AFC Wimbledon's much-improved second-half display was not enough to earn a point against one of the teams expected to challenge for promotion.
Joe Pigott's soaring header levelled matters five minutes after the break and Wimbledon then threatened to go and win it, before Clark Robertson struck to earn a 2-1 win for Rotherham United.
The Dons had offered so much in the second-half and it was a real shame that the improvement was not rewarded with at least a point.
There was a significant inclusion on the AFC Wimbledon team sheet at 2.00 pm with Nik Tzanev coming in for his full league debut between the sticks. With Nathan Trott ruled out due to injury, it meant that Joe McDonnell was back on the bench for Wimbledon after signing on a short-term deal yesterday. Wally Downes handed three other players their debuts with new signings Luke O’Neill, Nesta Guinness-Walker, and Callum Reilly all straight into the starting 11.
Our manager had warned in the build-up that United would provide a very physical test of Wimbledon’s resolution and that’s the way it turned out from the outset. Clark Robertson fired well over with the away side’s first effort, but the visitors came closer as the first-half progressed. A swift move down the left ended with Kyle Vassell picking out Freddie Ladapo, who seemed certain to mark his debut with a goal, but Tzanev had other ideas as he pulled off a brilliant point-blank save. In a first half hour dominated by the visitors, former Dons loanee Michael Smith headed just wide after more good play on the flank by Vassell. Guinness-Walker had also performed with credit to limit the threat of tricky right winger Matt Olosunde.
Wimbledon had barely been in the United half during the first half an hour as the visitors continued to dominate. Matt Crooks tried his luck with a shot that Tzanev did well to hold, but there was no reprieve for Wimbledon shortly afterwards. It was a simple goal in its execution as Wimbledon paid the ultimate price for failing to deal with a corner. Joe Mattock delivered a deep flag kick from United’s right that Smith rose highest to meet and his header was swept home from close range by Ladapo. At this stage, Wimbledon had to work hard to limit the damage from a United side showing no signs of settling for what they had.
It had certainly been a difficult first-half for Wimbledon as the visitors had powered forward on the attack for long spells. However, an encouraging end to the first-half at least offered a bit of hope for Wimbledon. Luke O’Neill struck a 30-yard free-kick that looked goal-bound, but it was deflected wide, before Callum Reilly’s shot flashed just wide after a good move.
United had shown in the first-half exactly why they are regarded as one of the promotion favourites, but Wimbledon’s start to the second-half turned the match on its head. With Reilly and Hartigan now earning a greater share of midfield possession, Wimbledon started to drive forward and the equaliser arrived in superb style. The identity of the goalscorer was certainly no surprise with Joe Pigott the man to get it, but he will be hard pressed in his career to score a better header than this one. It was a quite superb towering header from the tall striker, who rose highest in the box to meet a corner with a header that left United goalkeeper Daniel Iversen with absolutely no chance.
Wimbledon’s equaliser came in the 50th minute and now it was the away side’s turn to defend for their lives. In a huge contrast to the first-half, Wimbledon threatened to go in front. Michael Folivi did well to get in behind United’s defence and he cut the ball back for Hartigan, who poked just wide at the second attempt. Minutes later, Hartigan came close again. It came about after lovely play down the left flank from Guinness-Walker, who danced around his marker before finding Hartigan and this time the midfielder’s shot was deflected over the crossbar.
Despite Wimbledon’s second-half domination, United came very close to going back in front. Indeed, both sets of supporters could barely comprehend how they were not back in front after defensive work from Paul Kalambayi that was simply unbelievable. Following a flowing United move, Crooks picked out Ladapo, who struck and waited for the net to bulge, but Kalambayi showed superb athleticism to get back and clear off the line. In an entertaining match, both sides pressed for another goal. Though Ben Wiles forced Tzanev into a fine save, Wimbledon threatened to take the lead when O’Neill shot just wide. Then Nightingale’s soaring header flashed just over the crossbar.
Wimbledon conceded what turned out to be the winner in agonising fashion. A corner found its way all the way through to Clark Robertson just inside the area and his shot had just enough on it to cross the line in the 84th minute with Shane McLoughlin unable to stop it. Considering Wimbledon’s second-half display, it was a harsh defeat for Wimbledon and there’s a whole week to wait for a chance to put it right with Fleetwood away up next.
Nik Tzanev, Luke O'Neill, Rod McDonald, Will Nightingale, Terell Thomas (Kwesi Appiah), Anthony Hartigan (Shane McLoughlin), Michael Folivi (Dylan Connolly), Nesta Guinness-Walker, Paul Kalambayi, Callum Reilly, Joe Pigott.