A MATCH which promised so much delivered nothing but disappointment.
Sheffield United travelled to MK Dons knowing that a win could see them promoted back to the Championship at the first attempt but, with Alan Smith’s early strike proving enough to settle this slow-burner of a contest, they returned home knowing their lead over third-placed Sheffield Wednesday had been cut to a single point.
Afterwards Danny Wilson, enduring perhaps his most difficult 24 hours since taking charge of the South Yorkshire club following its relegation last year, issued an impassioned defence of the visitors’ top-two credentials.
United, he argued, are not trying to keep up with the Joneses. It might be squeaky-bum time but their’s still occupies the box seat.
Nevertheless, he admitted an opportunity to consolidate their position had been lost.
“It’s disappointing but, from our perspective, there is still everything to be positive about,” Wilson said.
“Over the course of an entire season you always get little blips and setbacks - perhaps this was one of those - but we’ve always been an upbeat team and we’re still in a great position.
“We’ll embrace the situation and move forward. Exactly the same as we’ve always done. We’ve got two great games coming up, Two great games that can take us, if you like, to the promised land.”
Wilson, whose leading scorer Ched Evans was jailed for rape on the eve of this eagerly-anticipated League One fixture following a high-profile trial, insisted the Wales international’s conviction had not adversely affected his squad’s preparations.
But the verdict at Caernarfon Crown Court, which reports suggest Evans could appeal, certainly appeared to cast a shadow over their first half performance.
With fellow striker Richard Cresswell adding a shoulder injury to his catalogue of complaints, United’s remaining centre-forwards were devoid of service until a combination of factors, including the dismissal of MK Dons’ Daniel Powell, saw the game swing their way.
By that time, however, an unusually subdued United were already trailing to a collector’s item from Smith.
“Alan is a Leeds lad and I think he enjoyed putting that one away against a Sheffield club,” Karl Robinson, the MK Dons manager, acknowledged. “I thought we deserved to win because we were the better team, although Danny might think different.
“Things didn’t go United’s way today but I see no reason whatsoever why they won’t go straight up. The job Danny has done there is nothing short of fantastic.”
Smith’s effort - which he chose to celebrate directly in front of United’s 6,135 strong support - sealed play-off qualification for an MK Dons outfit which became only the sixth team this term to prevent Wilson’s charges from putting the ball in the back of the net.
Having failed to trouble David Martin before the interval - centre-forwards Chris Porter and Will Hoskins left to feed on scraps - they came close to snatching an equaliser on several occasions after the break, not least when substitutes James Beattie and Michael O’Halloran were inches away from prodding home Matt Lowton’s cross deep into added time.
But with MK Dons adept at hitting on the break, United also had narrow escapes when Charlie MacDonald and Gary Mackenzie went close.
“We didn’t have enough tempo and energy in the first-half,” Wilson said. “We were low key compared to how we normally are but I thought we improved after that and looked back to our usual selves from then on.
“We created enough chances second half to have taken something and the general feeling in our dressing room is one of frustration.
“It was the proverbial tale of two halves.”
With arguably the division’s two most attractive and attacking teams pitted together at such a critical stage of the campaign, an unlikely match-winner emerged.
Smith, on loan from Newcastle, had not hit the target since scoring for Manchester United against Roma in the 2007 Champions League.
Nevertheless, he produced a clinical finish to turn home beyond Steve Simonsen from close range before seeing Michael Doyle’s clearance deny him a second moments before Powell’s red card.
United, who could have fallen behind almost straight from kick-off when Charlie MacDonald’s effort was hacked away to safety by Kevin McDonald, breathed a sigh of relief when Mackenzie’s headed bounced back off the post.
But when Powell, who had already seen yellow for fouling Doyle then chose to impede Matt Hill, Porter drew a save from Martin following Lee Williamson’s corner before United’s captain followed suit.
Simonsen diverted Jabo Ibehre’s low drive wide as MK Dons exploited United’s urgency
Wilson said: “MK Dons were never going to lay down because they had plenty to play for. They got their breaks. We didn’t get ours.
“But, like I say, it happens over the course of such a long season and we’ll go again next time out.
“The same as we’ve always done.”
SHEFFIELD United manager Danny Wilson will refuse to discuss Ched Evans’ situation at Bramall Lane until after the outcome of the Wales international’s possible appeal against his conviction for rape in known.
Evans, United’s leading goalscorer, was jailed for five years on Friday.
With the 23-year-old, whose co-defendant Clayton McDonald was cleared of the same charge, continuing to protest his innocence, Wilson said: “I can’t have a reaction because there is an appeal going forward. I don’t want to jeopardise that.
“As a player, of course we miss him.
“But we’ll wait until the appeal is at a conclusion, then we can discuss the situation we are both in.”
Earlier, Wilson said: “Of course you are always going to miss someone who has scored 35 goals in a season.
“But it didn’t distract us. The lads prepared well.”