Mark Perrow reports from Ashton GateCity put a sold-out Ashton Gate crowd through a roller coaster of emotions to maintain their five-point lead at the top of Sky Bet League One.
The home side looked to be cruising towards three points against in-form MK Dons, second in the table at the start of play, courtesy of Kieran Agard’s first-half brace.
But the visitors responded after the break to peg City back, pulling a goal back through Dean Bowditch before Benik Afobe profited from a misunderstanding between Wade Elliott and Frank Fielding to equalise 17 minutes from time.
However, that was far from the end of the drama as skipper Elliott went from zero to hero in the space of seconds, running clear on goal to slot the winner via the inside of the far post and send a bumper home crowd home celebrating.
Steve Cotterill stayed loyal to the same team who won four games on the bounce, despite seeing that run come to a painful end courtesy of a late equaliser at Fleetwood Town last time out.
Any danger of the top two sitting back and compromising their respective styles was extinguished by a flurry of early attacks.
First Afobe looked to pounce upon a Bowditch knockdown but could not get the desired purchase to suitably trouble Fielding in the City goal.
But within seconds the home side were in front as Agard struck his fourth goal in as many games to add to his brace at Highbury Stadium seven days ago.
It was another scruffy finish as Luke Freeman’s cross eluded its intended targets in the middle but was followed up by Mark Little at the back post, who helped the ball back across goal for Agard
to scramble home the opener inside four minutes.
City would enjoy plenty of joy down the left side throughout the first half, particularly through the in-form Joe Bryan.
The Bristolian looked perfectly placed to double City’s lead when Little’s scuffed shot rolled invitingly into his path only for George Baldock to make a crucial block.
But MK Dons were still very much alive in the contest and twice came close to cancelling out their deficit with shots from distance, as Ben Reeves stung the palms of Fielding before Bowditch let fly and saw his effort take a slight deflection as it whistled just a fraction past the post.
Then Bryan resumed his role as tormentor in chief, skipping beyond two yellow shirts and turning down the chance to shoot on his right foot in setting up Freeman, whose effort struck a defender.
It was all-action stuff, and Bryan again threatened City’s second when he lashed a loose ball against the body of Daniel Powell after Aden Flint had headed Freeman’s deep corner back across goal.
It wasn’t quite “you attack, we attack” but not far short, as Bowditch tested Fielding with a sharp strike towards the near post after breezing past Luke Ayling in the box.
But City were on top and helped themselves to a killer second goal from the penalty spot nine minutes before the break.
Former Dons frontman Aaron Wilbraham showed his quickness of thought to set Agard clear from a throw-in, and with the goalscorer seemingly running out of pitch, a clumsy push in the back from Kyle McFadzean left referee Oliver Langford little option but to award a spot-kick.
In the absence of the departed Sam Baldock and substitute Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Agard
picked himself up to drill the ball straight down the middle and double the advantage.
There was still time for Agard to threaten a first-half hat-trick when Elliott dug out a teasing cross from the byeline, only for the striker to send his header over the crossbar at the end of a pulsating opening period.
City proved last week that a two-goal lead can be a precarious one, and the Dons predictably came out firing after the interval to hand themselves a lifeline as Bowditch rolled in a goal back on 51 minutes.
Good work from Afobe saw the striker power between two defenders to set up Reeves, whose low shot from the edge of the box was repelled by Fielding only into the path of Afobe before the keeper raced from his line to snuff out the rebound, but Bowditch
was on hand to find the net at the Dons’ third time of asking.
City were being dragged deeper into their own half, but Agard remained the outlet on the break. The physical striker was a constant menace, barging one opponent to the ground to set Korey Smith clear before Freeman was dispossessed at the last.
Then Agard weaved his way between defenders before his shot was deflected behind for a corner from which Flint’s powerful header was cleared off the line by Bowditch.
But at the other end the visitors kept coming. Fielding’s punch only as far as Reeves was returned with interest on the half-volley but just inches too high to find the unguarded net.
City were generally keeping the Dons at arm’s length, only to shoot themselves in the foot on 73 minutes, as skipper Elliott made an uncharacteristic error to gift an equaliser.
The veteran’s blind back-pass left Fielding in no man’s land, and as the goalkeeper hesitated, Afobe
pounced to win a 50/50 challenge with City’s number one and slide the ball into the gaping goal.
It was a nightmare moment for the home team, but the emotion of deflation would not last long as Elliott
dispossessed Antony Kay virtually straight from kick-off to stroll through on goal and make amends with a cool finish which just glanced the inside of the post on its way in.
Wilbraham’s chance to score against his former club and put the game to bed would arrive when picked out by Agard, but keeper David Martin was equal to his shot.
Enter a frantic period of five added minutes, a fitting end to a breathless game of football, but City stood firm to hang on for perhaps the biggest victory of their season to date.