A thrilling fightback on the pitch today provided another example of adversity bringing out the best in AFC Wimbledon.
At 3-1 down just minutes into the second-half, Wimbledon looked down and out, but goals by substitutes Aaron Pressley and Dapo Mebude secured a battling draw in a pulsating match to start a new era at Plough Lane. If this is a sign of things to come, then the entertainment stakes will be high back at our spiritual home this season.
The outpouring of emotions after three decades away from home was in clear evidence when the two teams emerged from the tunnel at Plough Lane. The long 30-year wait for a home league game back in Wimbledon was summed up in the cacophony of noise that greeted Robbo’s boys as they entered the pitch. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who gave the green light for our stadium application to proceed after it had been called in by his predecessor Boris Johnson, was a special guest, and he said it was great to see the ‘vision become reality’. Whatever the result, it was certainly a dream scenario for everyone present – and further vindication of the nonsensical decision made by an FA Commission that our club was ‘not in the wider interests of football’.
Roared on by a raucous Dons support, Robbo’s men made a bright start against the men from Lancashire. Jack Rudoni shot just wide early on after finding space outside the area, before Luke McCormick shot over the crossbar. They were early warning shots sent in Bolton’s direction, and the opening goal arrived in emphatic style in the 20th minute. Will Nightingale soared highest in the box to head home emphatically. It was particularly fitting that the man who joined us as an eight-year-old academy player – 17 years ago – scored the first goal in front of a full house back at Plough Lane. The noise that greeted the goal was well worth the 30-year wait as around 9,000 Dons celebrated together back at our spiritual home.
The whole place was rocking now, but unfortunately it was the Bolton fans you could hear barely two minutes later after Dapo Afolayan was adjudged to have been fouled in the box by Nik Tzanev. Eoin Doyle’s subsequent spot kick had enough power on it to beat the Kiwi goalkeeper, who was unable to repeat his penalty heroics from the Northampton game last season. The momentum was now with the visitors and less than four minutes later they were in front. This time Doyle turned provider with a cross from Bolton’s right flank that Josh Sheehan steered home from close range. The Dons had a golden opportunity to equalise before the half hour mark when McCormick broke through and rounded Bolton keeper Joel Dixon, but he was unable to guide the ball inside the near post.
From dominating the early play with influential midfielders Alex Woodyard and Anthony Hartigan establishing good possession, the Dons were now on the back foot as Bolton poured forward at every opportunity, and half-time came at a good time for us. However, less than two minutes into the second-half and Robbo’s men had a mountain to climb. Another good move down Bolton’s right ended with a cross by Amadou Bakayoko that Dapo Afolayan slotted home from close range. It was going to be very difficult now against a Bolton side that had their tails up – and buoyed on by a vociferous travelling support.
There was almost the perfect response when Ollie Palmer headed agonisingly over the crossbar from close range after showing fine aerial ability to get on the end of the cross. However, the visitors continued to press for another goal and Bakayoko fired a shot over the crossbar. At this stage, the Dons were hanging on to stay in this game, and Robbo made what turned out to be a decisive double change in the 63rd minute. Aaron Pressley and Dapo Medude were introduced in attack with Palmer and Luke McCormick making way.
Despite the substitutions providing a much-needed injection of energy into Wimbledon’s play, we needed Nik Tzanev to pull off a miraculous save to keep us in it. Everyone in the ground must have thought that Sheehan had made it 4-1 when he met a cross into the box, but Tzanev showed superb reflexes to pull off a save that kept us in with a shout. That save became even more important in the 74th minute. After Ayoub Assal was fouled in the box, Aaron Pressley showed calmness under pressure to slot home clinically from 12 yards. It was a lifeline for us – and the Dons grabbed it with both hands. Medube, who has been so impressive at Charlton on his debut, slipped past one challenge 40 yards out, before powering forward and curling home superbly.
It was a brilliant individual goal, but there was still more to come from the Scotland youth international. Surging forward once again from the halfway line, Mebude seemed set to provide a fairytale ending to the Dons homecoming tale, but this time his touch was too heavy and Dixon was able to come out and save. The final whistle blew after five minutes of injury time with honours even. Despite missing out on all three points, this was a pulsating way to start life back at Plough Lane with our fans. On this evidence, we could all be in for a very exciting season!
AFC Wimbledon: Nik Tzanev, Nesta Guinness-Walker (Henry Lawrence), Will Nightingale, Ben Heneghan, Cheye Alexander, Anthony Hartigan, Alex Woodyard, Jack Rudoni, Luke McCormick (Dapo Mebude), Ayoub Assal, Ollie Palmer (Aaron Pressley).