The basic fact for MK Dons fans is that the 2018-19 season achieved a much desired objective, by hook or by crook.
The aspiration in pre-season was for MK Dons to make a serious challenge for an immediate return to League One. Few would’ve quite expected how that goal was met, but it was still achieved in the end.
Getting to that point was a twisty tale that took in multiple simultaneous defensive injuries, clever January recruitment, a strong late-season winning run sandwiched by two less spectacular runs, and of course, that decider with Mansfield.
All of this seemed a long way away in pre-season. The Dons were considered by national media and by bookies as sitting among the favourites for promotion, but creeping doubts had fermented after a tough few years.
At the very least, one necessity was achieving the basic of winning football matches, which is something that seemingly proved to be a recurring problem since 2015.
After winless runs in the Championship and in the first season back in League One, the problems got worse in 2017-18. MK Dons went on four separate runs of five or more league games without a win as a side tipped as a potential outside bet for the play-offs fell apart and were relegated.
Stepping into the ring to try and sort this out was Paul Tisdale, who arrived after a 12 year stint at Exeter City that culminated in back-to-back play-off final reverses with the Grecians.
First on the in tray was to re-work the squad for promotion, and as well as bringing in signings and a new backroom team, one way to repair morale was winning games. On that front, the Dons made the best start, winning the opening 3 in all competitions.
For most of the season, the Dons have tried a tactical shift to a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2, depending on attacking player availability. The approach saw centre-backs join the attack in the wide positions where required, with George Williams and Baily Cargill looking particularly accomplished in these roles in the early part of the season.
Rhys Healey also proved to be a useful option in his half-season, before his loan expired. The returning Alex Gilbey also provided a useful run in midfield after an injury at the end of the previous campaign – not least with 2 excellent goals against Morecambe.
With Chuks Aneke and Kieran Agard staying after the window closed, the two would also grab a good wedge of goals and provide a challenge for defenders.
The first part of the season wasn’t entirely smooth, with points dropped late on at Swindon, Lincoln and Yeovil, and at home to Forest Green. But a run of 8 wins from 10 matches meant that by early December, MK Dons sat briefly top after beating Carlisle and looked on for being a contender.
But from there, the waters became trickier to navigate – and not just the literal water issues in the case of Newport away, given a waterlogged pitch saw the game postponed less than half an hour before kick-off.
Oddly, the Dons’ roughest patch of the season is bookended by the late postponement at Rodney Parade just before Christmas and the re-arranged fixture in February.
The following game saw the Dons lose their unbeaten home record against Colchester before picking up one point from trips to bottom half Cheltenham and Northampton – both a particular disappointment.
Winning 6-0 over Cambridge looked to have righted wrongs in what turned out to be Healey’s swansong. But the Dons’ form then hit another rough patch after his return to Cardiff, with an inexplicable loss at Bury after being 3-1 up with 20 to go followed by an insipid home defeat to Crewe.
Between the original and rescheduled Newport games, 2 wins in 10 saw the Dons cascade down the table and increased doubt seemed present on forums and social media, with perhaps the nadir coming when the Dons fell out of the play-off spots after a home loss to Swindon.
With defensive and midfield injuries causing problems, and a tactical shift going slowly to accommodate replacing Healey, there were teething problems at the start of 2019, but 5 straight wins after Swindon provided a great rebound.
Suddenly things looked much rosier. Even after a wind-assisted defeat at Morecambe, some key wins hauled the Dons back into the forefront of the automatics race.
January loan signings Jake Hesketh and David Wheeler began to chip in with goals and assists, while defensive recruit Russell Martin proved a very handy stand-in when injuries began to bite.
But after the high of win at Forest Green Rovers came a stall. Defeats to Lincoln and Tranmere were less than ideal but dropped points at home to Port Vale and a shot-shy loss at Colchester suddenly induced fear of the play-offs.
At one point, the situation was looking desperate after Colchester. But when news filtered through of Mansfield’s defeat at home by Stevenage, the stage was suddenly set for a huge final day face-off.
For several weeks before the final game, there was a consensus emerging that the final day fixture against fellow promotion contenders Mansfield Town would potentially be a very crucial one, but with both sides seizing up in the final furlongs, it suddenly became winner take all with the two split by goal difference.
By now, we all recall the grand occasion against Mansfield, where Wheeler got his head onto an early corner and the Dons kept out their guests to jump them in the table and spark big celebrations.
Its certainly tough to know if MK Dons would’ve bounced back to navigate the play-offs, which conclude today for League 2 with Tranmere taking on a Newport side that beat Mansfield on penalties.
At the end of the day, however, that’s something to only discuss theoretically. Now that the season is settled, what’s next is seeing what the Dons can do to readjust to life in the third tier.
There is work to be done – 10 have left the club, along with the 3 loanees, so work is required for the Dons to identify and recruit players that can work within the squad and help with the elevation.
It is still worth being content enough that the job needed to be done and was just about pulled off, but the focus is now preparing for the infinite game to resume in August.