AFC Wimbledon’s unbeaten league away record came to an end at Kenilworth Road today after a game that turned on referee Brendan Malone’s decision to show a red card to Karleigh Osborne.
The Dons eventually went down 2-0 after two late goals from Luton substitute Jack Marriott, but Neal Ardley’s men battled admirably for 55 minutes with one man less. And Wimbledon could even have rewarded the 588 travelling Dons with a late equaliser as a header from Bayo Akinfenwa produced a brilliant save from Luton goalkeeper Mark Tyler.
While defeat was hard to take, Wimbledon’s overall display was good on the day and the visitors could even have earned a point with 10 men.
Neal Ardley made two changes to his starting line-up after that late victory last time out against Notts County. Ade Azeez was given the nod to make his first League 2 start of the season with Tom Elliott missing out and as expected Karleigh Osborne came back into the side due to Will Nightingale’s injury.
Though Luton came into this match having made a start to the campaign well below pre-season expectations, the Hatters did beat Mansfield in their last home game. They started with a determination to build upon that and Osborne was twice required to make vital interceptions, the second of them when he headed a cross clear after Stephen O’Donnell had found space down Wimbledon’s left.
However, Wimbledon started to dictate matters following the opening exchanges with Jake Reeves and Dannie Bulman getting on the ball in midfield. Andy Barcham was proving to be a constant menace to McDonnell down the flank and Francomb was also a useful outlet on the other side. Indeed, it was Francomb who had the first shot on target when he combined with Barcham from a short corner and cut inside, but his effort was too close to Luton goalkeeper Mark Tyler. Then Francomb picked out Bayo Akinfenwa with a lovely ball and the Dons striker headed just wide.
As we approached the half hour mark, Wimbledon continued to dominate. Jake Reeves tried his luck with a 20-yard effort that had Tyler scrambling to his left, but the Luton goalkeeper just tipped wide. Akinfenwa also headed wide again, before Barcham produced a superb mazy run that ended with a shot saved by Tyler.
Luton finally started to put some pressure on and they had their first effort at goal in the 32nd minute when James Shea had to get down low and hold a header across goal from Josh McQuoid. There was then a good chance for Craig Mackail-Smith, but he sliced well off target. However, Luton were given a big lift in the 35th minute when Osborne was red carded. Just a few minutes after being booked for a late challenge that stopped McQuoid making a quick break, the Wimbledon defender was shown a second yellow card. Certainly, Osborne’s tackle on Cameron McGeehan appeared to be innocuous, but referee Brendan Malone adjudged that it merited another booking.
Despite being down to 10 men, the Dons held on comfortably until half-time with Francomb switching to his old position of right-back. It had been an impressive first-half from Wimbledon, but the sending off gave a below-par Luton confidence for the second-half.
The Dons made a half-time change, but it was not a defensive one as Sean Rigg entered the fray for Ade Azeez. Rigg was immediately involved and he volleyed wide after latching onto a flick on from Akinfenwa. Wimbledon continued to press forward despite their numerical disadvantage and fine combination play between Barcham and Meades ended with the latter striking a cross that flashed across the face of goal. Akinfenwa then had a header saved by Tyler, but referee Malone adjudged that he had fouled his marker.
Luton at last started to build some pressure as the hour mark approached. James Shea made an excellent full stretch save to deny Scott Griffiths after Luton had opened up space on Wimbledon’s right side. That had been Luton’s only real chance so far as Wimbledon held firm at the back. Fine combination play down the left from Barcham and Meades offered a good outlet, particularly with one man less. The Dons were having enough spells of possession to ensure that it was not completely backs to the wall.
Rigg offered fresh legs to carry a threat for Wimbledon and he had a shot that flashed wide from 30 yards. Then Reeves and Francomb combined down the right to set-up a chance for Akinfenwa, but his header lacked conviction and Tyler watched it go wide.
Luton struggled to get in behind Wimbledon, despite having a one-man advantage and they tried to force the ball home after a goalmouth scramble, but Rigg managed to clear. Rigg was everywhere in the second half and threatened to win it for Wimbledon with a fierce 20-yard drive that produced an excellent save from Tyler.
With 13 minutes left, Wimbledon needed captain Barry Fuller to make a brilliant last-ditch block to stop Luton finding the breakthrough. However, the opener did arrive a minute later when Luton substitute Jack Marriott forced the ball home after a half cleared corner had been swept back into the box by Alex Lawless. There was a big moment shortly afterwards for 18-year-old academy product Egli Kaja, who came on for his debut in place of Barcham.
Wimbledon refused to lie down though and a late equaliser so nearly arrived five minutes from time. Francomb sent over another cross and Akinfenwa met it with a looping header that produced a fingertip save from Tyler. However, Marriott steered home in injury-time after Shea had saved McGeehan's initial effort and there was no way back for Wimbledon.
AFC Wimbledon: James Shea, Barry Fuller, Dannie Bulman (George Oakley), Paul Robinson, George Francomb, Jake Reeves, Bayo Akinfenwa, Jon Meades, Ade Azeez (Sean Rigg), Andy Barcham (Egli Kaja), Karleigh Osborne.