AFC Wimbledon were beaten for the first time in 2018/19 tonight with Walsall earning a victory margin that certainly flattered them.
Though the League One high-flyers showed at times why they've made such a good start to the season, the 3-1 victory came through two real slices of fortune. With Wimbledon having piled on the pressure at 1-0 down, Will Nightingale scored an own goal and then Toby Sibbick was unlucky to see a clearance bounce in off Andy Cook. There had been nothing wrong with either of their performances overall and on the balance of play Wimbledon's team display certainly didn't deserve such an outcome.
With Neal Ardley having said in the build-up that he was likely to make changes for this match due to a busy schedule, it was no surprise to see that reflected on the team sheet. Five changes were made with Toby Sibbick, Rod McDonald, Mitch Pinnock, Anthony Wordsworth, and Joe Pigott all earning recalls in place of Tennai Watson, Deji Oshilaja, Scott Wagstaff, Tom Soares, and James Hanson.
Walsall came here on the back of seven points out of nine and a win in the Carabao Cup and they exuded confidence in the early exchanges. A cross in the third minute was met by Andy Cook, but the striker could not direct his header on target. By that stage, Walsall had perhaps been fortunate to hear referee Terry Nield blow for a foul at the other end with Andy Barcham penalised in the box after challenging Nicky Devlin. There was relief for Wimbledon at the other end when Devlin dragged a good chance across the face of goal.
In a first-half that was end to end with both sides really going for it, Pinnock drove forward and struck a powerful effort that flashed just wide. However, the opening goal followed in the 16th minute for Walsall when Cook headed down to set-up Kieron Morris and his fine strike beat Tom King in the Wimbledon goal.
Wimbledon had conceded a first league goal this season, but a superb response followed from Neal Ardley's men. The Dons laid siege to the Walsall goal, midfielders Pinnock, Wordsworth, and Liam Trotter pouring forward at every opportunity and plenty of chances subsequently following. Pinnock struck just wide once again, this time volleying off target. Midway through the first-half came a near miss that would have been an early contender for goal of the season if it had hit the back of the net. Wordsworth struck a brilliant effort from 30 yards that just missed the far post and it was a moment that the home faithful drew encouragement from. For the rest of the first-half they roared on their team and the players really responded to the backing. Kwesi Appiah, who was trying everything to open his account for the season, headed over after getting on the end of a cross from Will Nightingale.
As we approached half-time, Wimbledon continued to commit men forward, but a goal just wouldn't come. Pinnock, who was a real driving force in the first-half, this time showed his ability from a free-kick with a 30-yard effort that just flashed over the crossbar. The half-time score of 1-0 in Walsall's favour certainly didn't reflect the way this game had gone and Wimbledon could take confidence from the display so far.
The Dons wasted no time going for it at the start of the second-half and Pigott shot wide of the target. Then Andy Barcham showed great skill to find space on the left flank and his cross had to be diverted away from danger by Walsall keeper Liam Roberts. Walsall did offer a threat on the break and Wimbledon needed typical commitment to the cause from Nightingale, the defender putting his body on the line to block a goal-bound shot from Morris. Sibbick was also producing a performance to make our academy proud as he showed good composure on the right side of defence.
Neal Ardley decided to make a change on the hour with James Hanson replacing Joe Pigott up front. A good chance followed for Hanson almost immediately, but his header from a corner was over the crossbar. Wimbledon continued to press forward in search of an equaliser, but Walsall doubled their advantage in unfortunate circumstances in the 70th minute. Nightingale attempted a back pass from the right-back position, but he struck it with too much power and Tom King was left with little chance to save it. Still Wimbledon didn't let heads go down and Hanson and Pinnock both had efforts blocked.
With 12 minutes to go, Wimbledon suffered more bad luck when a shot from Morgan Ferrier was blocked and Sibbick attempted to clear it, but the ball rebounded off Cook and into the net. Walsall had certainly benefited from two slices of fortune in this match, but Wimbledon continued to probe and a goal back followed in the 87th minute. Sibbick set it up with a fine run down the right before delivering a cross that fell nicely for Appiah, who cracked home emphatically. Though Wimbledon continued to go forward, a second goal wouldn't come and the final whistle signalled a first defeat of the season for the Dons.
AFC Wimbledon: Tom King, Toby Sibbick, Ben Purrington, Will Nightingale, Rod McDonald, Mitch Pinnock, Anthony Wordsworth (Anthony Hartigan), Liam Trotter, Andy Barcham, Kwesi Appiah (Scott Wagstaff), Joe Pigott (James Hanson).
Pic credit: Matt Redman, Pro Sports Images.