By Martin Atherton
The Dons narrowly bowed out of the FA Cup this afternoon in a stunning performance, only just pipped by Premier League outfit Burnley on penalties.
Cameron Jerome had given the Dons the lead, routinely heading home from a Scott Fraser flick-on, but the hosts went on to level with what was almost the final kick of the game.
On penalties, the Dons initially went in front – Nicholls with an excellent save to deny Vydra from the spot – but misses from Sørensen and Gladwin condemned the Dons to a third-round exit.
The hosts started the game completely dominant, Nicholls forced into tipping an effort over his bar within the first minute.
Dean Lewington then appeared to have made a fatal mistake – fluffing his lines in bringing down a long ball and giving it to Barnes – but Nicholls pulled off the most fantastic of last-ditch dives to deny the Burnley man and get fingertips to the ball.
But against the run of play – their first real effort of the afternoon – Cam Jerome was there to meet a Scott Fraser knock on, sending an unstoppable header past Norris and giving his side the lead. Superb work from the big man as always, and the League One ‘minnows’ in front. 0-1!
The Dons then kicked into life and could so easily have had a second were it not for some good work from Premier League Player of the Month nominee Ben Mee.
Chris Wood was next to see a chance, but the hosts’ striker once again completely fluffed his lines and failed to trouble Nicholls.
The real talking point came, though, when Richard Keogh was dismissed by referee Jon Moss for having been adjudged to handle the ball as the final man. Cries on Twitter for the Dons’ defender having been fouled by the Burnley striker – the decision sent immediately to Stockley Park.
And VAR, however controversial, was there in the Dons’ favour – Moss’ original decision being corrected and the Dons going into the break with both eleven men still on the field and a hard-fought lead. HT 0-1.
It then became far more ‘backs against the wall’ in the second half as Martin’s side looked to preserve their precious lead.
Nicholls was once again called into action, equal to a Brady effort – much of the hosts’ creativity at that point coming through the veteran Irishman. At the other end, Walker was set through by Fraser – the ‘Boro loanee, though, beaten to the ball by Mee.
Yesterday’s signing Ethan Laird was introduced, the Manchester United youngster looking bright on his Dons bow. Keen to take on players, whilst also solid defensively, the 19-year-old showed exactly what he could bring to Martin’s side as they looked to see it out.
But, in the denying embers of the game – the Dons having appeared to all-but see the tie out – the hosts found themselves back in it, Keogh failing to deal with a free-kick into the box and Vydra there to poke the ball through Nicholls’ legs. Heart-breaking, and the tie brought to extra time. FT 1-1.
Amidst the drama of the last-minute equaliser, MK Dons manager Russell Martin was sent to the stand – for why, we weren’t quite sure – though it meant little as both fatigued sides struggled to create any real chances in extra time.
The hosts again started far the better, Poole in the right position to meet a cross and head away.
Mason was next up and could have earned himself a penalty – VAR, however, not interested. At that point, Dons’ boss Martin was forced even further up the stands.
Gladwin came the closest, though, firing a rocket of an effort on goal from 30-yards – the post, however, denied him what would have gone down as one of the most dramatic moments in the club’s history.
Moss drew playing time to a close, and both sides prepared for a penalty shoot-out. ET FT 1-1.
The Dons initially got their noses in front – Poole scoring, before Nicholls produced a marvellous save from Vydra’s effort – but this was short-lived as Sørensen saw his penalty directly at the home ‘keeper.
Dale Stephens then levelled before Norris once again came to the rescue for Dyche’s side, equal to Gladwin’s effort and tipping the shoot-out in the hosts’ favour.
Though Fraser scored to give the Dons a glimmer of hope, Phil Bardsley neatly tucked home his side’s fifth – and that was that. Burnley win on penalties, heartbreak for the travelling side.
Nevertheless, the performance showed an unbelievable level of spirit from Martin’s side. Carry that back into their remaining 25 league games and they will be comfortably safe. Some excellent individual outings this afternoon, as well, and I hope each one of those walks away with their head held high – despite the end result.
I can’t wait to see where this season takes us now, personally, and I really hope others share that same optimism. Whilst performances and results haven’t always been brilliant since September, it’s clearer to see in the bigger picture that this squad is moving forward at a breath-taking rate.
Hope everyone had a great Christmas and New Year – and stay safe during the current conditions. Tuesday sees us back in action, taking on Northampton in the other cup before a trip to rivals Posh on Saturday in the league.
Come on You Dons!