Wimbledon were denied the perfect start to Neal Ardley’s first full season in charge with an injury-time Aaron Downes header earning a share of the spoils for Torquay.
All the action came right at the death with Harry Pell seemingly snatching all three points for the Dons three minutes from time with a deflected effort, before that late intervention from Downes made it 1-1.
Neal Ardley handed competitive debuts to six new players as part of a new-look Wimbledon side at Plainmoor.
It was virtually a completely different back-line with new trio Barry Fuller, Andy Frampton and Callum Kennedy joining captain Alan Bennett in defence and Ross Worner behind them between the sticks.
The attack had a youthful edge to it too with George Porter supporting lone frontman Michael Smith and Jack Midson left on the bench. Wimbledon’s young loan pair made an exuberant start and they almost sparked an opening goal in the second minute when Porter’s defence-splitting pass put Smith through, but he was denied by Torquay goalkeeper Martin Rice. Tall target man Smith was proving to be a handful early on and his aerial threat set-up George Francomb for a shooting chance, but he fired wide from an acute angle.
In a really open start to this match, Torquay showed their threat though from set-pieces when Wimbledon failed to clear a free-kick and Callum Bell had the ball in the net, but it was ruled out for offside. The visitors, backed by 772 Dons supporters, continued their bright forward play with Francomb producing a decent save from Rice. Porter, who produced a promising start to his Dons career, was looking for his former Colchester United team-mate Smith at every opportunity and he put over a teasing cross that was headed wide by the striker.
Wimbledon produced the move of the match so far in the 42nd minute with a passing movement that really deserved a goal. Smith, who was excellent in the first-half, was once again the instigator as he picked out Francomb on the right side and his cross was met first-time at the far post by Luke Moore, but his effort was saved at point-blank range by Rice. Wimbledon could be well pleased with their first-half efforts as Torquay were allowed very few opportunities and at the other end there had been an admirable cutting edge from the visitors.
Unsurprisingly considering Wimbledon’s first-half display, Neal Ardley made no changes at half-time. However, Torquay made the better start after the break and they came closest to a breakthrough when on-loan Derby striker Ball burst through and struck a powerful effort that bounced off a post. Wimbledon started to dictate matters once again around the hour mark as they played towards the vocal Dons travelling army. Smith had produced a tireless performance as Wimbledon’s lone frontman and he almost had the reward of a debut goal with a powerful drive from just inside the box that Rice did well to turn away. Wimbledon’s swift attacking breaks offered promise for the season ahead and there was more to come in this match too with Harry Pell producing an inch-perfect pass that Porter almost converted at the far post.
Neal Ardley’s triple substitution in the 67th minute showed that Wimbledon were refusing to settle for a point. Jack Midson, Chris Arthur and Charlie Sheringham were all handed opportunities to make a difference with Smith, Francomb and Porter all making way. Arthur made an instant impact and his superb run and cross was almost turned in by that man Midson, but the impressive Rice made another good save.
At the other end there had been little to trouble Wimbledon with Torquay having been restricted to long-range efforts. However, that almost changed with five minutes left when Torquay substitute Jordan Chapell struck a fine effort that had Worner scrambling across his goal, but the ball sailed just wide. The breakthrough came in the 87th minute and it was Wimbledon celebrating when Pell powered a shot from 20 yards that took a wicked deflection off Aaron Downes and deceived Rice. It was certainly a worthy lead for the Dons and the celebrations were not too bad either as Pell marched towards the Wimbledon dug-out to celebrate. That looked like providing Wimbledon with a great start to Neal Ardley's first full season in charge until Downes atoned for his earlier error by beating Worner with a flying header in injury-time.
The late setback took the shine off an impressive Dons display, but the overall performance certainly bodes well for the rest of this season.
AFC Wimbledon: Ross Worner, Barry Fuller, Callum Kennedy, Peter Sweeney, Andy Frampton, Alan Bennett, George Francomb (Chris Arthur), Michael Smith (Jack Midson), Luke Moore, Harry Pell, George Porter (Charlie Sheringham).