ON AN afternoon where many up and down the country were checking the latest pin-stickers’ guide and crossing their fingers that their sweepstake pick made it over the first fence, Luke Williams’ Town also had to rely on a strong dose of Lady Luck to see them over the line.
As One for Arthur was going through the final checks before taking to the parade ring for the biggest race in the world, Jonathan Obika was latching onto a loose ball in the 91st minute and driving towards the Milton Keynes box at a gallop in Wiltshire.
With the task facing the experienced striker as he arrived in the area similar to the fear put into the jockeys as they cast their eye on Becher’s Brook for the first time, Obika cleared his hurdle with the calmness you would expect, sliding the ball past Lee Nicholls, who was left rooted to his line.
The grandstand finish was only enough to secure a point for Town, who had been left behind the chase for most of the race after Kieran Agard’s 43rd-minute penalty.
With no new injury worries in the build-up to the game for Williams’ side, it looked a sure bet that the head coach would stick with the same winning formula that had served him so well in the games with Millwall and Fleetwood Town.
The only change to the matchday squad came on the bench as Bradley Barry returned from his foot injury to replace Ellis Iandolo.
The sides were welcomed onto a sun-drenched County Ground pitch to a wall of sound and balloons, with the crowd boosted by the week’s build-up by both the club and the Adver’s NotDonYet campaign to boost the attendance for the crucial clash.
Jonathan Obika attempts an overhead kick in search of an equaliser
However, the contest started at no more than a trot as both sides worked their way into proceedings, with Swindon keen to keep it tight at the back and not allow a side who had scored inside 10 minutes in their last three outings steal an early march on them.
The first chance for the hosts came in the 10th minute when nice interplay between John Goddard and Conor Thomas on the edge of the box saw Charlie Colkett’s cross turned behind for a corner.
From the resulting set-piece from the left Raphael Branco rose highest at the back post, but he could only steer his header wide.
Two minutes later, Fankaty Dabo’s nicely-flighted ball from a deep left position was claimed by MK Dons goalkeeper Nicholls, who sparked a counter-attack for the visitors.
The swift move down the left flank ended at the feet of Ben Reeves in the box but he mis-timed his swing with his left peg and saw the ball loop up before being cleared from danger.
It was an early warning sign for Town that was not adhered to as MK came close again just three minutes later.
The two benches trade verbal blows with the fourth official
Lawrence Vigouroux, in front of a vocal Town End, could only watch on as Stuart O’Keefe turned three Swindon players on the edge of the box before letting fly, his effort hitting the outside of Vigouroux’s right-hand post.
The Town stopper knew more about the next chance that fell the visitors’ way in the 17th minute when Agard was played in one-on-one, but the MK Dons forward was denied well by the legs of the Chilean gloveman - a chance that should have been buried.
The away side’s spell of pressure dissipated slightly for the following 20 minutes but with Town struggling to get their passing style of football working, there was little for Nicholls to do.
There were faint appeals for a penalty in the 29th minute when Goddard slipped in Ajose behind - something Colkett had also tried to do moments earlier - and under the pressure of George Williams, the Town striker hit the deck, but there was no reaction from match official Graham Salisbury.
The Town End reacts to another missed chance for the home side
In the 38th minute, Vigouroux was called into action again as he got down well when O’Keefe played in Ben Reeves free in the box.
The MK forward, with time to look up and pick his spot, attempted to curl it around the imposing figure of the goalkeeper, but was unsuccessful in his attempt.
However, the pressure from the visitors finally told in the 42nd minute when Reeves was played in behind the Town defence down the right and, in an attempt to stop him getting a cross off, Colkett clipped his foot, Salisbury having no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Vigouroux guessed the right way, going low to his right, but Agard’s spot-kick was taken with precision to find the side-netting and give Robbie Neilson’s side a deserved lead at the interval.
Town’s saviour Jonathan Obika feels the hand of Dons’ Joe Walsh
With his side now trailing, Williams was forced to change things around in the second period and moved Nathan Thompson inside to go three at the back, with Dabo and Thomas providing the width from their wing-back positions.
It was a move that almost paid off immediately as Swindon were presented with a glorious chance to level matters just two minutes after the break as a swift move saw them go from defending a corner to Goddard being set away.
With only Nicholls to beat and Ajose screaming for the ball square, the Town midfielder stuttered and shot straight at the keeper.
From the resulting corner, the ball found its way to Dion Conroy at the back post, who could only stab his effort wide.
Swindon then went the width of a post from restoring parity in the 54th minute as Thomas’ ball from deep right was glanced on by Obika, but the ball scraped the outside of Nicholls’ upright.
The visitors responded by striking the frame of Vigouroux’s goal for a second time, Harvey Barnes this time looking to score from an acute angle in the 58th minute.
It was the woodwork that denied MK Dons in the 71st minute, this time Vigouroux’s crossbar as Ed Upson, who had gone close moments earlier with a bullet on the half-volley, left Town’s defence at sixes and sevens on the edge of the box.
Swindon were dealt a blow in the 73rd minute as Conroy slid into the box to block a cross well but was unable to return to his feet as he left the field of play with a suspected hamstring injury.
He was replaced by Barry, as Thomas took up his third position of the day to replace Conroy in the back three.
Swindon continued to huff and puff in the latter stages, with Thompson and Raphael Branco being encouraged to join in with the waves of attack as the visitors sat deeper and started to use the dark arts of time-wasting to hold onto their slender advantage.
Obika came close to levelling in the 76th minute when a Colkett corner from the left resulted in some head tennis in the box before the Town striker went of an acrobatic bicycle kick that just cleared the crossbar.
Nathan Thompson on the ball for Town
It looked like Town’s last chance of the afternoon had passed them by when Branco crossed from the left to find Thomas, whose side-footed effort was deflected agonisingly wide of the post.
However, with Town fans more used to seeing their own side make sloppy passes out from the back this season, it was the visitors who were guilty of the cardinal sin.
Substitute Paul Downing saw his loose pass picked up by Obika halfway into the Dons’ half.
With Downing trying to atone for his mistake by closing the Town striker down, Obika was able to evade his last-ditch lunge and slide the ball home with his right foot before wheeling away to celebrate in front of the Town End.
A huge roar went up when the fourth official Neil Radford raised the board to indicate five minutes added time as the home fans sensed a winner, but it was Neilson’s side who left wondering how they didn’t wrap up the game late on.
MK countered in the dying seconds and Upson was left one-on-one with Vigouroux, with a bobbling ball coming across him.
However, with the Town stopper coming off his line, Upson could not control his shot and his effort went high and wide.
The point could yet prove pivotal in Town’s bid to beat the drop and like One For Arthur at Aintree, Williams will need more luck like that between now and the end of the season if he is going to stay the course and steer his side to safety.