Luke McCormick’s first home league goal for Wimbledon salvaged a point in dramatic circumstances at the Cherry Red Records Stadium.
The Dons appeared to be spinning towards a fourth successive League One defeat, but then came McCormick’s timely intervention as he powered home from close-range after getting on the end of a flick on by Aaron Pressley. The majority of the 7,413 crowd erupted in wild celebrations – and it was late reward for their superb support throughout a game that was played in dour weather conditions.
It was a 1-1 draw that was fully deserved as Wimbledon had completely dominated the second-half after a first 45 minutes that was low in entertainment value. In stark contrast to that first-half Wimbledon came out firing after the break, exerting sustained pressure on a Burton side that offered plenty of defensive resilience. The attacking flow of Robbo’s boys was interrupted by a mistake from Anthony Hartigan that threatened to hand the visitors all three points, the midfielder’s back pass finding Kane Hemmings, who made no mistake.
Hartigan’s reaction to that setback showed how far he has come as a player though, his set piece deliveries helping to spark the equaliser that avoided going into the break without another defeat hanging over us.
Robbo made four changes from the side that started the midweek defeat at Rotherham. Ayoub Assal made a welcome return to the team after serving a one-match suspension with Anthony Hartigan, Luke McCormick and Cheye Alexander also returning in place of George Marsh, Paul Osew, and Dan Csoka. Lining up for the opposition was Deji Oshilaja, who was Player of the Year for us during his two years with Wimbledon from 2015 until 2017.
The visitors endured a difficult start as they were forced into a change inside two minutes. John Brayford came off worse in a clash with Ayoub Assal, and he was replaced by Bryn Morris. Assal was intent from the outset to show us what we had been missing during his enforced absence due to suspension and he was quick to give an early demonstration of his smart movement and skill. At the other end, Burton first threatened when Deji Oshilaja headed over the crossbar after getting on the end of a corner.
With Burton defending stubbornly, it took Wimbledon until the 23rd minute to have an attempt on goal when Jack Rudoni shot from distance with a shot that flashed well wide of the target. It needed Nik Tzanev to be at his best to keep us level when he reacted brilliantly to deny Burton’s Jonny Smith, who must have thought he had opened the scoring with a fine effort.
Woodyard and Hartigan managed to establish good possession in the centre of the park, but it was proving very difficult to create a chance against a well drilled Burton side. The Brewers, who came here last season and earned a hard-fought 1-0 win, made life very difficult for the Dons in the first-half. There were signs of promise, in particular when Woodyard attempted to pick out the runs into the channels by Assal and Luke McCormick. One of Woodyard’s clever balls down the left sent McCormick racing in behind, but Burton got defenders back to shackle the attack. With the last action of the first-half it needed a fine block by Cheye Alexander to stop Burton taking the lead, our dependable full-back getting in the way of Charlie Lakin’s shot.
There was a much better start to the second-half by the Dons, sparked by Jack Rudoni. The attacking midfielder showed fine skill to get down the right and send over a cross that picked out Aaron Pressley, who cleverly set-up a shooting chance for Anthony Hartigan, but his well struck effort was just wide. With our supporters really raising the decibel levels in response to the second-half improvement, you started to get the feeling that a breakthrough was imminent. Henry Lawrence tried an ambitious shot from 30 yards that he struck well, but it was too high, before Ayoub Assal had a shot charged down. Wimbledon’s best move so far followed when Cheye Alexander’s cross to the back post was headed into the danger area by Will Nightingale and Rudoni managed to get on the end of it, but he shot high and wide.
The pressure from the Dons continued, and a goal appeared to be inevitable at this stage. Assal did superbly to make the most of a quick throw out by Tzanev, using his strength to beat one challenge before picking out Pressley, but his shot was over the crossbar. It was completely one-way traffic, but Wimbledon’s attacking momentum was derailed by a mistake from Hartigan that was in stark contrast to the superb season he has enjoyed so far. Without really looking at what was behind him, Hartigan delivered a back pass straight into the path of Kane Hemmings, who finished clinically. Though frustrating as it came when the Dons were firing, it was the kind of mistake that some of the best midfielders we’ve seen in this country had made in the past. Steven Gerrard versus France in Euro 2004 when Thierry Henry was the beneficiary springs to mind.
Hartigan will be better for the experience and his response was exactly what was required in the circumstances. Far from putting his head down, the 21-year-old midfielder kept on probing in midfield and delivering the set pieces that gradually put Burton under pressure again. With Wimbledon having struggled to conjure up a response after that setback, Mark Robinson made a double change in the 77th minute. Dapo Mebude and Nesta Guinness-Walker were introduced to offer something different with Jack Rudoni and Henry Lawrence making way.
As we entered the latter stages, the Dons continued to bang on the door for an equaliser. Pressley, who was industrious throughout, came close when he had a shot saved by the keeper, but that was only a temporary reprieve. That late equaliser finally arrived in the first of five added on minutes – fully rewarding the perseverance of a Dons side that just never know when they are beaten. Cheye Alexander did very well to get in a cross from the right that Pressley flicked on into the path of McCormick and he finished emphatically.
There was still time for the visitors to almost snatch it after a goalmouth scramble, but that would have been rough justice on a Dons side that produced an impressive second-half display. It certainly offered encouragement that Wimbledon can come back after the break and rediscover some of the swashbuckling attacking play that had our fans on the edge of their seats.
AFC Wimbledon: Nik Tzanev, Henry Lawrence (Nesta Guinness-Walker), Alex Woodyard, Will Nightingale, Cheye Alexander, Anthony Hartigan, Ayoub Assal, Jack Rudoni (Dapo Mebude), Aaron Pressley, Luke McCormick, Ben Heneghan.