The Dons went down fighting at promotion contenders Cheltenham this afternoon as their second-half rally just failed to earn a point at the Abbey Business Stadium.
Cheltenham appeared to be coasting to victory after goals from Steve Elliott and Darren Carter, but substitute Brennan Dickenson pulled the score back to 2-1 after good work by Chris Hussey (pictured) and Wimbledon came so close to changing the final scoreline near the end. Indeed, they should have done as Jack Midson missed an open goal after more superb play from Dickenson.
Neal Ardley made just one change to the side that started against Plymouth in midweek with Jesse Darko replacing Brennan Dickenson up front. It was therefore an attacking Wimbledon line-up once again with Jack Midson and Gary Alexander supporting Darko up front, though that pair were under instructions to tuck in and do a job for the team when Wimbledon were defending. Captain Mat Mitchel-King retained his place at right-back with Jonathan Meades missing out through injury.
The Dons made a bright start and created a half chance in just the third minute when Harry Pell, Gary Alexander and Jesse Darko combined to set-up a shooting chance for Luke Moore, but his goal-bound shot was blocked. Wimbledon were so nearly 1-0 down though shortly afterwards when Neil Sullivan was forced to make a superb low save to deny a curled effort from Darren Carter. However, there was no lifeline for the Dons in the 10th minute when they were punished for slack marking from a free-kick. Admittedly, it was a well delivered free-kick from Billy Jones that set-up the goal, but the marking from Wimbledon was non-existent as Steve Elliott was allowed plenty of time to head home from close range. That setback for the visitors meant that their game plan of keeping things tight early on and hitting on the break had gone out of the window. And it was not going to be easy to get back into it for Wimbledon with Cheltenham’s talented midfield quartet of Carter, Marlon Pack, Russell Penn and Sam Deering dominating possession.
Despite a few promising moments created by good hold-up play from Darko, Wimbledon struggled to create anything of note and Cheltenham goalkeeper Scott Brown was finally forced into action for the first time in the 33rd minute when he made a routine save to deny Chris Hussey’s 30-yard free-kick. There was a half chance a couple of minutes later when Pim Balkestein got his head to a Luke Moore corner, but he could not direct the ball on target. As the first-half drew to its conclusion, Wimbledon started to come into it with Luke Moore’s energetic performance on the right side driving the visitors on. One of his crosses was so close to being converted by Alexander and then the Wimbledon striker headed wide from a Hussey corner. However, too often Wimbledon’s final ball was sorely lacking and that needed to be better if the visitors were to get anything from this game during the second-half.
Wimbledon started the second-half with more energy and drive, in particular from Hussey down the left and he produced a fine run and cross that created a chance for Alexander, but he headed wide at the near post. The Dons were left with a mountain to climb though in the 56th minute when Cheltenham doubled their advantage. With the visitors caught on the break, Cheltenham exploited space down Wimbledon’s left and Penn set-up a shooting chance for Carter, who beat Sullivan with a fine strike from 20 yards.
Neal Ardley made a double change in the 62nd minute and it was a bold move too with Kevin Sainte-Luce and Brennan Dickenson both entering the fray for Luke Moore and Jesse Darko. That brought an instant response less than 60 seconds later when Dickenson scored with his very first touch after entering as a substitute. Hussey was the instigator with his cross from the right finding its way all the way through to Dickenson on the left and he unleashed a thunderbolt of a drive that left Brown with absolutely no chance. It was game on now and Wimbledon really pressed Cheltenham back for the first time in the match. Mitchel-King almost emerged as an unlikely hero when he got his foot to a Hussey corner, but he could not quite divert the volley into the net.
The Dons should have drawn level with 15 minutes to go when more great work from Dickenson down the left set-up Midson for a chance that he would normally convert with ease, but he shot over from just six yards in what had to go down as a glaring miss. It was Midson’s last act of the match as Neal Ardley had already decided to bring him off for Charlie Strutton.
Despite late Wimbledon pressure with Sainte-Luce having a fierce goal-bound shot blocked, the visitors could not complete what would have been a superb fightback in front of 500 travelling Dons supporters.
AFC Wimbledon: Neil Sullivan, Pim Balkestein, Mat Mitchel-King, Sammy Moore, Jack Midson (Charlie Strutton), Luke Moore (Kevin Sainte-Luce), Harry Pell, Jesse Darko (Brennan Dickenson), Gary Alexander, Alan Bennett, Chris Hussey.