Paul Robinson emerged as Wimbledon’s unlikely goal hero as Neal Ardley’s men maintained their play-off challenge with a hard-fought victory against Carlisle.
The match turned when Carlisle goalkeeper Mark Gillespie was sent off for a professional foul on Tom Elliott and it was a nervy conclusion as Wimbledon hung on for a valuable 1-0 victory.
Wimbledon had to really dig in for a seventh win in eight games that moved them up to fifth spot in League 2 after a superb run since beating Exeter City on 28 December.
Neal Ardley made just one change from the side that started at Barnet on Saturday, but it was certainly significant as it involved a debut for Connor Smith. Smith, who joined the Dons in January after leaving Watford, was offered a chance in the centre of the park in place of Dannie Bulman. The manager had spoken in the build-up about freshening up his side ahead of a hectic schedule and Bulman this time had to settle for a place on the bench.
Wimbledon came into this one searching for a third successive win, but the Dons were fortunate not to be behind in just the third minute. Former Dons loanee Charlie Wyke beat Ryan Sweeney and drove towards goal, but he blazed his shot wide from close range. Though Andy Barcham and Lyle Taylor showed threat early on, Wimbledon struggled to find the fluency that had been such a feature of their impressive recent run. However, the hosts did shortly afterwards test Carlisle goalkeeper Mark Gillespie, who reacted well to save after a George Francomb cross had been deflected by Macauley Gillesphey.
With Carlisle dominating possession in the first 20 minutes, Wimbledon had to be resolute in defence. However, the visitors so nearly capitalised on defensive hesitancy when Hallum Hope intercepted a loose pass in the area, but his shot crashed back off a post. Wimbledon had been restricted to occasional breaks in the first half an hour, but Francomb at least threatened when he sent over a dangerous cross that was just diverted behind. As Wimbledon strived to gain a grip on the game, Smith showed no lack of bite in midfield with one or two tenacious tackles, which is always a good sign on debut.
As we progressed towards half-time, the visitors still held the upper hand and Kelle Roos had to get down well to grasp a long throw before any Carlisle strikers could reach it. Captain Barry Fuller also made a vital last-ditch interception at the back post to cut out a dangerous cross with Carlisle players lying in wait. The Dons did manage to get to half-time level, but they needed to get the likes of Barcham and Taylor more into the game if they were to earn all three points.
The second-half started with Wimbledon showing much more appetite to get forward, Carlisle forced to defend in numbers for the first time. And the match turned in Wimbledon’s favour when Mark Gillespie was red carded for a professional foul in the 52nd minute. In truth, there could be no other option for referee Darren Deadman as Gillespie clattered into Elliott just outside the box after Taylor had put his strike partner through. Dan Hanford replaced Gillespie and his first touch resulted in the opening goal for Wimbledon, the replacement goalkeeper finding Taylor’s free-kick too hot to handle and Paul Robinson following up to make it 1-0.
Robinson certainly deserved plenty of credit for the goal as he showed plenty of desire to get there first with another demonstration of his commitment to the cause. It was exactly what was required in the circumstances for Wimbledon to maintain their challenge for the play-offs, especially against teams harbouring similar hopes.
Carlisle refused to buckle though after being reduced to 10 men, even when Wimbledon attempted to force the issue. Clear-cut chances were still all too rare for such a slender lead and Taylor shot into the side netting after setting the chance up for himself with a superb run. With 15 minutes to go, Carlisle still pressed forward and it needed a fine tackle by Smith, who had a steady debut, to stop Hope going through on goal.
With 13 minutes remaining, Neal Ardley made a double substitution with Taylor and Elliott withdrawn for Ade Azeez and Bayo Akinfenwa. However, Carlisle so nearly snatched an equaliser with eight minutes to go. Roos did well to beat out a dangerous cross, but Michael Raynes reached it first and his effort cracked against a post with the goalkeeper beaten, the Dons just scrambling it to safety. It was last-gasp stuff from Wimbledon holding onto the lead and Barry Fuller got back superbly to stop Jabo Ibehre going through on goal. The captain's effort summed up Wimbledon's resilience on the night and more of the same spirit will be needed to stay in play-off contention.
AFC Wimbledon: Kelle Roos, Barry Fuller, Paul Robinson, Ryan Sweeney, Jon Meades, Jake Reeves, Connor Smith, Andy Barcham, Tom Elliott (Bayo Akinfenwa), Lyle Taylor (Ade Azeez), George Francomb (Dannie Bulman).