Last season’s play-off semi-finalists MK Dons spent the summer making wholesale changes to their squad, shrewdly investing the cash received for their two standout players. They also signed two defenders relegated from League One sides. Last season’s 5-1 aggregate victory over United made them firm favorites for the opening day clash. Bonner’s plan would be to ask difficult questions of such a newly-constructed opponent.
Like an elephant on a penny farthing, things started shakily for the home side. Last season’s unwelcome refrain—‘Starting games poorly’—continued from the off, the visitors appealing for a penalty and striking the bar within the first minute. That scare seemed to be the shock United needed. They countered quickly through Dunk who craftily beat his man to cross and incite panic in the visitor’s box (if we can’t have Harry Darling, neither can you!). Few would have preferred Dunk to Haunstrup at left-back from the start but the U’s longest-serving player again reminded us of his qualities; tracking, covering, tackling, dribbling, and passing as well as any player on the day. Ever the Lost Boy, Dunk continued to defy time and prove his worth.
Within ten minutes the referee, John Busby, barged his way into the plot, wrongly booking Cambridge’s best player on the day. A home free-kick seemed inevitable after Knibbs was fouled outside the box but Busby decided to book the victim, leaving the crowd perplexed and the player bruised. Knibbs didn’t finish the match on the pitch but many of the day’s key moments centered around the in-form troublemaker.
United moved the ball quickly and confidently front-to-back-to-front in first-half spells of possession, oozing confidence. The consistency of shape and personnel—13 of the 15 who appeared were returning players—allowed last season’s style to return easily. Adam May in particular seemed more content to quarter-back balls to the fab four in front of him. His recent contract extension club endowed his presence on the pitch; he sought out the ball in a more responsible and balanced box-to-box role.
Knibbs, again at the center of attention, bravely cleared his defensive line before requiring treatment for the knock. Perhaps the hardest working of a team known for their work ethic, Knibbs switched gears as United worked a simple passing maneuver down the visitor’s right-hand side. Jones to Ironside to Brophy, who played an inviting first-time ball into Knibbs. Outside the box and with three players to beat, Knibbs’ incredible footwork wrongfooted two defenders as he weaved through on goal. The keeper did well to get a hand to his shot but couldn’t stop a thousand dads simultaneously lauding the ‘goal of the season!’
The remaining first-half minutes wrote themselves; get to half-time with the lead intact. MK Dons, for all their resources and smart recruitment, were uncalibrated, misaligned, underbaked. A rabble of strangers passing the ball across their back four looking for long balls to their wide players. United defended effectively in numbers, winning challenges, blocking passes, and forcing errors. It was United who came closest to scoring the game’s second goal, Brophy working the ball neatly into the box only to see Smith’s glancing header drift wide of the far post.
As underwhelming as the visitors were, the U’s won the half by more than Knibbs’ goal. Their tirelessly aggressive play in and out of possession ground down their opponents, whose forward play was blunt and miscalculated.
Half-time was the tonic the visitors required. They started the second half considerably more energetic, aggressive, and quicker than the first, earning the luck, space, and opportunities afforded by the subdued home side. Fortunately for United, MK Dons’ best idea to force a goal (after minute one) was to manufacture a penalty. It was from a long hopeful ball that Okedina and Mitov almost served that chance to their guests; acrimonious appeals from the away side and their supporters did nothing to stir referee Busby.
Spells of scrappy, unpolished play meant both sides struggled to produce worthy chances in front of goal. The difference between the sides was the cohesion and togetherness of the hosts—effective tradesmen performing beyond expectation. MK Dons were the opposite; seemingly near-strangers who misread runs, misplaced passes, head-scratching as to why things weren’t coming together. Their post-match comments were littered with phrases including ‘places like this,’ and ‘hard to break down,’ but they simply weren’t the force they were in November or March.
Manning’s patience expired on the hour. After failing to trouble the inside of Mitov’s goal, the visitors made a double change they hoped would resuscitate their chances. Although it was Manning’s best move of the day, even he conceded “we had complete control without carrying a real threat.” Oyegoke was the most effective Dons player, probing the United left, passing smartly, and finding space to exploit on his professional league debut. But without product. The remaining minutes were a summer doze. MK attacked with more energy than skill; United defended with more gusto than luck.
The second half joy came from the bench. The introduction of reliable role players O’Neill and Haunstrup, and the explosive Tracey and Janneh marked a new era in the development of the club. Even Bonner uncharacteristically hailed the moment in his post-match comments, citing “the best squad I’ve had since I’ve become manager.” The larger success of his club is typified by this smaller victory. The players are convinced by Bonner‘s plan. Establish a belligerent defense. Counter-attack aggressively. Do the simple things well. Take the chances we have. Be professional. Killing the game to confidently take the 1-0 over a 3-2 every day. United, landing the sole blow MK Dons could not, again refused to be the push-overs the narrative demanded.
Man of the Match: Knibbs
Soundtrack of the Match: Spice Girls – Who Do You Think You Are