Kieran Agard’s first-half goal and a third clean sheet in four games earned MK Dons a fourth straight Sky Bet League Two win.
Agard’s decisive goal came in the closing stages of the first half, as he raced onto a long ball forward from goalkeeper Stuart Moore and netted his 17th of the campaign.
Moore and his defenders did their job at the other end of the field too, to keep Paul Tisdale’s men within two points of the automatic promotion places in Sky Bet League Two. They also extend the gap over fifth place to seven points.
Boss Tisdale made two changes to his starting XI, with Russell Martin returning from a short stint on the sidelines to replace the injured Mathieu Baudry. Chuks Aneke also came in, replacing David Wheeler in attack.
It was Crawley who produced the first shot of the game in the second minute - an ambitious curling effort from George Francomb which cannoned back off the crossbar. MK Dons countered and Agard saw his deflected strike land wide of Glenn Morris’ goal.
Stuart Moore then produced a smart save to keep out David Sesay’s long-range low drive. The Dons goalkeeper then watched as Matty Willock fired harmlessly over from distance before an excellent piece of defending from Joe Walsh denied Ollie Palmer in the area. Palmer later flashed wide as the visitors continued to the threaten in the early moments.
Despite their slow start, the Dons almost took the lead in the 10th minute when Aneke raced onto a through pass. His shot, however, was saved by Morris. Crawley failed to clear and the Dons soon had a penalty shout when Conor McGrandles went down in the area. The midfielder was shown a yellow card for simulation.
Referee Thomas Bramall remained in the thick of the action as within the space of a minute he decided against awarding two fouls, one against either side, which could have resulted in dangerous free-kicks and yellow cards, if not more.
On 22 minutes, Callum Brittain swung in a cross which was just above the head of McGrandles at the far post. Crawley then threatened again through Palmer, who managed to get a foot to Lewis Young’s low cross but could only divert it into the side netting.
Palmer remained tough to handle and on the half hour mark he sent another curling shot just off target. A minute later, at the other end of the pitch, Hesketh forced a save out of Morris with a first-time effort from Aneke’s through pass.
That Hesketh chance seemed to get MK Dons going and soon after, Gilbey had a 20-yard try deflected over the crossbar. From the resulting corner, Ouss Cisse came close to meeting a deep cross from Brittain.
McGrandles then sent a teasing ball into the box which was cleared away right in front of Aneke. The Scotsman then went for goal himself - a low right-footed drive which was palmed away by a diving Morris.
Crawley broke out of their defensive stance to win a corner with eight minutes remaining in the half. Captain Dannie Bulman volleyed over from the delivery sent in from the left.
Then, with four minutes to play before the half-time whistle, the Dons broke the deadlock. Moore claimed the assist as it was his long ball forward which Bulman left for his goalkeeper. Agard pounced and managed to poke the ball past Morris before racing on and finding the crucial touch, moments before colliding with the post, to slot home his 17th goal of the season. 1-0.
MK Dons almost added a second before the break but Aneke was denied twice, first by a Crawley defender and then by Morris - the latter of which was immediately followed by the half-time whistle.
Within a minute of the re-start, a defensive error almost led to an equaliser for the visitors but Moore was able to deny Palmer when one-on-one. It was Reece Grego-Cox who intercepted a backpass but Moore was able to bail his teammates out.
Cisse then got in the way of a try from Willock as Crawley maintained their fast start to the second half. Martin was soon forced to turn behind from a low Palmer cross which later led to a shooting chance for Francomb, who blazed wide.
The Red Devils were then award a free-kick two yards from the edge of the area. Francomb took it but saw his strike blocked by the wall.
Two minutes later, Tisdale’s men were almost gifted a second goal but Joe McNerney’s backpass, which flew straight past his goalkeeper, trickled the wrong side of the right upright. Morris then made amends for Crawley, racing out to gather an Aneke through pass at the feet of Agard.
The fragility of the Dons’ one-goal advantage was highlighted on 57 minutes when a deep in-swinging cross from the left-hand channel was somehow kept out by a combination of Moore and a couple of his defenders. Moore couldn’t get to Willok’s 62nd-minute strike but fortunately for him it flew by the post.
At the other end, Hesketh managed to squeeze a ball into Agard but he got under his shot and sent it harmlessly over the crossbar. Moments later, Agard leapt to meet a deep cross from Lewington but wasn’t able to link up with Hesketh, who had joined him in the box.
With 15 minutes to play, Tisdale made his first substitution of the game - replacing Cisse with Jordan Houghton in the middle of the park. Wheeler came on soon after in place of Hesketh.
They added energy and composure in the Dons’ efforts to see out the success, which was confirmed after three minutes of stoppage time during which the visitor barely threatened a late leveller.
Starting XI: Moore; Brittain, Martin, Walsh, Lewington (c); Cisse (Houghton 76); McGrandles, Gilbey; Hesketh (Wheeler 82); Agard, Aneke.
Unused subs: Nicholls, Watson, Harley, Simpson, Walker.
Goal: Agard (40)
Booked: McGrandles, Walsh
Referee: T Bramall
Attendance: 6,889 (246 away)