Substitute Ade Azeez was Wimbledon’s hero as he salvaged a point from a hugely entertaining match at Brunton Park.
Azeez struck in injury-time to make it a happy ending for the 420 Dons fans who made the long trip as they watched their team battle back from 4-2 down to earn a 4-4 draw. Though it was a spectacle to savour for goals and chances, it was a match characterized by kamikaze defending from both sides.
Neal Ardley made five changes to his starting line-up after the JPT triumph against Southend, but significantly Jake Nicholson was retained in midfield to make his first league start this season.
Dannie Bulman, Alan Bennett, Sammy Moore, Matt Tubbs and Bayo Akinfenwa were all restored to the side with Tom Beere, Mark Phillips, Kevin Sainte-Luce and Ade Azeez on the bench and Harry Pell suspended.
Managerless Carlisle, who placed Tony Caig and Paul Thirlwell in temporary charge after the sacking of Graham Kavanagh on Monday, suffered a blow in the build-up with striker Billy Paynter ruled out through injury and replaced by Stephen Elliott.
Having had such a testing start to the season, Carlisle made a very edgy start and they gift-wrapped the opening goal to Wimbledon. There appeared to be little danger when Carlisle defender David Symington attempted to control the ball in the area, but he made a complete hash of it and Sean Rigg needed no second invitation to drill home from close range.
At this stage, Carlisle looked devoid of confidence and appeared to be there for the taking. Another mistake led to a shooting chance for Rigg, but this time he blazed wide. However, the Dons conceded a sloppy goal in the 13th minute to let the hosts back into it. Tubbs gave the ball away in the middle and Patrick Brough got behind Barry Fuller, before sending over a teasing cross that Kyle Dempsey headed emphatically into the top corner. Wimbledon then needed goalkeeper James Shea to keep them level as he got down low to save from Elliott.
However, the key difference for Wimbledon this season is their attacking threat and they always look likely to score on the break away from home. That was best summed up by the goal that restored Wimbledon’s advantage midway through the first-half. Rigg, who had such an impressive first-half, picked out Tubbs and though Carlisle goalkeeper Mark Gillespie got a hand to his effort, he was beaten by the power and it was 2-1. The Dons now had a real opportunity to kill off a Carlisle side struggling to make any impression. Nicholson produced a promising first-half on the right side of midfield and he sent over a lovely ball that Bayo Akinfenwa was so close to getting on the end of. Nicholson then had a half chance after a poor clearance from Gillespie, but he shot just wide.
Wimbledon should have piled on the misery for Carlisle just minutes before the break when Dannie Bulman and Tubbs linked-up brilliantly down the right, but Rigg shot wide from close range. The Dons were made to pay for that miss as Carlisle scored the most simplistic of goals in first-half injury-time. Brad Potts rose highest in the box to meet a corner and Dempsey had an easy task to notch his second of the game. It had certainly been an entertaining first-half for the sizeable Dons travelling support that made the long trip, but they had watched their side twice squander a lead through slack defensive play.
With both sides hardly offering much in the way of defensive solidity, there appeared to be plenty of goals left in this match. Akinfenwa came close to netting his first Dons goal shortly after the restart when a lovely piece of skill set-up a shooting chance for himself, but his curler was tipped around the post by Gillespie. Wimbledon fell behind for the first time seven minutes after the break. It was a lovely goal from a Carlisle perspective as Josh Gillies cut inside and curled home emphatically, but he was left completely unchallenged to pick his spot.
The Dons lost their way after conceding a third goal and Neal Ardley made a double change midway through the second-half with Kevin Sainte-Luce and Ade Azeez entering the fray for Sammy Moore and Sean Rigg. However, Wimbledon had a mountain to climb with just 19 minutes left as Carlisle secured a two-goal cushion. The goal was created right through the middle as Dempsey made space for himself and unselfishly set-up Brad Potts, who curled home brilliantly.
With Wimbledon struggling to get back into it, they were handed a lifeline 10 minutes from time. Referee Andy Haines adjudged that Gary Dicker handled a shot from Azeez in the box and Tubbs made no mistake from 12 yards after the Carlisle man was red carded. That changed everything and the Dons piled forward in search of an equaliser. However, it looked like the Dons were on their way to a third successive defeat until a last-gasp leveller in injury-time. A header on from Akinfenwa fell nicely for Tubbs and though Gillespie turned away his header, substitute Azeez was in the right place to earn a dramatic equaliser.
AFC Wimbledon: James Shea, Barry Fuller, Dannie Bulman, Alan Bennett, Sammy Moore (Ade Azeez), Matt Tubbs, Bayo Akinfenwa, Sean Rigg (Kevin Sainte-Luce), Callum Kennedy, Jake Nicholson (Tom Beere), Adam Barrett.