Young Dons are foiled by late Gills equaliser
AFC Wimbledon Under-18s extended their unbeaten run to 11 matches against Gillingham, but manager Mark Robinson said there was disappointment among his young squad after they missed out on all three points.
A goal from Neset Bellikli (pictured) put the young Dons 3-2 up and seemingly heading towards a maximum return that would have strengthened Wimbledon hopes of winning the Football League Youth Alliance Merit League. However, Gills struck back late on and that meant the Dons had to settle for a 3-3 draw on Saturday.
A young Dons side, which included five Under-16s and one Under-15 player, had to come from behind after Gillingham’s Connor Hendricks struck from the penalty spot in the eighth minute. A positive reaction followed from Wimbledon though and they were level just four minutes later. Under-16 Jayden Antwi latched onto a long ball from Tommy Stephens and supplied Dan Ano, who finished clinically after a powerful run.
The Dons made a half-time change with Mark Robinson deciding to carefully nurture centre-back Taylor Roles back to full fitness after his three-month injury lay-off. Fifteen-year-old Judah Chapman replaced Roles and that meant Jason Stripp was moved to an unfamiliar centre-back role. Just two minutes into the second-half and Chapman played an influential role in Wimbledon taking the lead. He combined with the excellent Reece Williams-Bowers and the ball was eventually worked to Alfie Egan, who finished superbly with his left foot.
Under-15 Tino Carpone and Antonio Walker were both sent on as the second half progressed with Wimbledon still 2-1 up. However, the Dons failed to deal with a ball into the penalty area and Ryan Cranleigh punished that defensive lapse to draw Gillingham level with 12 minutes left.
In a dramatic final 10 minutes, Wimbledon appeared to have won it when Bellikli finished superbly after great work by the impressive Chapman. However, Gillingham hit back to snatch a point when a free-kick, heavily assisted by a strong wind, deceived Will Mannion and ended up just about crossing the line after the young Dons goalkeeper had failed to grasp the ball.
Mark Robinson said: “Although weather conditions and the pitch played a part in our style, we still had opportunities to play more controlled football and we did not do that often enough. The boys need to trust each other more on the ball and if it goes wrong then we should recover and win it back. I feel for Will Mannion because he has been outstanding for weeks now. I encourage him to claim everything and he knows exactly what he could have done better. The odd mistake will be part of his progression.
“Yet again, the boys are disappointed to draw a game they should have won. However, we had a very young squad and several players out of position. We certainly need to enjoy being in winning positions more often. I have a feeling that now winning the league is probably out of reach, we will go back to playing more controlled football and draws will become wins.
“Relishing being in with a chance of winning things and maintaining the ethos that put you in that position in the first place is a learning curve in itself. Fortunately, a lot of these boys have between one and three years before they leave Under-18s football. I was very impressed with Judah Chapman today and Tino Carpone looked more than capable of playing at this level.”
Alfie Egan received the man of the match award for his impressive midfield display.