By Rob Cornell
New signing Lloyd Sam completed the full 90 minutes for an AFC Wimbledon development side against Bristol Rovers today.
The experienced winger's crossing and set-piece delivery looked more than useful in a 1-1 draw that consolidated top spot in the Central League for Alan Reeves' side.
Striker Richard Pingling scored from the penalty spot to level the scores in a match played at Yate Town. Wimbledon were just unable to plunder all three points against a Rovers team reduced to 10 men in the 47th minute due to Alfie Kilgour's red card. In an eventful second-half, an outfield player was forced to take over in goal for Rovers after keeper Thom Jonkerman's injury.
Nik Tzanev returned in goal, back from international duty with New Zealand after being an unused substitute for the defeat in Spain against Canada. Paul Kalambayi, on loan to Tonbridge Angels, took the captain's arm band.
Chris Hargreaves' Rovers side, slightly older in age overall, forced Wimbledon back for the opening five minutes. Play switched to the other end when the Dons earned a corner and a first touch of the ball for Sam, who floated the ball in centrally for Osaze Urhoghide to attack. Sam also whipped in a cross from the right after 17 minutes, which Jonkerman beat up into the air as he attempted to clear. Alfie Egan combined with Sam in the 21st minute for Egan to deliver a cross to the back post that Urhoghide almost converted.
With 20 minutes to go before half-time, Rovers moved the ball from central out to the wing and the resulting shot forced Tzanev to turn the ball away for a corner. At the other end, Egan fired the ball over from outside the area in the 27th minute.
The experienced Sam remained on set piece duty and delivered useful crosses from open play, while Egan looked to run at the Rovers back-line on the other flank. Forward Tino Carpene's hold-up play was almost rewarded five minutes before the break when he fired over from close range after he got on the end of a quick-fire Toby Sibbick delivery. Play switched from end to end with half-time looming and the ball broke for Sam, who dropped the ball in from a central position for Levi Shango, who was just unable to finish and it remained goalless at the break.
Just two minutes after the restart, Rovers were reduced to 10 men as Alfie Kilgour was shown a straight red for a challenge on Pingling. Worse was to follow for the hosts as Jonkerman suffered an injury and after a lengthy stoppage, substitute Charlie Ten Grotenhuis, a midfielder, was forced to take over in goal.
Rovers' battling spirit galvanised them and they proved to be stubborn opposition for Wimbledon to break down. They started to force the Dons back, despite being numerically disadvantaged. Ten Grotenhuis grew in confidence between the posts, as Wimbledon needed to test him further.
The breakthrough finally came 15 minutes from time when Rovers were awarded a penalty for a foul on one of their trialists. Michael Kelly fired Bristol Rovers into the lead. A dramatic twist in the tale followed though. Almost immediately down the other end, goalscorer Kelly was adjudged to have brought down Pingling, who picked himself up to net an equaliser for Wimbledon.
In the latter stages, the Dons needed keeper Tzanev to preserve a point. After he flew through the air to cover an Isaac Pearce shot from distance, he then got down to smother a last-gasp effort. It ended honours even with Wimbledon holding onto top spot in the Central League South.
AFC Wimbledon: Nik Tzanev, Toby Sibbick, Osaze Urhoghide, Reuben Collins, Paul Kalambayi, Ethan Nelson-Roberts, Lloyd Sam, Alfie Egan, Richard Pingling, Tino Carpene, Levi Shango (Bobby Mills).