Wimbledon suffered their first defeat of 2013 tonight with League 2 leaders Vale proving too strong on this occasion.
The attacking verve and spirit that was such a feature of Wimbledon’s creditable 2-2 against the same opponents last month was sorely lacking as Neal Ardley’s men endured a 3-0 defeat.
Once Lee Hughes opened the scoring with the most basic of goals in the 13th minute, there never looked like being any other outcome but Wimbledon’s first away league defeat since the end of November at Morecambe.
Neal Ardley decided to shuffle his pack for this tough test against the League 2 leaders as he understandably adopted a more defensive approach. Wimbledon made four changes from the side which started against Burton Albion with centre-back Alan Bennett coming in for his debut as part of a 5-4-1 formation. Jim Fenlon also came into the defence in place of Jonathan Meades and Sammy Moore (pictured) was handed his first League 2 start since October to stiffen up the midfield with Harry Pell suspended. Rashid Yussuff was also restored to the side in place of Luke Moore. Jack Midson had to settle for a place on the bench with Gary Alexander starting on his own up front.
However, Wimbledon’s game plan went out of the window in the 13th minute when they conceded an opening goal that could not have been any simpler in its execution. Ryan Burge floated in a teasing free-kick from the left and Lee Hughes was left completely unmarked to nod home from just a few yards out. Vale started the game with a determination to show just why they are top of the table and Jennison Myrie-Williams, who was a potent threat in the corresponding fixture last month, let fly with a searing drive that fizzed just over the crossbar. Hughes then forced Neil Sullivan into a decent save at his near post.
Wimbledon did steady the ship and they produced their best spell of the match so far just before the half hour. First, Yussuff and Ajala combined to set Alexander free and Vale goalkeeper Chris Neal was forced into his first save after the Wimbledon striker tried his luck from an acute angle. The visitors then came even closer when Yussuff created a shooting chance for Ajala and his effort was just wide of the far post with Neal beaten. That promising spell counted for little though 10 minutes before half-time when Wimbledon only half cleared their lines and Ashley Vincent’s shot from outside the area took a wicked deflection that left Sullivan with no chance. Though Wimbledon did not deserve to be two goals down, a more attacking approach was required if they were to get anything from this game. Wimbledon now needed to repeat what their opponents had done to them 12 days ago by coming from 2-0 down against the odds.
The start of the second-half brought little change though as Wimbledon failed to create anything of note and Neal Ardley had seen enough by the 58th minute. He made a double substitution with Midson replacing Alexander and Paul McCallum on for Peter Sweeney. That almost paid off instantly when McCallum’s flick-on put Midson clean through, but his subsequent shot lacked conviction and Neal got down well to save. Wimbledon reverted to a 4-4-2 with 25 minutes left to play with Stacy Long replacing Pim Balkestein. However, it was so nearly all over for Wimbledon just a minute later when Tom Pope met a Myrie-Williams cross with a powerful header, but it bounced off the crossbar.
There was little to warm the hearts of the 147 Wimbledon supporters who had made the trip to Staffordshire as their side never looked like mounting a dramatic fightback. Vale had the points in the bag with 15 minutes left when they produced a moment of real quality to seal victory. Myrie Williams, who Wimbledon will be pleased to see the back of, again broke free down the left and sent over a superb cross that Vincent met with a stunning half volley to leave Sullivan with no chance.
With the match now over as a contest, Wimbledon at least showed a desire to salvage pride and Stacy Long had a powerful drive well saved by Neal. However, Wimbledon only threatened a consolation again when Yussuff was denied in injury-time and Neal Ardley will surely be demanding a reaction from his players at Chesterfield on Saturday.
AFC Wimbledon: Neil Sullivan, Jim Fenlon, Chris Hussey, Pim Balkestein (Stacy Long), Alan Bennett, Mat Mitchel-King, Toby Ajala, Peter Sweeney (Paul McCallum), Gary Alexander (Jack Midson), Sammy Moore, Rashid Yussuff.