Defender comes through return in Kent
Will Nightingale came through 45 minutes unscathed in his return to match action for the development side at Gillingham today.
Two late goals condemned the Dons to a harsh 3-2 defeat after a brilliant 40-yard strike from Callum Wilson had looked like earning all three points in the Final Third Development League.
Nightingale’s return after over six months out with a knee injury was one of several positives on the day as he showed the aerial ability and defensive qualities that earned him first-team opportunities earlier this season.
Gillingham included several players with first-team experience in their starting line-up, including Bradley Dack, John Egan and Cody McDonald. In a first-half when Wimbledon needed Will Mannion at his best, Jermain McGlashan caused problems down the left from the outset and his first minute cross was fired wide by Jake Hessenthaler.
Wimbledon had fleeting good moments in the first half hour with Jason Stripp curling a decent effort just over the crossbar, before fine combination play down the left between Ben Harrison and Neset Bellikli ended with the latter’s cross beaten out by Gills goalkeeper Glenn Morris.
Nightingale produced a composed return, winning his headers when required, and one fine tackle on Dack showed that he had lost none of the competitive edge that is a key part of his game. Gillingham created the better chances in the first-half though and it needed Will Mannion to pull off an outstanding fingertip save after John Egan had won a header from a corner.
With Gillingham continuing to press, the Dons were fortunate to survive when McDonald fired over from close-range after more good work from McGlashan. Impressive defending from Paul Kalambayi stopped Emmanuel Osadebe from going clean through, but at the other end Wimbledon came close when Toyosi Olusanya latched into a fine ball from Bellikli and cut inside, but he curled just wide.
Fine goalkeeping from Mannion again stopped Gillingham when he denied Dack, but he was powerless to stop the hosts taking the lead four minutes before half-time. Dack’s wicked delivery from the left was diverted past Mannion by Wilson, who would later make up for it in spectacular style.
Connor Smith had produced some quality moments in possession, but he was withdrawn as a precaution at half-time after feeling his thigh slightly. Egli Kaja and Nightingale also both showed promise in the first-half after returning to the fray, but they were withdrawn at half-time. Alfie Egan, Toby Sibbick and Dan Ano were all introduced in their places. Dack also departed for Gillingham at the interval.
Despite fielding eight Under-18s in the second-half, Wimbledon battled back emphatically with a spell of football that caught Gills by surprise. Egan showed the midfield forward play that had been such a feature of that memorable FA Youth Cup run. First Egan set-up Bellikli, who shot just over with a fierce effort, and then the midfielder fired into the side netting after a good run.
However, it wasn’t long before Wimbledon drew level and it was a brilliant move that led to the equaliser. Olusanya showed good vision to pick out Bellikli on the left and his exquisite cross was slotted home by Stripp. It was a completely different game now and there was even better to come from the Dons. There appeared little danger when Wilson took aim from 40 yards out, but his fierce drive had plenty of dip and swerve as it arrowed towards the top corner, Gills goalkeeper Morris left with no chance.
The Dons came close to sealing victory with a third. Kalambayi shot just wide after getting on the end of a corner and then Ano set-up Olusanya, who powered through and appeared to do everything right, but his fine low effort was brilliantly saved by Morris. At the other end, Finn O’Mara headed into the side netting, but it still appeared that Wimbledon were more likely to score next. More good play from Egan threatened a third, but he was denied by Morris.
As the minutes ticked by, Gills piled forward and their pressure eventually paid off. Mannion made two fine saves to deny them, first from a free-kick by Darren Oldaker and then he tipped over a header from Osadebe. However, Gillingham finally equalised in the last minute of normal time when Mannion beat out O’Mara’s header from a corner, but McGlashan tapped home the rebound.
Just when it looked like Wimbledon would earn a draw that was the least they deserved, there was a cruel sting in the tail. O‘Mara again rose highest from a corner and his powerful header beat Mannion to earn victory for Gillingham in the second minute of injury-time.
AFC Wimbledon: Will Mannion, Callum Wilson, Ben Harrison, Connor Smith (Alfie Egan), Paul Kalambayi, Will Nightingale (Toby Sibbick), Egli Kaja (Dan Ano), Jason Stripp, Toyosi Olusanya (Jayden Antwi), David Fitzpatrick, Neset Bellikli.