By Chris Slavin
It was a Tuesday night of frustration for AFC Wimbledon with a much-improved display ending in a draw against a Gillingham side reduced to 10 men.
A first-half goal from Andy Barcham put Wimbledon on the road to a morale-boosting victory, but Gills struck back to earn a 1-1 draw after their captain Lee Martin had been sent off.
Despite playing against 10 men for 45 minutes, Wimbledon were very unfortunate not to take all three points with Neal Ardley's men creating so many chances on the night.
Neal Ardley made three changes from the side that started against Portsmouth with two of those due to injury. Callum Kennedy and Paul Robinson both missed out with Anthony Hartigan and Deji Oshilaja recalled in their places. George Francomb switched to left-back to fill the vacancy left by Kennedy and the other change was a straight swap up front with Lyle Taylor replacing Cody McDonald.
Wimbledon stormed out of the blocks and created a great chance within the first minute when Taylor broke free down the right and crossed well for Dean Parrett, but his well struck effort produced a fine save by Gillingham keeper Thomas Holy. With Wimbledon swarming forward, the Dons faithful really got behind their team and it was an atmosphere in stark contrast to Saturday. The opener so nearly came within five minutes, first when Parrett swung over a corner that Will Nightingale headed back across goal and Kwesi Appiah's fierce strike was cleared off the line. Still inside five minutes, the chances came with Hartigan having a shot saved, before Appiah's volley was just wide.
In an all-action start from the Dons, Andy Barcham showed typical verve down the left flank and one of his fine runs ended with a cross that Taylor met well, but the over-worked Gills keeper saved yet again. With 16 minutes on the clock, the visitors again had their keeper to thank when he made a great save to deny Taylor after good work down the right by Appiah.
Midway through the first-half, Gillingham really started to come into it. A cross from the right almost caught out Wimbledon with Scott Wagstaff just unable to get on the end of it. With Gillingham starting to find space in attack, a shooting chance was created for Mark Byrne, who shot just wide with a decent effort, the away support now starting to find their voice. At this stage, it was important that Wimbledon retained composure. Failure to take those early chances could have resulted in frustration, especially as Gillingham were now testing Wimbledon. However, just when any anxiety could have been creeping in, the opener arrived. Barcham, who had been bright from the outset, cut inside and curled in a cross with his right foot that curled into the far corner, Taylor just failing to get a touch on it.
Wimbledon kept up the momentum after taking the lead and it was so nearly 2-0 when Appiah struck a fine effort that Holy managed to tip wide. The Dons also appeared to be on the wrong end of a vital decision when Trotter was brought down on the edge of the penalty area by a desperate Gillingham challenge, but the referee didn't give anything, even though the Wimbledon midfielder would have been clean through.
Though Barcham's influence had been instrumental, 17-year-old Anthony Hartigan caught the eye once again, spraying the ball around effectively in partnership with Liam Trotter and Parrett. However, all the great first-half work from Wimbledon was wasted in an eventful finish to the half. Lee Martin was red-carded for apparently catching Taylor in the face, but that immediately galvanised the visitors. Wimbledon failed to clear a long throw-in and the ball fell for Sean Clare, who struck a shot that bounced in off a post. The half-time whistle went almost immediately and it was such an unfortunate score for Wimbledon to take into the break.
The second-half started with Wimbledon creating another good chance when Taylor sent over a searching cross that picked out Appiah, but his header was off target. Barcham continued to torment his old club with more of his mesmerising runs, but Holy did well to stop one of his crosses. The Gills keeper then reacted well to turn away a good strike from Fuller after the Gills defence had only half cleared a cross.
As we approached the hour, you could feel the tension growing around the stadium with Wimbledon having failed to put the game to bed. With the aerial presence of Tom Eaves causing problems, Gillingham retained a threat and it needed George Long to make an impressive fingertip save to stop a header from Gabriel Zakuni making it 2-1. As the score was still 1-1 with 20 minutes left, Neal Ardley made a double change with Harry Forrester and Cody McDonald sent on to replace Andy Barcham and Kwesi Appiah. It was proving tough to break down a massed Gillingham defence, the visitors defending well with 10 men. A lovely ball from Taylor sent Fuller racing around the back, but his cross was just cut out and then Liam Trotter failed to connect with a ball in from Parrett.
With 12 minutes to go, Wimbledon worked the ball around well to create space for Francomb to get in a shot, but his effort was too close to Holy. Substitute Forrester attempted to conjure up a winner and he twice came close to doing that. His first shot thudded off the crossbar and away to safety and his next one was well saved by Holy. With time running out, Wimbledon piled on the pressure, but a winner just would not come. Nightingale's header was cleared off the line with both Trotter and Oshilaja unable to apply the finish. In a frantic finale, Francomb was denied by Holy, the Gillingham keeper having had a brilliant match. Wimbledon had created enough chances to have won two or three matches, but the Dons had to settle for a draw from a much-improved performance.
AFC Wimbledon: George Long, Barry Fuller, Deji Oshilaja, George Francomb, Will Nightingale, Liam Trotter, Anthony Hartigan, Dean Parrett (Egli Kaja), Kwesi Appiah (Cody McDonald), Lyle Taylor, Andy Barcham (Harry Forrester).
Pic credit: Matt Redman, Pro Sports Images.