Wimbledon's play-off hopes suffered a big blow today with Neal Ardley's men falling to a third successive away defeat.
Despite plenty of late pressure from Wimbledon, an equaliser failed to arrive with the Dons beaten 1-0 at Hartlepool for a second season in a row.
Neal Ardley made just one enforced change to his starting line-up with Paul Robinson missing out due to injury and that meant a recall for Ryan Sweeney at centre-back.
Though Hartlepool had the first effort at goal in the 11th minute when Kelle Roos saved from a Jake Carroll shot after a free-kick, Wimbledon showed plenty of early promise. Lyle Taylor created space for himself down the right early on, but his cross failed to pick a Dons shirt out in the middle. Then Andy Barcham turned inside and struck a decent effort that Hartlepool goalkeeper Trevor Carson saved.
Despite restricting the hosts to very little, Wimbledon slipped behind in the 22nd minute and it was a poor goal to concede. A routine ball into the box from a free-kick was only half cleared and when Luke James knocked it back into the area, Adam Jackson was left with too much space to head home. The Dons did respond well with George Francomb delivering a brilliant cross from the right that flashed across the face of goal, before Dannie Bulman tried his luck with a 25-yard effort that almost caught out Carson, but bounced just wide.
However, Wimbledon were very fortunate to survive in the 36th minute as Hartlepool came so close to a second. Hartlepool striker Billy Paynter created space through the middle and the lively Luke James cracked a fierce shot against a post. At the other end, Wimbledon’s final ball was too often letting them down. Bulman and Jake Reeves were gaining enough possession to create openings, but another potential chance went begging when Andy Barcham lofted a cross too deep with team-mates waiting in the middle. There was perhaps hope for the visitors though with the space they were finding down the flanks.
The Dons ended the half strongly and created a good chance when Jake Reeves put through a lovely ball for Taylor in behind, but he was unable to get enough power on his shot and Carson saved comfortably. Such moments of promise needed to be finished with more conviction if the Dons were to come away from Hartlepool with something to show for their efforts.
The second-half started with Wimbledon really going for it, but chances were proving tough to come by against a Hartlepool side who held leaders Northampton last month. With the Dons having created little of note by the hour, Neal Ardley made a change up front with Tom Elliott entering the fray for Murphy. Elliott had made a big difference as a second-half substitute against York last Saturday and it didn’t take him long to get involved as he headed a corner straight into the arms of Carson.
Elliott’s presence meant that Wimbledon went more direct and it was an extra option that really penned Hartlepool back towards their own box. Plenty of possession also followed as Wimbledon now played with more urgency in search of an equaliser. Neal Ardley felt that more firepower was required for the final 20 minutes though and there was a double change with Bayo Akinfenwa and Ade Azeez introduced for Barcham and Lyle Taylor. It was the last throw of the dice from the manager as the Dons went for three up front.
The pair were involved straight away as Azeez set-up Akinfenwa, but his volley was comfortably wide and Wimbledon needed to do better in search of a late equaliser. The elusive goal for Wimbledon could have arrived 13 minutes from time when Elliott reached a Meades cross before Carson, but the ball just would not drop for a Wimbledon player in the box. Then Azeez shot into the side netting from an acute angle after a good cross from Bulman.
It was frantic stuff, but the quality required to open up Hartlepool’s defence was lacking and the home side, backed by a vocal support, were showing plenty of spirit to defy Wimbledon.
Despite late pressure, the equaliser just would not come and the day was summed up when an Azeez effort was saved and Elliott failed to connect with an acrobatic kick from the rebound.
AFC Wimbledon: Kelle Roos, Barry Fuller, Jon Meades, Ryan Sweeney, Darius Charles, George Francomb, Dannie Bulman, Andy Barcham (Bayo Akinfenwa), Jake Reeves, Rhys Murphy (Tom Elliott), Lyle Taylor (Ade Azeez).