Stacy Long struck a dramatic winner from the penalty spot this afternoon to secure a thrilling victory for Wimbledon at Plainmoor.
The South West proved to be a lucky destination for Wimbledon once again after the last-gasp win at Plymouth in October as Long (pictured) struck in injury-time to secure a 3-2 victory.
Wimbledon’s match against Torquay in September proved to be a defining moment for the club as it was Terry Brown’s last stand and this could be significant for completely different reasons with Neal Ardley hoping to engineer a New Year revival away from the relegation zone.
A 90th minute equaliser from Rene Howe appeared to have put a dent in Wimbledon’s survival hopes, before Long’s intervention after Aaron Downes had brought down Rashid Yussuff in the box.
Wimbledon came into this match anchored to the foot of the table and with manager Neal Ardley having to make changes to his first-choice line-up.
Pim Balkestein and Mat Mitchel-King were the only two available centre-backs that Neal Ardley had at his disposal and he therefore selected them together for the first time since his appointment. Club skipper Mitchel-King was handed the captain’s armband on his return and he partnered Balkestein at centre-back for the first time in a League 2 match since the 5-1 defeat at Bradford in August with Will Antwi suspended and Yado Mambo having returned to Charlton. Warren Cummings retained his place at left-back because Jim Fenlon was struck down with illness and did not make the trip.
The Dons, struggling for form and confidence, made the perfect start as they scored with their very first attack in the fifth minute. Toby Ajala, Wimbledon’s man of the match for the last two home games, enhanced his growing reputation by finding space on the right and delivering a teasing cross that was headed home emphatically by Paul McCallum. However, the lead lasted less than four minutes as Wimbledon only half cleared a cross and though Neil Sullivan saved from Danny Stevens, Torquay skipper Lee Mansell was in the right place to steer home for the equaliser. Ashley Yeoman then dragged his shot just wide as the hosts came close to turning the match on its head. However, there was a good response from the visitors and McCallum, who was always a threat early on, headed just wide from a Long corner. McCallum then headed straight into the arms of Torquay goalkeeper Michael Poke after he got on the end of a flick from Ajala.
In an entertaining first 25 minutes, full of attacking enterprise from both sides, Sullivan had to be alert to tip a testing free-kick from Nathan Craig over the crossbar. Ajala was at the heart of all Wimbledon’s best moves and an excellent run down the left from Wimbledon’s pacy winger almost created a good chance for Long, but he delayed his shot and the chance was gone. However, Wimbledon were rewarded for a much improved display in the first half hour when they took the lead once again in the 32nd minute. Mitchel-King scored his first goal for the club just when Wimbledon really needed it and it was certainly worth waiting for. Long’s free-kick was won by Balkestein and after Midson had slipped the ball to Mitchel-King, the centre-back produced a clinical finish that any striker would have been proud of. Mitchel-King’s subsequent celebration as he pointed towards the sky told its own story as the centre-back dedicated the goal to the memory of his mother, who passed away in November. That goal lifted Wimbledon as they comfortably held Torquay at bay until half-time and the Dons could be well pleased with their efforts during the first-half.
The Dons made two changes at half-time and they were both up front with Luke Moore and Jason Prior replacing Midson and McCallum. There may have been a change of personnel in attack, but Wimbledon continued to look bright going forward. Ajala, who was perhaps enjoying his best performance in a Wimbledon shirt, produced another trademark run which ended with a powerful shot which flashed over the crossbar. Though Torquay were having the lion’s share of possession at the start of the second-half, Wimbledon did look dangerous on the break, especially with Ajala now playing through the middle and offering a useful outlet at every opportunity.
Torquay should have been level in the 62nd minute though when the pace of Ashley Yeoman was too much for the Wimbledon defence and the ball fell kindly for Craig Easton, but his shot lacked power and Sullivan got down well to save. It was hardly backs-to-the-wall defending from the Dons though as they coped fairly comfortably with the Torquay threat and at the other end Long volleyed over the crossbar with a speculative 30-yard volley. Long, who is always confident in his shooting ability, came even closer with a curler that Poke just managed to beat out.
It looked like Wimbledon were going to coast to all three points, but there was a sting in the tail when Kevin Nicholson’s corner was headed home by Rene Howe in the last minute of normal time. However, that was not the end of the story as the Dons went up the other end and were awarded a penalty by referee Oliver Langford when Yussuff was fouled in the box by Downes. What followed could be a pivotal moment in Wimbledon’s season as Long composed himself, before smashing the penalty home right through the middle to send the travelling Dons support into raptures.
AFC Wimbledon: Neil Sullivan, Curtis Osano, Warren Cummings, Pim Balkestein, Mat Mitchel-King, Stacy Long, Jack Midson (Luke Moore), Rashid Yussuff, Jonathan Meades, Paul McCallum (Jason Prior), Toby Ajala (Brendan Kiernan).