Notts County suffered a disappointing and somewhat harsh 4-1 defeat away to high-flying MK Dons, despite a solid defensive display that had sent the sides into the half time break level at 0-0.
Manager Shaun Derry made three changes to the side that started the 2-1 defeat at home to Rochdale in midweek, with Sean Newton, Taylor McKenzie and Alan Smith coming in to replace Elliott Whitehouse, Mike Edwards and Leroy Lita, who all dropped to the bench.
The big news however was another name listed amongst the substitutes, that of the returning Jimmy Spencer, out since suffering a serious knee injury in pre-season but back available for selection to provide a timely boost to his manager ahead of a crucial run of games coming up before the end of the season.
MK Dons, fresh from a 3-1 win over Oldham in midweek, enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges, dominating possession and forging an early chance through a Lewis Baker freekick, which was well cleared by the Notts defence.
After Notts had looked to be coming more into the game with a spell of possession, MK Dons stepped up a gear, with Carl Baker teed up nicely on the edge of the area after a sweeping attacking move by the home side, but his shot flew just wide of the post, to the relief of Roy Carroll, who had to be alert shortly after to tip a curving Lewis Baker effort around the post.
Daniel Powell was next to test the Notts keeper moments later, with a deft chip palmed behind, before the visitors had to bundle the ball behind from the resulting corner, scramble clear once again from another corner and then rely on Carroll once more, who was well positioned to claim a Devante Cole effort from just inside the area, all this coming within the space of a couple of minutes.
There was a brief respite for Notts as the clock ticked past the quarter hour mark, with the visitors able to venture into their opponents’ half, but a well-organised MK Dons defence kept them at bay until the home side could get back on the front foot and they had a great chance to break the deadlock in the 22nd minute, when a ball over the top set Cole away, but he scuffed his shot wide when through one-on-one with Carroll.
The 26th minute brought a moment of pure genius from Paddy McCourt, hitting a beautiful cross-field pass with the outside of his boot to setup Blair Adams in space on the left and his ball back across had to be dealt with by the MK Dons defence.
However, MK Dons were back on the front foot two minutes later, when Carl Baker took advantage of a fortuitous bounce on his run into the area and beat the advancing Carroll with his effort, but Newton was well placed to clear off the line. In the move leading up to that chance though, Curtis Thompson had picked up an injury that would force him off, to be replaced by Whitehouse.
As Notts once again looked to battle their way back into the game in the wake of that change, there was an increasingly sombre atmosphere within the stadium, as the home crowd lamented the missed chances and it was the visitors who were on the front foot, with Whitehouse hitting an ambitious effort from some way out, high and wide of the target.
Roy Carroll was needed once again though on 40 minutes, stretching well to turn a well-placed Ben Reeves effort around the post and the Notts keeper pulled off similar heroics two minutes later, this time denying Lewis Baker who had fired across goal through a crowded area.
Three minutes of injury time, in which efforts by Powell and Samir Carruthers were both well collected by Carroll, ended with the welcome sound of the half-time whistle, sending Notts into the dressing room content with their efforts in maintaining the deadlock but knowing that the job was only half done.
HT: MK Dons 0 Notts County 0
There was a second change for Notts during the interval, with Edwards coming on to replace McKenzie, who had picked up a knock towards the end of the first half after an impressive showing on his return to first team action.
The second period got off to a relatively scrappy start, with neither side able to mount any serious attack in the early stages and the first chance, when it came, was a tame low effort from Carl Baker that Carroll saved comfortably.
Whitehouse was then shown the first yellow card of the afternoon after being adjudged to have committed two fouls in quick succession and he would be followed into the referee’s notebook a short time later by Smith, for persistent fouling.
Before that second booking though came one of the brightest moments of the game so far for Notts, when a great ball over the top by Garry Thompson set Jones away, who laid the ball off to Adams, but MK Dons were back and able to get a block in, although as the ball was cleared a handball by Carruthers gave Notts a freekick outside the area that he whipped in and forced a good save from David Martin at the near post.
A well-hit Carl Baker effort from the edge of the area brought a great strong-handed save from Carroll, cannoning the ball clear of the box and it was shortly after this that MK Dons made a double substitution in a bid to break Notts’ stoic resistance.
Cole and Powell went off for the home side in the 58th minute, to be replaced by Will Grigg and Dean Bowditch, and the renewed attacking impetus paid off for MK Dons four minutes later, when Carl Baker, who had been a threat throughout the game, finally opened the scoring with a well hit effort from close range after good build-up play by Reeves.
After that setback there was at least a positive moment for Notts soon after, with Spencer making his long-awaited return to action in the 70th minute, coming on to replace Blair Adams.
The joy was short-lived though because a much more relaxed MK Dons side continued to press forward and after Reeves had hit a shot from the edge of the area well over the bar shortly after, a break by Lewis Baker and clever chip over the advancing Carroll doubled the home side’s lead in the 74th minute.
To their credit though, Notts refused to lie down in the face of this further setback and were rewarded for their resilience five minutes later when a Hayden Mullins freekick was headed on to Spencer, whose flicked shot form close range wasn’t dealt with by Martin in the MK Dons goal and Whitehouse was the first to react to give his side hope of a dramatic comeback.
If anything the goal seemed to breathe new life into MK Dons though and they set about restoring their two-goal cushion with renewed vigour, pushing Notts back on to the back foot and eventually carving out a chance for substitute Grigg to fire home past Carroll, who had no chance of saving it.
Notts again tried to bounce back and pressed forwards straight from the restart, but MK Dons were looking increasingly comfortable, using their final substitution two minutes from time to bring off Reeves for Mark Randall, who was booked shortly after coming on for leaving a foot in after challenging with Smith for the ball.
There was another chance for Whitehouse to double his tally as the game moved into injury time, of which there would be a minimum of four minutes, but the Notts midfielder’s header, after he was picked out by a good cross from the left by McCourt, was straight at Martin, who saved comfortably.
Things then went from bad to worse for Notts as first Grigg netted his second goal of the game to increase the home side’s advantage to 4-1 and then a Spencer effort at the other end was cleared off the line before the striker was booked by referee Keith Hill for his protests at what he felt was a foul in the build-up to that effort.
It capped a disappointing and frustrating afternoon for Notts, who finished the day just outside the relegation spots in Sky Bet League 1, above Crewe Alexandra only on goal difference, although with a game in hand on them and both Coventry City and Crawley who occupy 18th and 19th places respectively.
Attention now turns to a crucial home game next weekend against Scunthorpe United, who themselves are just one point above Notts in the table in 17th place.
FT: MK Dons 4 Notts County 1
MAGPIE PLAYER MAN OF THE MATCH | Roy Carroll
Despite conceding four goals, none of which the Northern Ireland international could do much about, his heroics in once again pulling off a strong of top class saves ensured that Notts remained in the game until midway through the second half.
The veteran custodian will no doubt be sorely missed for the game against Scunthorpe United next weekend when he is away on international duty with his country.