And it was all going so well.
Horrible place that, full of horrible memories and it was always likely to create another bad one given the contrasting form of Notts and MK Dons. But, actually, we deserved more this time.
Although not completely dominant, overall Notts had been the better side. As well as being a goal to the good, there were further opportunities and a new-found genuine threat on the counter-attack.
Then cometh the hour, cometh the man. Referee Michael Salisbury gives a soft, soft penalty and Jamie Turley sees red. Of course, Ross Fitzsimons gets nowhere near Chuks Aneke’s strike – at least he attempted a dive this time, rather than stay on his feet as he had at Gigg Lane – and a battling win turns very quickly into that inevitable loss.
Remarkably, this was the Magpies’ 15th game against Franchise FC, and an 11th loss. In that time, there is just a solitary win to Notts’ name. At the soulless bowl they call a stadium, it’s just a single point from a possible 24.
We still travel there in hope. Many of us as desperate now to see a success there as we are at Field Mill. And on this Tuesday night, with a fourth-bottom League Two side to cheer, and on the back of a disastrous performance while shipping four without reply at Bury as recently as Saturday, some 400 Magpies showed their unwavering support.
We deserved better. Notts deserved better – absolutely a point over the course of how the 90 minutes played out. Without the incident that turned the game, perhaps we would have held on to all three.
Jon Stead was zipping about looking 10 years younger, holding the ball up and dominating his two younger direct opponents. His display had a touch of the Harry Kane for England at Spain about it. Fitzsimons was finding Enzio Boldewijn with some excellent long kicks, with the Notts winger forcing the home defence to back peddle, keeping the evergreen Dean Lewington largely at bay. Gosh he can still play, though.
Lewis Alessandra was a spark in the attacking midfield role, continuing his own resurgence, and David Vaughan finally looked like the player we thought could prove the final piece of our promotion jigsaw when he became a late summer signing from the Championship.
Alessandra had given us a deserved lead. A touch lucky, given it came via a wicked deflection, but it was merited. Boldewijn had already missed a clear opening. And Alessandra went very close with an excellent strike from the edge of the box following a brilliantly executed corner, too.
The Notts goalscorer was involved in the first of two defining moments that ultimately changed the game, though. Superb pressing from the visitors – in particular by Stead – saw home keeper Lee Nicholls pass the ball straight to the feet of Alessandra. He had a clear run for a one-on-one with Nicholls, or could use Stead in support, but went for an absurdly delicate chip from distance that went straight into an embarrassed but relieved Nicholls’ arms. A huge let off for the hosts. And it sparked, for the first time – absurdly loud PA system (don’t get any ideas Alan) aside – some noise from an extremely muted home crowd. Finally Stadium MK didn’t resemble a library.
The penalty followed swiftly, when Turley put pressure on Rhys Healey as he bore down on goal and the Dons attacker chose to fall to the ground rather than take an opportunity to beat Fitzsimons. There was just the merest of touches by Turley on his back, but it simply wasn’t a penalty. To make matters worse, the referee must have deemed it deliberate as he neglected the double jeopardy rule to give Turley his marching orders, too. Notts will appeal and it should be overturned – but we don’t get the bloody points back. Just another average centre-half to pick from against Swindon on Saturday.
It was obviously soon 2-1 and game over. Healey again.
Positives? Yes, many. Alessandra frustrated at times with too many touches too often, but he’s so much more of a threat these days. Stead was outstanding and remains crucial to our cause. And Vaughan showed some glimpses of class. But above all, they worked as a team, they pressed and they fought – one incident saw Turley, Elliott Hewitt and Elliott Ward all combine to block the same shot.
But still so many weaknesses. The woeful lack of pace at the back means we’re always open to a ball over the top causing issues – as it did to spark the penalty. And the will to play out from the back just gives fans – and it seems the players doing it – anxiety that is so unnecessary. Cut it out. Just hit the ever-reliable Stead or use Fitzsimons’ weapon to find a galloping Boldewijn instead. Kane Hemmings is adept at holding the ball up, too.
Hewitt must improve and could even make way for the returning Rob Milsom on Saturday, should Harry Kewell keep the faith with Vaughan. I wouldn’t – Hewitt and Milsom provide a platform for the creative players to play – but he must learn how to find a fellow teammate. Just sometimes will do.
I don’t see how Cedric Evina is an upgrade on Dan Jones. Ditto, unfortunately, Ward and Turley on Richard Duffy and Shaun Brisley. We are so inept defensively that this season will be nothing but a struggle. However, hope does exist in the form of the increased effort on display in Buckinghamshire and the obvious potential when we click going forward. It is still just potential though, and soon it must be realised to help save something from this season. Because it is a pretty miserable one as things stand, and we’re only approaching the end of the first third of it.
Let’s hope there isn’t too much riding on the game when MK Dons visit Meadow Lane for the return in late April. Because we know what will happen.