AFC Wimbledon’s players were left to reflect on what might have been once again today after threatening to end the unbeaten run of promotion favourites Sunderland.
Two Lee Catermole strikes cancelled out Joe Pigott’s early opener to earn a 2-1 victory for the Black Cats, but that told only half the story. At 1-1, Wimbledon squandered chance after chance, letting Sunderland off the hook. Overall, it had been a very good Dons display, but without the finishing touch, and it was a similar emotion to how everyone in blue and yellow felt after the midweek defeat to Walsall.
With Wimbledon having played well in defeat against Walsall last time out, Neal Ardley understandably decided not to make many changes to his starting line-up. James Hanson came in for the injured Kwesi Appiah and captain Deji Oshilaja was restored to the side in place of Rod McDonald.
There was a cracking atmosphere at the Cherry Red Records Stadium from the outset with Sunderland bringing a sizeable travelling support and home fans rising to the occasion against a club that were in the Premier League 15 months ago. Sunderland came into this match on the back of an emphatic 4-1 win at Gillingham in midweek and they started in confident manner. Wimbledon had to defend well to stop Sunderland getting in behind following several impressive moves. However, they were restricted to playing outside the box and Max Power tried his luck with a shot from 25 yards that flashed just wide.
Wimbledon’s first meaningful attack was certainly worth waiting for as it resulted in the opening goal! It was an absolute stunner too and even in August it was a Wimbledon goal that will take some beating this season in terms of quality. Andy Barcham was superb in the build-up as he nutmegged his marker down the left before sending in a pinpoint cross for Joe Pigott. There was still plenty to do when Pigott shaped to volley it, but his connection was sheer class and the strike left Sunderland keeper Jon McLaughlin with no chance.
The opening goal knocked Sunderland completely out of their stride and Wimbledon aimed to take full advantage. In a spell of wonderful football from the Dons, Barcham powered down the wing at every opportunity, creating space for others. Anthony Wordsworth and Liam Trotter linked-up the midfield and attack majestically at times, showing a quality that was perhaps lacking last season. One lovely move ended with Toby Sibbick sending in a cross that picked out Pigott and his header on was in the direction of his strike partner James Hanson, but McLaughlin got there first to punch clear. Wimbledon had a moment of concern when Josh Maja beat Tom King to a cross, but his header sailed over the cross. However, it was all Wimbledon during this spell and Pigott had a goal-bound shot blocked.
As we approached half-time, Sunderland started to regain some flow to their game and Power had another shot that flashed just wide. However, Wimbledon had defended impeccably in the first-half when it was required and Neal’s boys were full value for the 1-0 half-time lead.
Wimbledon started the second-half with plenty of attacking intent and Will Nightingale produced a soaring header that McLaughlin did well to save. Another opportunity followed when Sunderland only half cleared a cross and Barcham produced a header that had to be cleared off the line. At the other end, a flowing Sunderland break involving Chris Maguire ended with a shooting chance for George Honeyman, but his shot was superbly blocked by 19-year-old full-back Toby Sibbick.
Sunderland stepped up their attacks around the hour mark and there was a worrying moment for Wimbledon when Maja got in around the back and cut the ball back, but no one was there to finish it off. However, it was only a temporary reprieve for Wimbledon and the equaliser followed in the 65th minute. The Dons failed to deal with a corner, but there was a touch of fortune as the ball fell nicely for Cattermole, who steered home from close-range. Though the referee did go across to his assistant to consult about a possible offside, the goal was allowed to stand.
It was the signal for Sunderland to pour forward and it needed fine defending from Oshilaja and Nightingale to stop the visitors taking the lead. Immediately after the Sunderland equaliser came a first Wimbledon substitution with Scott Wagstaff entering the fray for Mitch Pinnock.
Far from being rattled by the equaliser, it galvanised Wimbledon and several chances were squandered with the visitors struggling to contain a rampant Dons attack. Trotter was denied by McLaughlin at the far post and Wimbledon came even closer from the subsequent corner. Pigott fired against a post from close-range and Ryan Oviedo appeared to handle on the line, but no penalty was forthcoming. The chances kept on coming and Oshilaja struck over the crossbar after joining in with the attacks. A lovely Wimbledon move fashioned an even better opportunity shortly afterwards. Wagstaff picked out Hanson’s run down the right and his cross fell nicely for Trotter, but he scooped his finish over the crossbar.
Against the run of play, Sunderland grabbed the lead when Lynden Gooch put in a lovely cross from the right and Cattermole was allowed too much space at the back post to fire home. Though Wimbledon attempted to conjure up an equaliser, it proved to be in vain and the Dons simply paid the price for failing to take their chances.
AFC Wimbledon: Tom King, Toby Sibbick, Ben Purrington, Will Nightingale, Deji Oshilaja, Mitch Pinnock (Scott Wagstaff), Anthony Wordsworth, Liam Trotter, Andy Barcham (Tyler Garratt), James Hanson, Joe Pigott.
Pic credit: Matt Redman, Pro Sports Images.