Chris O’Grady, Sheffield United’s latest acquisition, identified the ability to win ugly as the key to League One success before making his debut for Nigel Clough’s side last night.
Against opponents not afraid to practice the dark arts, they managed neither as Deli Alli’s poacher’s goal condemned them to a painful defeat.
The result, which saw MK Dons climb six points above them in the table having played a match less, provoked a chorus of boos at the final whistle, although the supporters’ spleen was reserved for referee Lee Collins and his assistants following a chaotic display.
The Surrey official failed to curb the visitors’ gamemanship until dismissing Danny Green for a second bookable offence during the closing stages. But it was still impossible to escape the conclusion that, after dominating both territory and possession, United would have come away with some reward for their efforts if they demonstrated a sharper cutting edge.
O’Grady’s involvement lasted just 23 minutes when he succumbed to an apparent recurrence of the calf injury he sustained before arriving on emergency loan from Brighton and Hove Albion.
But it was Chris Basham who came closest to handing them lead their efforts deserved as, not for the first time this term, they struggled to fully exploit a series of promising situations before paying the ultimate price when Alli pounced with just three minutes of normal time left.
Goals and goalscorers, rather than impressive approach play, are what truly change games.
United ended MK Dons’ hopes of reaching the Capital One Cup quarter-finals when they last met, in Buckinghamshire, five weeks ago. But any psychological advantage they might have gained ahead of their latest confrontation had been shattered by the sight of the visitors demolishing Colchester 6-0 three days earlier.
Benik Afobe and Alli emerged as the driving forces behind that club record success, with Clough revealing on the eve of the match that Robinson is confident of delivering Championship football to stadium:mk next term.
Whether Alli, whose talents have reportedly captured the imagination of Liverpool, Arsenal and Bayern Munich, remains at his disposal is a matter of debtate. The teenager, a graduate of MK Dons’ youth system, started alongside former United defender Kyle McFadzean while Afobe was surprisingly named on the bench.
It was bold move by Robinson, who tasked Will Grigg with spearheading their charge instead.
However, Afobe’s introduction did coincide with MK Dons’ best moment of the match with the on-loan Arsenal striker clipping a deft 62nd-minute attempt past Mark Howard but also the far post before Alli’s intervention.
United made two changes to the team which had faced Notts County last week as they attempted to end a frustrating sequence of results at Bramall Lane which has stalled their bid for a top two berth.
O’Grady, predictably, replaced Michael Higdon while Jose Baxter made way for Ryan Flynn.
But it was Basham who posed the greatest threat to MK Dons’ rearguard during the opening period of the first half with a series of well-timed runs into the box.
One, after he had combined well with O’Grady before testing David Martin’s handling from long-distance, ended with Antony Kay shanking a clearance inches past his own post.
Basham should have handed United a 20th-minute lead when Bob Harris pierced MK Dons’ back four with a perfectly-flighted cross but, despite flinging himself the ball, the midfielder could not produce the vital touch.
It was a moment they would later live to regret when Alli claimed his ninth of the campaign during the closing stages.
MK Dons entered this fixture having scored more goals than any other team in the division and with Afobe hitting the target more times than than Clough’s entire attack combined.
O’Grady’s arrival is designed to turbo-charge a United frontline which, despite making significant progress upon its returns last term, by Clough’s own admission still has plenty of room for improvement.
The former Sheffield Wednesday marksman, who received a generous reception from the home crowd before kick-off, reciprocated with a fine turn and touch which sent Jamal Campbell-Ryce darting clear during the early exchanges before the winger was shepherded towards safety.
Basham powered beyond two markersand the midfielder was only inches away from connecting with Jamie Murphy’s centre as the action ebbed and flowed.
Campbell-Ryce was responsible for delivering the cross which ended with Stefan Scougall seeing a shot blocked as United attempted to seize the second half by the scruff of the neck. The Scot tried his luck again from the edge of the area but Martin comfortably gathered.
Basham went close again soon after before Afobe announced his arrival with a fine effort from the byline.
Unlike Flynn who wastefully tried his luck from 25 yards when greater care was required.
Basham was adjudged to have strayed offside when Paddy McCarthy turned home with 14 minutes remaining.
McEveley’s foul on Grigg set in motion the chain of events which ended with Darren Potter’s free-kick being touched home by Alli following a scramble in front of Howard.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Harris 7, Basham 8 (McGahey 86), Flynn 6, Doyle 6, Murphy 7, Scougall 6 (Baxter 82), McEveley 8, Campbell-Ryce 7, McCarthy 7, O’Grady 5 (McNulty 23, 7). Not used: Higdon, Reed, Turner, Adams.
MK DONS: Martin 6, Hodson 6, McFadzean 7, Kay 6, Potter 7, Reeves 7 (Afobe 54, 6), Grigg 6, Spence 6, Baker 6, Alli 6, Powell 6 (Green 69). Not used: Flanagan, Bowditch, McLoughlin, Baldock.
GOALS: Alli (87).
CAUTIONS: Hodson (41), Alli (45), McEveley (53), McFadzean (63), Kay (77), Green (89, 90), Baxter (90), Afobe (90).
RED CARDS: Green (90).
REFEREE: Lee Collins (Surrey).