Wimbledon staged a sensational fightback for the second successive season at Gillingham today to keep their survival hopes alive.
Second-half goals from Jack Midson and Jonathan Meades helped the Dons come back from the dead and snatch a 2-2 draw after they were two down at half-time. It was just reward for a spirited Wimbledon display after the break that was in complete contrast to their below-par first-half showing. It was such a turnaround from the Dons that they came so close to spoiling Gillingham’s title-winning party, but the hosts just held on to clinch the League 2 championship.
Neal Ardley made just one change from the side that started against Exeter City, but it was a really big call for such a big occasion with Jason Prior handed an instant return. Prior, who had not made a League 2 start since April, 2012, was thrown straight back after in after being recalled from his loan spell at Dartford with Kevin Sainte-Luce on the bench.
In front of a sell-out 11,000 crowd and with this match meaning so much to both sides, it was perhaps not surprising that it was a frenetic start and Gills showed just why they have secured promotion by taking the lead in the 12th minute. However, it was a sloppy goal for Wimbledon to concede with Pim Balkestein’s header from a cross directed straight into the path of Deon Burton and he produced a fierce drive that left John Sullivan with no chance. Though Wimbledon did respond with their first spell of meaningful possession, the hosts doubled their advantage in the 23rd minute and it was Danny Kedwell who struck in emphatic fashion. Showing the aerial ability that made him such a favourite with the Wimbledon faithful, Kedwell met Chris Whelpdale’s searching cross with a bullet header into the top corner. As he promised during the build-up, Kedwell refused to celebrate in front of the Wimbledon supporters.
Wimbledon were now faced with having to repeat their remarkable fightback of last season at the same venue, but they struggled to get back into it and they were all over the place at the back. After another cross was only half cleared, Charlie Allen’s drive was just wide of the target. Wimbledon failed to test Gillingham goalkeeper Stuart Nelson during the first-half and they were going to have to show far more attacking purpose to find a way back into this match.
Wimbledon did show greater drive after the restart and Luke Moore had their best effort so far when he latched onto a loose ball and fired a shot just wide of the far target from 20 yards. Then followed Wimbledon’s most promising move of the match when Harry Pell and Jonathan Meades combined to set-up a good chance for Hussey, but his effort was high and wide. The game had now become stretched with Wimbledon going all out for a lifeline and that offering Gillingham space to catch their opponents on the break. At one end, Wimbledon had a great chance when Luke Moore put Prior through, but the striker took too long and his chance was gone. However, Gills substitute Myles Weston thundered a shot against the crossbar as Gillingham tried to seal victory.
Neal Ardley made a double change on the hour with Charlie Strutton and Curtis Osano replacing Jason Prior and Mat Mitchel-King. Straight away Strutton made an impact by winning a corner and the Dons finally tested Nelson a couple of minutes later when Balkestein forced the Gillingham goalkeeper into a fine save with a flying header. Wimbledon appeared to have a renewed spirit about them and they were back in it in the 65th minute with a goal to savour. Meades sent over a teasing cross to the back post and after Strutton had knocked the ball back smartly, Jack Midson showed that predatory instinct to get in front of his marker and make it 2-1. That goal completely changed the match and with Wimbledon now playing towards their 1,119 travelling support, the visitors started to dominate.
With Gillingham’s defensive resilience having been such a factor in their promotion, the hosts were going to be a tough nut to crack. With that in mind, Neal Ardley played his final card by sending on Gary Alexander for Sammy Moore. A minute later and the Dons were level when Midson broke free down the left and delivered a perfect pass for Meades, who stabbed home from close range to send the Wimbledon fans into raptures. Wimbledon came so close to snatching the lead when Alexander struck a superb effort that thudded against the upright.
There was only one team likely to win it in the final stages and that was Wimbledon. They laid siege to the Gillingham goal in the final minutes, but Gillingham just held on to win the League 2 title and Wimbledon notched a vital point that could be so important come 5.00 pm on 27 April.
AFC Wimbledon: John Sullivan, Pim Balkestein, Mat Mitchel-King (Curtis Osano), Sammy Moore (Gary Alexander), Jack Midson, Luke Moore, Harry Pell, Jason Prior (Charlie Strutton), Jonathan Meades, Alan Bennett, Chris Hussey.