It was a dream debut for Ronan Curtis today as he stepped forward in the nick of time for Wimbledon.
Wimbledon appeared to be heading for a frustrating 1-1 draw against a Mansfield side that played for 70 minutes with 10 men, but Curtis changed all that with his last-gasp strike earning a much-needed victory for the Dons.
It provided a real tonic for Wimbledon after a rather flat start to 2024, the Dons having failed to win a league game this year before today.
That statistic was extinguished in dramatic circumstances with that man Curtis - aiming to recapture the form that made him one of the hottest properties in the lower leagues during his time with Portsmouth - striking right at the death after entering as a late substitute.
Reduced to 10 men in the 20th minute after a straight red card was shown to Jordan Bowery, Mansfield had displayed resilience in abundance after falling behind to Omar Bugiel's well-taken goal.
Whatever the circumstances, make no mistake, this was a great win for the Dons as it was only Mansfield's third league defeat this season and they still remain in the automatic promotion places.
It appeared that the Dons had not done enough in the second-half to warrant all three points as Nigel Clough's side dug deep, before taking their big chance when it arrived through Will Swan. However, Curtis changed all that - to the relief and ecstacy of all in yellow and blue.
Johnnie Jackson made four changes to his starting line-up, with two of those enforced. Isaac Ogundere replaced the suspended Huseyin Biler at right-back and Lee Brown was recalled at the heart of defence due to the midweek injury sustained by Ryan Johnson in midweek. Bugiel was straight back into the side after returning from international duty with Aron Sasu on the bench and John-Kymani Gordon was given the nod to make his home debut in place of James Ball.
The Dons made a bright start with Gordon looking lively early on. The on-loan Crystal Palace forward showed good awareness to find Armani Little in the box, but he was unable to get in a shot with Mansfield keeper Christy Pym out quickly. On the other flank, James Tilley caused problems early on, but he shot wildly over from 25 yards out. Our men in yellow and blue had certainly been the better side early on and an incident in the 20th minute gave the Dons a clear advantage. Jordan Bowery was rightly adjudged to have made a professional foul as he was the last man when he stopped Josh Davison from going through – and the inevitable red card followed.
Shortly afterwards, Wimbledon supporters almost had a goal to celebrate when Gordon sent in a teasing cross from the left that was only half cleared and James Tilley’s fierce drive arced towards the top corner before it was cleared superbly by the head of Bailey Cargill. Following that near miss, the Dons struggled to make the extra man count as Mansfield showed why they had only been beaten twice in the league this season before this match. There was a further blow for the visitors midway through the first-half when their captain Aden Flint had to go off with a shoulder injury. Despite those setbacks for the men from Nottinghamshire, frustration was starting to grow amongst the home faithful with Wimbledon struggling to break them down.
The mood around the place changed emphatically in first-half injury time as the Dons opened the scoring in style. A fine team move ended with Gordon’s pass providing a shooting chance for Bugiel and he made the most of it with a fantastic low strike that left Pym with the chance. The relief was palpable around the Cherry Red Records Stadium after that breakthrough and Bugiel’s superb strike was an example of the sharp shooting that the Dons had been missing while he was away with Lebanon.
However, Bugiel’s return to Dons duty lasted only the one half as he was withdrawn at the break with Harry Pell introduced for the start of the second-half. Gordon continued to impress at the start of the second-half, one lung-bursting run down the left catching the eye after lovely hold-up play by Josh Davison. Mansfield held firm though to stay in the game and they were rewarded in the 62nd minute with an equalising goal that was a very disappointing one to concede from a Wimbledon perspective. A routine cross was sent in from the Mansfield left that Lee Brown failed to clear and Will Swann made no mistake with his strike from an acute angle finding the net.
Johnnie Jackson made a double change shortly after that goal with Gordon going off with a knock and he was replaced by Ronan Curtis, who came on for his Dons debut after signing earlier this month. Gordon could take plenty of satisfaction from his first Wimbledon game on home turf, certainly offering plenty of promise for the rest of his loan stay.
Aron Sasu was also introduced in place of Josh Davison as Wimbledon searched for the key to unlock the door. Despite having less players, Mansfield were not being tested enough and their players were even starting to sense that an unlikely victory in the circumstances was on the cards.
That all changed though when Curtis steered home from close range after a fine cross by fellow susbtitute Ryan McLean and that sparked jubilant scenes amongst the home faithful. What a way to claim a first league victory this year - and winning in such circumstances could be something to really build on in 2024.
AFC Wimbledon: Alex Bass, Lee Brown, Jake Reeves, James Tilley (Ryan McLean), Josh Davison (Aron Sasu), Armani Little, Omar Bugiel (Harry Pell), Jack Currie, Joe Lewis, Isaac Ogundere, John-Kymani Gordon (Ronan Curtis).
Attendance: 8,114 (990 away)
PICS: Ian Stephen (Pro Sports Images)