By Chris Slavin
Substitute Harry Forrester salvaged a point for AFC Wimbledon this afternoon in a very entertaining game at Gillingham.
The Dons twice came from behind to earn a 2-2 draw that was the least Neal Ardley's men deserved, Wimbledon bouncing back from the frustrating defeat at Portsmouth.
It was a sign that Wimbledon's players are really up for the battle of moving up the League One table during the second-half of 2017/18.
Neal Ardley made two changes from the side beaten at Portsmouth on Boxing Day. Anthony Hartigan was handed a recall in central midfield with Tom Soares having to settle for a place on the bench and with Barry Fuller missing out due to injury, George Francomb filled in at right-back. That meant Fuller missed out on playing against the club he previously helped to promotion. However, former Gills Cody McDonald, Andy Barcham and Deji Oshilaja all received generous applause from the home faithful when the starting line-ups were announced.
In-form Gillingham came into this match on the back of a decent run of seven points from a possible nine and they started confidently. Darius Charles did well to cut-out a dangerous cross and George Long just about managed to gather the subsequent corner at the second attempt. On a bobbly pitch, Wimbledon struggled to put together meaningful passing moves early on, but there was a chance for the Dons 15 minutes in. Gillingham keeper Tomas Holy was adjudged to have handled the ball outside the box when he kicked out of his hands and it offered a good opportunity from a central position for Lyle Taylor. Though the Dons forward struck the ball well, it was deflected over the crossbar.
Gillingham had struggled to get wins on home turf this season and anxiety started to increase among Gills fans when Wimbledon started to put a few decent moves together. A fine move involving Liam Trotter and Jimmy Abdou ended with a cross from Jon Meades that threatened to pick-out McDonald, but he was penalised for high feet. A sign that Gills were becoming increasingly frustrated came when Luke O'Neill tried his luck from distance and it was well wide. At the other end, Wimbledon came so close to the opener when Trotter produced an impressive pass to put McDonald through, but his low strike was tipped wide by Holy. The Gillingham keeper's excellent display had frustrated Wimbledon in the reverse fixture, a 1-1 draw that the Dons had completely dominated.
Wimbledon had a good chance to make the breakthrough in the 34th minute when Taylor's well executed corner picked out Meades, but he headed wide from close-range. Just before the break, Barcham produced lovely play on the left flank when he won the ball deep in his own half, before picking out Taylor through the middle, but his shot from an acute angle was comfortably gathered by Holy. The Gillingham keeper was then fortunate that a powerful snap-shot from Taylor came straight at him and he reacted well to grasp it. A good move involving Oshilaja and McDonald ended with a ball to the pack post for Barcham, but his goal-bound shot was blocked. As the half-time whistle shrilled, Wimbledon had definitely been the better side, based on chances created, and it was just a shame that the end product had been lacking.
Shooting towards the end containing Wimbledon's travelling support, the Dons made a bright start to the second-half. Taylor showed sharpness in attack once again when he turned smartly just outside the area, but his shot was too close to the keeper, who held it fairly comfortably. Another good chance followed in the 56th minute when McDonald got on the end of Taylor's well delivered corner, but he volleyed wide at the near post.
With Wimbledon committing plenty of men forward in search of the elusive opener, there was a danger that Gillingham could exploit gaps at the back and they almost snatched the lead just before the hour. Josh Parker broke free down the left and crossed for Conor Wilkinson, but his header was just wide. Gillingham did go in front in the 63rd minute when Sean Clare swung in a free-kick that took an unfortunate deflection and looped over George Long. There was an instant response from Wimbledon as Neal Ardley's men attempted to get back into it and it was 1-1 less than four minutes later. O'Neill was adjudged to have brought down McDonald in the box and that gave Taylor a chance from the penalty spot. For the second successive match, Taylor was deadly from 12 yards as he produced an emphatic finish that left Holy with no chance.
The equaliser appeared to be something to build on for Wimbledon, but Gills regained the lead in the 69th minute. It was a poor goal to concede with a corner swung low to the back post and Max Ehmer steered home from close-range. In response, Neal Ardley made a change with Harry Forrester entering the fray for Anthony Hartigan. A half chance followed with a flowing move providing space to shoot for Jimmy Abdou, but his shot was too close to Holy.
With six minutes left, Wimbledon deservedly equalised for the second time. A corner was knocked back by Oshilaja and substitute Forrester showed sharpness in the box to get there first, before steering home smartly. It signalled ecstatic scenes in the away end as Wimbledon supporters celebrated the late lifeline. It could have been better if McDonald's header had not flashed just over late on, but Tom Eaves also headed wide in injury-time for Gillingham.
There was no doubting that Wimbledon were full value for at least a point and if this kind of display is produced on a regular basis the Dons will have every chance of moving up the table.
AFC Wimbledon: George Long, Deji Oshilaja, George Francomb, Jimmy Abdou, Cody McDonald, Liam Trotter, Andy Barcham (Callum Kennedy), Anthony Hartigan (Harry Forrester), Darius Charles, Lyle Taylor.
Pic credit: John Marsh, Pro Sports Images.