By Chris Slavin
AFC Wimbledon matched title chasers Shrewsbury for long spells today, but a 55th minute strike from Stefan Payne was just enough to win it for the hosts.
Shrews finished the game with 10 men after Bryn Morris was sent off with five minutes left, but they showed all their resilience to edge it 1-0. It was tough to take for Wimbledon, but Shrewsbury's strong start to the second-half ultimately proved decisive, though Neal Ardley claimed afterwards that Will Nightingale was fouled in the build-up to the winning goal.
Neal Ardley made two changes to the side that earned a battling draw at Rochdale with Andy Barcham and Harry Forrester both recalled in place of Tom Soares and Joe Pigott. Will Nightingale retained his place at the heart of defence with Darius Charles still not deemed ready to return due to a hip injury.
On a very bobbly pitch that was hardly conducive to good football, Wimbledon established a decent share of possession early on. Good play by Jon Meades appeared to have set up an opportunity when he flicked on for Deji Oshilaja, but he was flagged offside. At the other end, there was a scare for Wimbledon when a cross picked out Omar Beckles, but his effort from close-range was over. Chances for the hosts in the first half an hour were few and far between as Wimbledon defended very well, thanks in no small part to Will Nightingale, who produced a commanding start. There was a half chance for Wimbledon midway through the first-half when a long throw from Jon Meades was only half cleared to Barcham, but his shot lacked power and Shrewsbury keeper Craig MacGillivray was able to gather.
Wimbledon put together by far the best move so far in the 29th minute. Forrester showed good creativity to pick out Barcham on the edge of the area and his flick created a shooting chance for Liam Trotter, but his rasping volley was grasped at the second attempt by MacGillivray, the ball almost squirming under his body. Shrewsbury responded with a good effort on goal of their own when Alex Rodman's shot from outside the area was well saved by George Long and Stefan Payne diverted the ball well wide.
As we approached half-time, it had been a very even match so far with the two sides struggling to fashion opportunities and restricted to fleeting moments of attacking threat. Lyle Taylor was involved in a real battle with Aristote Nsiala, the man who scored the winner in Wimbledon's last visit here just over a year ago. Just before the break, Taylor almost broke through, but he was adjudged to have fouled his marker. Wimbledon finished the first-half strongly and put together a lovely move involving George Francomb, Forrester and Barcham, but the latter took too long to get his shot off and the chance was gone. As the half-time whistle shrilled, Wimbledon could certainly be encouraged by the first-half display.
Pressure from the hosts started to build at the start of the second-half and it was a spell that yielded the opening goal. The warning signs had certainly been there for Wimbledon, first when Carlton Morris headed wide from close-range, and then Stefan Payne put his header from another cross straight at Long. However, there was no reprieve for Wimbledon in the 55th minute. A cross was swung in from the Shrewsbury right and when the ball was only half cleared it fell nicely for Payne, who made no mistake.
Though Wimbledon were able to prevent Shrewsbury's charge to double the advantage, it was proving tough to find a pathway back into the game. Neal Ardley sought more invention by introducing Dean Parrett for Andy Barcham and shortly afterwards Joe Pigott came on for captain Barry Fuller, who was injured. That meant Francomb switched to right-back. There was a fantastic last-ditch block to keep Wimbledon in it when Oshilaja threw his body in the way to stop Morris from making it 2-0.
With 15 minutes to go, Wimbledon started to commit more men forward and a fine move ended with Forrester having a shot deflected wide. However, Shrewsbury showed all the resilience that had served them so well all season, a promotion tilt built on grinding out victories. Wimbledon did threaten an equaliser after Egli Kaja's introduction for Jimmy Abdou. Kaja got down the right and crossed well for Taylor, who was denied by MacGillivray. Then there was a late twist with five minutes to go as Bryn Morris was shown a second yellow card after a foul on Kaja, who was very lively after his introduction. With Shrewsbury a man down, Wimbledon really went for it in the latter stages, but the only meaningful chance came with a free-kick opportunity for Taylor, but he drove well over the crossbar. It now means that next Friday's home match against Fleetwood assumes even greater importance.
AFC Wimbledon: George Long, Barry Fuller (Joe Pigott), Jon Meades, Deji Oshilaja, Will Nightingale, George Francomb, Jimmy Abdou (Egli Kaja), Harry Forrester, Liam Trotter, Andy Barcham (Dean Parrett), Lyle Taylor.
Pic credit: Simon Davies, Pro Sports Images.