The Dons suffered injury-time heartbreak tonight at Roots Hall with a last-gasp Ryan Cresswell header edging it for Southend.
It was a cruel way for AFC Wimbledon to bow out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy after an encouraging performance from Terry Brown’s men. Eighteen-year-old Frankie Merrifield had given Wimbledon a half-time lead with his first senior goal, but the Shrimpers equalised through a Gavin Tomlin penalty and Cresswell made it 2-1 in the fourth and final minute of stoppage time to deny spectators a penalty shoot-out.
Terry Brown made five changes from the side that started against Dagenham & Redbridge with four AFC Wimbledon academy products all offered opportunities to stake their claims.
Along with Jim Fenlon retaining his place, Frankie Merrifield, Brendan Kiernan and Huw Johnson were all in from the start with Christian Jolley, Stacy Long and Louis Harris missing out. There was also a debut for goalkeeper Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz in place of Seb Brown and Angus MacDonald came in at centre-back for Pim Balkestein.
The Dons were second best early on and they were very fortunate not to fall behind in the 10th minute when Gavin Tomlin, who scored twice against Wimbledon in the 4-3 win at Gillingham in January, showed his threat once again. After powering through the Dons defence, Tomlin’s initial cross was diverted back to him by George Francomb, but the Southend striker fired against a post from just six yards. Jaimez-Ruiz then had to watch a dangerous Michael Timlin free-kick all the way as Southend continued to press. The visitors needed the woodwork to save them again in the 19th minute when Ryan Leonard headed against the crossbar with a looping header that had Jaimez-Ruiz beaten.
Wimbledon did recover their composure after that shaky spell though and they had their first real chance when Merrifield produced a sharp turn to create space for himself in the box, but he dragged his shot wide from close range. The Dons were gradually growing in confidence as they finally enjoyed a good spell of pressure, albeit without testing Southend goalkeeper Paul Smith. However, the hosts continued to be dangerous on the break and it needed Dale Bennett to produce a last-gasp block that stopped what would have been a certain goal for Tomlin.
However, the Dons opened the scoring with their first shot on target in the 39th minute and it was a magical moment for young Merrifield. The midfielder slotted home emphatically after a flowing move down the left involving Sammy Moore, Brendan Kiernan and Jim Fenlon to provide some cheer for the 132 travelling Dons fans. Having got the break they needed on their travels this season, the Dons were in no mood to sit on what they had and Sammy Moore struck a fierce drive from 30 yards that Smith was forced to palm away at full stretch.
The Dons started the second-half well and more good work down the left wing from Fenlon almost resulted in a chance for Byron Harrison. However, Jaimez-Ruiz had to be alert to keep out a rising drive from John Spicer as the pressure from the hosts started to build. And the hosts were rewarded in the 58th minute with the equaliser after George Francomb brought down Britt Assombalonga in the box and Tomlin sent Jaimez-Ruiz the wrong way from the subsequent spot-kick. Jaimez-Ruiz made a fine reflex save in the 63rd minute though when he reacted well to get the slightest of touches to deny Spicer after a cross from Leonard.
At this stage the defending from the Dons was getting increasingly desperate, but they did weather the storm and created a few promising moves of their own, one of them ending with a smart chip from substitute Stacy Long that was just too high after good approach play from Harrison. Jaimez-Ruiz made his best save of the match though 20 minutes from time when he saved superbly at his neat post to deny Assombalonga what looked like being a certain goal.
The Dons came so close to securing a passage into the next round seven minutes from time when Harrison’s cross from the right was diverted towards his own goal by Chris Barker, but Smith just managed to pull off a last-gasp save. Harrison then forced Smith into another excellent save after a fine turn and shot from the rejuvenated striker.
However, just when it looked like going to penalties there was a sting in the tail for the Dons when a Neil Harris cross was headed home by Cresswell with virtually the last action of an entertaining match.
AFC Wimbledon: Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz, George Francomb, Jim Fenlon (Christian Jolley), Sammy Moore, Angus MacDonald (Pim Balkestein), Dale Bennett, Frankie Merrifield, Huw Johnson, Jack Midson, Byron Harrison, Brendan Kiernan (Stacy Long).