A trip to Exeter again turned out to be fruitless for Wimbledon, but it was a match that turned completely when Dannie Bulman was sent off in the 25th minute.
Bayo Akinfenwa put the Dons in front with a goal of the season contender and it could have been 2-0 when George Francomb struck the post, but Bulman’s red card handed Exeter the initiative and they eventually triumphed 3-2.
Even at 3-1 down with 10 men, Wimbledon made a game of it in front of 354 travelling Dons fans and a late own goal from Exeter goalkeeper James Hamon had the hosts sweating on the outcome.
The Dons made two changes with Dave Winfield restored in defence alongside Deji Oshilaja after he was ineligible against York and Craig Tanner was preferred to Ade Azeez.
Wimbledon were bidding to end a barren run away from home with Neal Ardley’s men having failed to win in six and that included four successive games without a goal. However, Exeter’s home record was not too favourable either as they had gone five without a win in South Devon.
A swift start from the Dons suggested they could take advantage of any uncertainty in the home ranks and Bayo Akinfenwa wasted no time ending a run of seven games without a goal. It was certainly worth the wait when it arrived as Akinfenwa showed a sublime first touch 20 yards out before letting fly with a looping half volley that left Exeter goalkeeper James Hamon with no chance.
The hosts recovered well and it needed fine goalkeeping from Joe McDonnell to maintain the advantage. The 20-year-old stopper saved well from Ryan Harley and then he got up well to make it tough for Tom Nichols, who fired against the outside of the post. At this stage, Exeter started to work up a head of steam and it needed Deji Oshilaja to make a wonderful last-ditch tackle to stop Liam Sercombe going through.
Just when Wimbledon were starting to get on top again, came a real turning point when Dannie Bulman was shown a straight red card for a rash challenge on Connor Riley-Lowe. Referee Darren Deadman had no hesitation in brandishing the red card and it was always going to be a tough task for Wimbledon with just 25 minutes on the clock. McDonnell reacted brilliantly to save with his feet from Tom Nichols and it needed fine blocks from Barry Fuller and Dave Winfield to maintain the advantage.
It was far from a case of Wimbledon settling for what they had and George Francomb struck a fine volley that was deflected onto the inside of a post and Exeter were fortunate that the ball bounced away to safety. Akinfenwa produced a hugely impressive first-half as his fine touches and hold-up play allowed Wimbledon to do more than just hang on. The Dons were slightly fortunate just before half-time though when a Tom Nichols effort took a deflection and bounced off the top of the crossbar.
Despite playing with 10 men, it had been far from backs-to-the wall for Wimbledon as they safely held out until half-time.
The second half started with a promising passage of play from Wimbledon with Craig Tanner sending over a teasing cross that Hamon just managed to palm away before Akinfenwa could apply the finishing touch. However, with the Dons gradually being forced to defend deeper, pressure from Exeter eventually paid off. A Ryan Harley cross fell nicely for Tom Nichols and his low drive left Joe McDonnell with no chance.
Neal Ardley made a treble change on the hour with Callum Kennedy, Ade Azeez and Sammy Moore all entering the fray for Alfie Potter, Akinfenwa and Craig Tanner.
Wimbledon appeared to have weathered the storm, but a decision from the referee to award what appeared a soft penalty effectively ended the match as a contest. There seemed to be minimal contact when Winfield challenged substitute Clinton Morrison, but Deadman pointed to the spot and Nichols made no mistake from 12 yards in the 66th minute. Less than three minutes later it was 3-1 when a cross from Riley-Conor was pulled back by Nichols and David Wheeler fired home number three.
It appeared that Exeter were going to coast to victory, but there was a twist in the tale when a header from Deji Oshilaja bounced off a post and was deflected in by Exeter goalkeeper Hamon with one minute of normal time remaining. That was the signal for Wimbledon to pour forward and in a frantic finale Winfield appealed for a penalty after being felled in the area, before the same player headed wide. It was not to be though for Wimbledon and the Dons have a quick chance to pick themselves up at Mansfield on Tuesday.
AFC Wimbledon: Joe McDonnell, Barry Fuller, Jack Smith, Dannie Bulman, George Francomb, Bayo Akinfenwa (Ade Azeez), Jake Reeves, Craig Tanner (Sammy Moore), Alfie Potter (Callum Kennedy), Dave Winfield, Deji Oshilaja.