By Chris Slavin
AFC Wimbledon started this season's Checkatrade Trophy competition with a bang by striking four goals to earn a thrilling victory at Barnet.
Dons academy graduates Anthony Hartigan and Egli Kaja scored their first senior goals in a 4-3 victory with Cody McDonald also on target and an own goal rounding off victory.
Apart from maintaining the winning habit – something that Neal Ardley stated he was keen to do in the build-up – plenty of positives could be taken from a Wimbledon perspective. New signing Harry Forrester produced moments of promise on his debut after playing for 65 minutes and it was a match when Paul Kalambayi and Neset Bellikli also made their competitive first-team debuts as substitutes.
Neal Ardley retained just three of the players who started Saturday's league victory against Doncaster with Callum Kennedy, Deji Oshilaja and Kwesi Appiah making the starting 11. New signing Harry Forrester was handed his first taste of the action with Joe McDonnell taking the number one jersey.
Wimbledon made a bright start, spreading the ball around well on a good surface at The Hive, and it was 1-0 in just the fifth minute. Anthony Hartigan was left with space in the centre of the park and he made the most of it by striking a 30-yard effort that Barnet keeper Craig Ross was only able to help into the net. There was no let-up from Wimbledon after taking the lead and a fine move ended with Oshilaja finding space in the area, but Ross saved fairly comfortably.
In a free-flowing start, Barnet restored parity in the 12th minute. Forrester was caught in possession and that forced Nightingale into a foul just outside the area. Ruben Bover stepped up and struck a fierce drive from 20 yards that left McDonnell with absolutely no chance. It was an all-action start to this game and Wimbledon marched back in front less than four minutes later. Forrester's close-range effort was parried by Ross and Egli Kaja reacted well to follow-up and steer home emphatically.
A 2-1 Wimbledon lead far from signalled supremacy for the visitors though and it was 2-2 in the 25th minute. It was another goal that McDonnell could do little about with Shaquille Coulthirst equalising. The striker, who once scored four against our Under-18s for Peterborough, tried his luck from 25 yards with a shot that arrowed into the bottom corner. In an entertaining first half an hour, there was simply no let-up as both sides poured forward in search of more goals. The Dons came so close to making it 3-2 when Will Nightingale got on the end of a lovely corner from Forrester, but Ross reacted superbly to get a hand to it. At the other end, McDonnell made an even better save to stop Bover from putting Barnet in front for the first time.
As we approached half-time, there had been plenty for those supporters who attended to get excited about with both sides really going for it. Seventeen-year-old Hartigan again showed up well in midfield, providing plenty of assurance on the ball for one so young as he spread the play effectively. Both teams had chances to take the lead before half-time. First, McDonald produced a lovely run and it ended with a powerful shot that Ross just managed to tip wide. Just before half-time, Wimbledon were relieved to watch Barnet captain Charlie Clough head wide after he rose highest in the box to meet a corner.
A half-time score of 2-2 was probably about right in terms of possession and chances, but Wimbledon really grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck shortly into the second-half. Forrester, who impressed with his crossing ability, sent over a nice delivery that McDonald headed home powerfully and the Dons were back in front. This time, Neal Ardley's men did not rest on their laurels and a fourth goal arrived for Wimbledon when Callum Kennedy crossed from the left and Clough could only divert it into his own net. The two-goal cushion was almost eradicated immediately when McDonnell came to the rescue again, Coulthirst foiled by a full-stretch save.
With 24 minutes to go, Wimbledon made a double change. Forrester, who produced moments of promise on his debut, was withdrawn and Francomb entered the fray. Paul Kalamabyi was introduced for his piece of the action at first-team level with Callum Kennedy withdrawn. Another change quickly followed with Neset Bellikli given a chance to make his competitive first-team debut in place of Kaja.
Though Wimbledon failed to add another, four goals was just enough for victory, but only just. There was still time for former Wimbledon full-back Andre Blackman to strike with a cracking effort. That set-up a frantic finale and Bover missed from close-range as Barnet threatened a dramatic equaliser. However, Wimbledon survived and next up it's a trip to Blackpool with a chance to make it three wins in a row in all competitions.
AFC Wimbledon: Joe McDonnell, Toby Sibbick, Callum Kennedy (Paul Kalambayi), Will Nightingale, Deji Oshilaja, Egli Kaja (Neset Bellikli), Alfie Egan, Anthony Hartigan, Harry Forrester (George Francomb), Kwesi Appiah, Cody McDonald.
Pic credit: Matt Redman, Pro Sports Images.