Wimbledon's unbeaten league run came to an end today in disappointing fashion against opponents who belied their lowly position.
Rovers marched into a two-goal lead before half-time and eventually ran out 3-0 winners with Wimbledon's defeat compounded by a late red card for midfielder Sammy Moore.
In truth, Wimbledon never looked like extending their four-match unbeaten league run against a Rovers side that emerged as deserved winners on the day.
Neal Ardley resisted the temptation to make changes to his starting line-up and formation with Wimbledon’s five-man midfield expected to provide good support for lone front-man Michael Smith.
It was certainly a tactic that had paid off away from home recently with the Dons having taken four points from their last two matches on the road. And they were hoping to capitalise on any home uncertainty early on with Rovers occupying a place in the bottom three, nine points behind Wimbledon heading into this match.
Wimbledon created the first opening in the 10th minute with a fine team move that offered plenty of promise for the remainder of this match. Callum Kennedy found space on the left and delivered a fine cross that was headed on by Smith and Kaid Mohamed, no stranger in these parts having played for Bath City and Cheltenham, brought a decent save out of Steve Mildenhall.
There was controversy in the 13th minute when Smith powered through the middle onto a through ball and went down after a challenge by Rovers captain Tom Parkes. However, referee Gavin Ward bizarrely pointed for a free-kick to the hosts, a decision that resulted in Wimbledon’s players surrounding the official in protest. That stirred the hosts into action and just minutes later they had their first effort at goal when Dons goalkeeper Ross Worner collected Tom Lockyer’s effort at the second attempt. That came after Rovers pounced on a loose ball just outside the area and it served as a warning to Wimbledon after their bright start.
The home faithful did not have to wait long for the opener though when David Clarkson picked up the ball 20 yards out and unleashed a powerful drive that left Worner with no chance. There was no sign of Rovers sitting on their lead though and Wimbledon retreated deeper and deeper into their own half. Their pressure paid off on the half hour, but it was a particularly poor goal for Wimbledon to concede. Rovers captain Tom Parkes was left completely unmarked from Lee Brown’s in-swinging corner and he headed home emphatically from just a few yards out.
Wimbledon’s best spell of the first-half came just before the break when Alan Bennett (pictured) twice came close to reducing the deficit. First, Bennett’s glancing header sailed just wide from a teasing Callum Kennedy free-kick and then the same played failed to get enough of a connection on Kennedy’s corner and he just missed the target again. This was more like it from Wimbledon and it offered hope for the visitors that they could still get something from the game in the second-half.
Neal Ardley decided to shuffle his pack for the second-half with Luke Moore introduced for Peter Sweeney as part of a more attacking approach. Mohamed switched to a central role to support Smith with Luke Moore aiming to feed off any scraps.
It was almost game over for Wimbledon seven minutes after the break though when Harding got on the end of a long throw-in from Rovers defender Michael Smith and drove a shot into the side netting. Wimbledon recovered from that let-off with a spell that finally put Rovers under sustained pressure. And the visitors almost halved the deficit through George Porter, who came so close to silencing a home crowd that berated his every touch after he dared to claim a first-half penalty when his cross appeared to be handballed. Porter latched onto a loose ball and struck a decent volley that was just over the crossbar. That was Porter’s last contribution as he was substituted in the 63rd minute with Jack Midson entering the fray.
Wimbledon knew that a goal back would change everything and they came close to that aim when Mohamed beat Mildenhall to a Frampton cross, but the Rovers goalkeeper got back to tip the ball wide. Neal Ardley made another change with 19 minutes left with Kevin Sainte-Luce introduced for Kennedy.
Despite pressure from the Dons, it was all over near the end when Sammy Moore was dismissed for a second bookable offence after a late challenge on Rovers defender Michael Smith. There was worse to come for Wimbledon when Luke Moore gave away a penalty and Matt Harrold fired home from 12 yards.
It was a day to forget for Wimbledon and perhaps a two-week break without a game will provide an opportunity for Wimbledon to recharge their batteries and come back strong at home to Mansfield on 14 December.
AFC Wimbledon: Ross Worner, Barry Fuller, Andy Frampton, Alan Bennett, Callum Kennedy (Kevin Sainte-Luce), George Porter, Harry Pell, Sammy Moore, Peter Sweeney (Luke Moore), Kaid Mohamed, Michael Smith.