Cannon sailed the rebound harmlessly over Lee Nicholls’ goal.
A vital piece of defending from Kasumu, inside his own box, denied the visitors on their next attack. In the opposition penalty area, Joe Mason wiggled free of his marker but couldn’t pick out a teammate with a chipped cross.
On 11 minutes, Ellis Harrison flashed wide with a shot on the turn, 18 yards from goal. Houghton then got himself in the way of a try from Marcus Harness, following a Portsmouth corner.
The best chance of the opening quarter of an hour came courtesy of the right boot of Harness, whose fierce drive provided a test for Nicholls, who stood up to the challenge with a low save down to his right.
Controversy struck with 21 minutes played as referee Leigh Doughty awarded an in-direct free-kick on the edge of the six-yard box for what he deemed to be a handball by Nicholls from a Walsh pass-back.
The Welshman didn’t appear to deliberately play the ball back while the spot of the foul was questioned by the men in white. Fortunately, though, the Dons saw out the free-kick, courtesy of a wall the length of the goalmouth.
The danger wasn’t truly over, however, as Pompey came back on the attack once again. A loose ball fell to midfielder Cannon on the left corner of the box and he fired a fierce half-volley just a yard wide of the far post.
Portsmouth definitely looked the more threatening of the two sides heading into the break but on 35 minutes that all changed.
Houghton did brilliantly, initially, in the middle of the park to win possession before playing a pass over the top for Healey to chase. James Bolton got his head to the ball but that only diverted it into Healey’s path and the striker made no mistake when one-on-one with Craig MacGillivray, confidently placing his effort past the Pompey goalkeeper on the full. 1-0.
The Dons went straight back on the attack and Gilbey had a shot deflect just past the post following a marauding run through the centre of the park. The midfielder went close again moments later, with a dipping drive which bounced wide of the target.
Martin’s men did, though, manage to double their lead three minutes before half-time, courtesy of a stunning curling strike from McGrandles.
Lewington started the move with an outside-of-the-boot pass over to Healey, who, in turn, played a ball inside to Mason. Naylor stuck a foot in to intercept the ball but that carried it through McGrandles who, 20 yards from goal, didn’t hesitate before curling home into the top right-hand corner of the net. 2-0.
The Dons maintained their lead through until half-time and then went close to extending it within a minute into the second period – Gilbey, afforded space on the edge of the area, producing a fingertip save from MacGillivray with a right-footed drive. Gilbey tried his luck again, three minutes later, but this time couldn’t keep his effort down.
At the other end, substitute John Marquis went close for Pompey, but saw his shot saved by Nicholls. The MK Dons number one produced another excellent stop from the resulting corner, keeping out Ronan Curtis’ far post effort at point-blank range.
The Dons responded and thought they had a third when Healey’s glanced header was diverted towards goal by a Pompey defender, who managed to get enough on the ball to take it wide of goal. From the resulting corner, MacGillivray smothered a loose ball at the feet of Healey, inside the six-yard box.
Martin went to the bench for the first time on 67 minutes, replacing Healey with Nombe in attack. The boss had his goalkeeper to thank for keeping the two-goal advantage in tact a minute later, as Nicholls pulled off a sublime diving save to deny Harness what would have been a stunning goal.
Brittain almost had himself a cracker on 71 minutes but lifted his right-footed shot over from the edge of the area. Portsmouth then threatened again from a Gareth Evans corner, which was flicked on to an unmarked Curtis, who failed to hit the target from close range.
The Dons maintained their attacking mindset and saw Kasumu curl a right-footed shot into the arms of MacGillivray from 20 yards out. Martin’s second substitution was made shortly after – Agard on for Mason.
Houghton headed over from a Lewington corner with 12 minutes to play, shortly before Gilbey fired wide, as MK Dons looked for a third goal to put the game to bed.
That third goal arrived with five minutes to play and it came courtesy of the red-hot Gilbey. Nombe won possession on the half-way line before threading a pass through to the MK Dons number 8, who raced into the area before lifting a delicate chip over MacGillivray and into the Cowshed net. 3-0.
Portsmouth grabbed a goal late on through Ronan Curtis – a header which keeps the Dons inside the relegation zone due to goal difference. However, they go into the New Year with a renewed sense of confidence that their time in the bottom three may, soon, be over. 3-1.
MK Dons: Nicholls, Williams, Lewington, Walsh, Gilbey, Healey (Nombe 67), McGrandles, Mason (Agard 78), Houghton, Brittain, Kasumu
Subs: Moore, Poole, Cargill, Reeves, Boateng
Goals: Healey (35), McGrandles (42), Gilbey (85)
Booked: McGrandles, Walsh
Portsmouth: MacGillivray, Walkes, Naylor, Burgess, Curtis, Bolton, Cannon (Pitman 71), Harness (Evans 71) Raggett, Harrison (Marquis 46), Close
Subs: Bass, Downing, Hawkins, Mnoga
Goal: Curtis (90+3)
Booked: Harness, Burgess
Referee: L Doughty
Attendance: 12,788 (5,083 away)