AFC Wimbledon secured their place in the Football League in dramatic fashion this afternoon with a Jack Midson penalty making it a day to savour for the Dons.
On an emotionally-charged final-day at the Cherry Red Records Stadium, Midson marked his 100th Wimbledon appearance with the decisive strike to earn a 2-1 win after Fleetwood had threatened to condemn them to non league football.
Neal Ardley decided to make two changes from the Wimbledon side that started at Gillingham with Curtis Osano’s first start for three-and-a-half months perhaps the most significant. The right-back made the starting line-up for the first time since Wycombe Wanderers at home on 12 January and Gary Alexander was also handed a recall in place of Jason Prior.
Many questioned how much desire Fleetwood would have for this occasion with the Cod Army having nothing to play for, but they struck an early warning shot in the first minute when Andy Mangan turned and fired a decent strike that was thankfully straight into John Sullivan’s arms. Shooting towards the Tempest End in the first-half, Wimbledon got their supporters in the mood by forcing two quick corners, but after a spell of pressure, they were almost caught on the break when Mangan broke through again and shot into the side-netting.
Wimbledon came so close to breaking the deadlock in the 16th minute when Alexander got on the end of a Luke Moore flick and was denied by Fleetwood goalkeeper Scott Davies and Jack Midson slotted the rebound over the bar. Osano added a new dimension with his long throws and one of them almost resulted in a goal when Alan Bennett rose highest in the box, but his header was cleared off the line. In a spell of sustained Wimbledon pressure, Alexander also shot straight at Davies from a Luke Moore cross. However, Fleetwood were proving to be a tough nut to crack with their defiance summed up by Davies, who made another great save to deny a powerful Harry Pell header from a Chris Hussey corner. At this stage, all that was lacking from Wimbledon was the finishing touch as they peppered the Fleetwood goal. It was the same high tempo that was so impressive to watch in the recent 2-2 draw against Exeter City and one felt that two goals today would be enough.
Despite all Wimbledon’s pressure, they were so nearly behind in the 33rd minute when Alan Bennett only half cleared a long ball and Ryan Crowther’s shot from an acute angle almost found the bottom corner. The 10 minutes before half-time was particularly worrying for Wimbledon with Fleetwood really turn the screw from set-pieces and that resulted in a spell of desperate defending from the hosts. Though they rode that spell of pressure out to go in 0-0 at half-time, Wimbledon needed to recapture the attacking play of the first half hour if they were to get the goal they needed.
The Dons came so close to taking the lead with their first attack after the break when Midson struck the woodwork at the second attempt and then Pell’s follow-up was cleared off the line. It was a moment when you wondered whether it was really meant to be for Wimbledon. However, the breakthrough for Wimbledon came on the hour when Sammy Moore’s free-kick was headed home emphatically by Gary Alexander.
There was barely time for the Wimbledon faithful to celebrate that goal before Fleetwood drew level. Less than a minute later a corner was swung in and Andy Mangan scrambled home an equaliser. There was a danger that such a setback could have deflated Wimbledon, but they continued to pile forward and they were rewarded when Curtis Osano was brought down in the box by Robert Atkinson and referee James Linnington pointed to the penalty spot. Midson stepped up in the 72nd minute and sent Davies the wrong way with a cool penalty that Wimbledon so desperately hoped would be enough. That still left a long time for Wimbledon to repel a Fleetwood side determined to draw level. They so nearly did when Pond got on the end of a corner, but he headed just wide of the target and Wimbledon could breathe again.
With Wimbledon desperate to hold onto what they had, Neal Ardley decided to make a defensive change and Will Antwi was sent on in place of Luke Moore. In a tense finale that saw Wimbledon camped in their own half, Fleetwood exerted so much pressure and five minutes of injury-time hardly helped the hosts, but they scrambled home to deservedly stay up.
AFC Wimbledon: John Sullivan, Curtis Osano, Chris Hussey, Sammy Moore (Charlie Strutton), Alan Bennett, Pim Balkestein, Jonathan Meades, Harry Pell, Gary Alexander (Jason Prior), Jack Midson, Luke Moore (Will Antwi).