A spirited Wimbledon display gave the League 2 leaders a big scare tonight with a Jack Midson double almost turning the form book on its head.
In front of the Sky Sports cameras, Neal Ardley’s men rose to the challenge, but had to settle for a 2-2 draw after squandering a two-goal lead.
However, the point extended Wimbledon’s unbeaten run to four and the manner of the performance bodes well for their hopes of avoiding the drop this season.
Neal Ardley was forced into a defensive reshuffle against the league leaders with both Will Antwi and Curtis Osano missing out due to injury.
Pim Balkestein therefore came in for his first start since the New Year’s Day victory at Torquay United and Jim Fenlon was restored to the side in place of Osano. There was also first start since his Wimbledon return for Chris Hussey, who replaced Stacy Long with Jonathan Meades pushed forward into a midfield role.
The Dons made a bright start that belied the 26 points difference between the two sides before this match. One flowing move almost ended with the opener for Wimbledon when Toby Ajala and Paul McCallum combined to set-up a shooting chance for Meades, but his effort was just wide. However, there was no reprieve for the visitors in the eighth minute when Jack Midson struck the opener in superb fashion. Midson, who is making a habit of scoring in televised matches after his memorable diving header at Milton Keynes, scored another goal to savour when he produced a clinical first-time finish from Fenlon’s cross after good work from Meades.
It was a swift start which rocked Vale, but the visitors provided a glimpse of the form that has swept aside League 2 opposition of late when a fine move ended with Ryan Burge getting in behind Hussey, but his fierce shot from an acute angle produced an excellent fingertip save from Neil Sullivan. With the pressure steadily building from Vale, the Dons were forced deeper into their own half and they were fortunate to survive just before the half hour mark. Sullivan failed to hold a Richard Duffy drive, but Wimbledon just managed to scramble away the ball to safety. Though their attacks had become less frequent, Wimbledon continued to threaten when they did go forward and one fine move down the left between Hussey and Sweeney ended with McCallum heading Moore’s cross just over. However, an increasingly vocal home faithful never had too much longer to wait for a second as Midson struck again in the 42nd minute. Referee Graham Scott pointed to the penalty spot after Liam Chilvers fouled Balkestein in the box and Midson made no mistake from 12 yards with an emphatic strike that had the supporters behind the Nongshim Stand in raptures.
However, after a hugely impressive first-half from the Dons that combined steely defending with a cutting edge in attack, there was a sting in the tail for Wimbledon when Vale halved the deficit within 90 seconds. There looked to be little danger when Daniel Jones picked up the ball 35 yards out, but he let fly with a powerful drive that Sullivan just failed to reach.
Playing towards the Tempest End in the second-half, Wimbledon made a whirlwind start after the break and they thought they were celebrating a third goal in the very first minute after the restart. Toby Ajala’s shot was deflected in by Midson, but a linesman’s flag denied the Wimbledon striker a hat-trick. With the second-half continuing to be an open affair as both sides showed attacking intent, Wimbledon needed Sullivan to be at his best with an excellent flying save to deny Vale’s top scorer Tom Pope. However, Wimbledon conceded an equaliser that could so easily have been avoided in the 58th minute when Mat Mitchel-King’s back pass was too short and Pope rounded Sullivan and made no mistake from an acute angle. Vale sensed blood after that equaliser and they finally began to show just why they are top of the table. They should have been in front when Jennison Myrie-Williams showed Hussey a clean pair of heels and crossed for Lee Hughes, but his shot was too close to Sullivan.
With Wimbledon now struggling to contain the visitors, Neal Ardley made a tactical change by bolstering his midfield with the introduction of Sammy Moore, who made his first League 2 appearance since October in place of Ajala. With that failing to get Wimbledon firing again, the Dons boss made another change with 17 minutes left as Byron Harrison replaced McCallum up front. Just minutes later, Wimbledon had to alter things again when Meades came off injured and Stacy Long entered the fray.
Wimbledon had to withstand so much pressure from the visitors in the latter stages and they needed Sullivan to make another fine save to deny Myrie-Williams. However, Wimbledon were full vale for a point in the end as they scrapped for every ball in a battling performance against such a good attacking side.
AFC Wimbledon: Neil Sullivan, Jim Fenlon, Chris Hussey, Peter Sweeney, Pim Balkestein, Mat Mitchel-King, Toby Ajala (Sammy Moore), Jonathan Meades (Stacy Long), Paul McCallum (Byron Harrison), Luke Moore, Jack Midson.