AFC Wimbledon weathered a first half storm to come away with this 2-1 win over Maidstone United, in what was a rather fractious and bad tempered encounter at Bourne Park. All the goals came in a frantic first 13 minutes, with Mark De Bolla giving the Dons the best possible start from the penalty spot. Tony Finn extended the lead three minutes before Mo Takaloo pulled one back for the Stones. The hosts then pressed hard for an equaliser during a tense first period in which Daniel Webb received his marching orders for a reckless challenge on Conor Hagan. After the break Hagan himself would see red for two bookable offences in quick succession.
Terry Brown’s squad has been nursing a few injuries recently. He chose to go with a hard-working 4-5-1 system, utilising Mark De Bolla in a free role behind lone target man Webb, and replacing injured Karl Beckford on the right flank with the returning Steve Ferguson. Will Salmon continued to deputise for Luke Garrard at right back, and the Dons welcomed new goalkeeper, Lee Butcher, into the ranks for his first game on loan from Tottenham.
Before either side had time to set their stall out the visitors were in front. Ferguson worked the ball down the right with De Bolla; the subsequent cross was knocked down by Webb into Finn’s path and, although his shot was lawfully blocked, Mark Beard’s rebound attempt was handled by Ben Lewis. De Bolla thumped the penalty past Pat Mullin for 1-0.
Nine minutes later, the Dons made it 2-0. From De Bolla’s corner from the right, Jake Leberl arrived at the near post to head goal-bound, and Tony Finn cleverly guided the ball past the keeper from a yard out.
In a flash, the Stones were back in it. Nick Hegley’s cross was headed against the bar by Alex Tiesse, but Mo Takaloo was on hand to fire in from close range.
Enforced substitutions have been a recurring theme of Wimbledon matches recently. Rob Quinn would have to retire hurt, replaced by Antony Howard immediately after the hosts’ strike.
Before Howard could bed into the task before him, Ben Lewis crashed another header against the bar and Takaloo’s stabbed attempt was cleared off the line.
The visitors dropped deeper, desperately trying to preserve a fragile lead that seemed likely to crumble away imminently. Nick Hegley, finding all sorts of space down the left, galloped into the box and smashed the ball across the face of goal but Tiesse couldn’t apply a finishing touch with the visitors at sixes and sevens.
In what was a rare foray forward the Wombles won a corner. Antony Howard met De Bolla’s delivery but his header looped wide of the right hand post.
The complexion of the match was further changed on 26 minutes when Daniel Webb was dismissed for a cynical lunge on Conor Hagan. It’s not clear whether the referee felt it was two-footed, but it was certainly rash, and over the ball, and therefore considered dangerous enough for a straight red. It’s actually the first time a Wimbledon player has been sent off during Terry Brown’s tenure.
Down to ten men and facing another injury problem with Jake Leberl hobbling, Brown was forced to shuffle his pack again. He allowed time for the Dons midfielder to run off whatever was ailing him and replaced winger Tony Finn with a more straightforward box-to-box midfielder in Sam Hatton on 35 minutes.
The lively Tiesse went close again, spinning and shooting low but finding Butcher alert between the posts. Hagan then wasted a good free-kick opportunity before half time, clipping the ball wide when a decent cross into the packed area was perhaps a better option.
Half-time was about the worst thing that could have happened to the Stones, but it duly arrived and the Dons were able to regroup and rethink their strategy to grind out a result.
De Bolla was substituted and Jon Main joined Ferguson up front, as the Dons boldly relinquished their lone striker strategy despite being a man down.
Maidstone, however, picked up where they left off in the first period. Tiesse raced past Will Salmon to the by-line, but Hegley, on his weaker right foot, drove straight at Butcher. Moments later, right back Nathan Paul nearly scored a fluke, slicing an attempted cross that nearly caught Butcher out, but the young keeper recovered to pluck the ball out of the air.
Wimbledon countered. Steve Ferguson was put through on goal, but Mullin was quick off his line to smother the danger.
The match started to drift away from Maidstone in the 53rd minute when Hagan was booked and powerful defender Lee Shearer was forced off with an injury. The visitors began grinding their way back into the contest. Leberl drilled in a low 25-yarder which Mullin did well to turn round the post. Howard and Main then went close during a goal mouth scramble, with the new Dons striker nearly converting an overhead kick.
When Hagan was sent off for his second mistimed challenge in the space of four minutes the contest opened up in a way that disrupted the hosts sufficiently to ease the pressure on Wimbledon’s backline.
Mullin was back in action again on 62 minutes, palming away Sam Hatton’s low drive after a slick one-two with Jason Goodliffe down the left.
Maidstone brought defender Rob Lyall on for Nathan Paul to stem what was becoming one-way traffic.
Mark Beard, driving the Dons from midfield, was denied by another straightforward stop after making something from nothing down the left flank. Ferguson too was thwarted, this time by Lyall’s fine last ditch tackle as the Dons pushed forward to wrap up the match. On 75 minutes, the former Woking striker cut inside his marker but scuffed wide of the right hand upright.
Beard threaded Main through the middle, but the striker’s shot dipped too late to test Mullin. Hatton watched his attempt from the edge of the box take a nick on its travels and spin away for a corner.
The Stones applied some late pressure, winning a series of corners but the Dons, marshalled magnificently once again by skipper Jason Goodliffe, held out for their fourth league victory on the spin.