The Dons took Terry Brown’s idea of winning ugly a little too literally in this tense, scrappy encounter at Ship Lane.
With AFC Wimbledon looking to extend their lead at the top of the Blue Square South and Thurrock having dropped into the bottom three after having three consecutive games postponed, this was never going to be a feast of football. The one surprise was just how meagre the fare on offer would be.
Chris Hussey returned after suspension to reclaim the left-back position from Michael Haswell, who earlier in the week had suggested that the Dons needed to prioritise in order to win the title, substance over style being the general idea. However, it was the home side who provided most of the substance in the early stages of the game. The towering centre-back pairing of Ron Swaine and Matt Paine were not giving Jon Main a look-in, and Danny Kedwell found Swaine a particular nuisance, but whenever the Dons midfield gained possession their first out-ball was a long punt up to Kedwell, playing into the hands (or head) of Swaine.
It was no surprise that the first decent chance of the half fell to the home side, who were certainly not playing like a team heading for the Ryman Premier, but Sam Lechmere’s industry deserved better than David Bryant’s wayward finish. On 25 minutes Swaine headed clear when Main seemed certain to head in Sam Hatton’s cross, but other than Kedwell’s smart turn and shot, which brought a fine save from Joe Woolley, the Dons’ attacking manoeuvres too often foundered, after either an unusually poor final ball or a timely intervention by Thurrock. James Pullen in the Dons goal was easily the busier of the two keepers, thwarting another Bryant effort and repelling a Jamie Richards shot when the striker, who kept top scorer Che Stadhart on the bench, really should have buried the chance.
Thurrock had had the better of the first half and they started the second in similar fashion, debutant Lorcan Fitzgerald giving Andy Sambrook, returning to his former club for the first time since he joined the Dons, an uncomfortable afternoon. A series of long throws and free-kicks bombarded the Dons box, but Jason Goodliffe and Ben Judge were once again at their very best - and had to be as Thurrock started to exert more and more pressure. Chances at the other end were few and far between, with Swaine seemingly magnetically drawn to the ball, and Craig Hughes and Charlie Howard hustling Tom Davis and Jake Leberl into uncharacteristic errors. Terry Brown replaced the hobbling Elliott Godfrey with Tony Finn just before the hour mark, but even the tricky winger couldn’t find a way past the mean-looking, resilient Thurrock defence.
With 20 minutes to go the Dons should have fallen behind, but Bryant somehow sent his six-yard header a yard wide of the post when Clark’s free-kick was flicked on by the ubiquitous Swaine. However, AFC Wimbledon showed little sign of being able to capitalise on Thurrock’s inability to take a golden opportunity, with only a tame Main header to show for their efforts.
Then, with five minutes left to play, Hatton fed Finn; the substitute’s pirouette was too quick for Paine, and the defender made his first error of the afternoon, bringing Finn down some 22 yards from goal. Hatton thumped the free-kick towards goal and, aided by a deflection off what appeared to be the forearm of Davis, the ball bounced down at a weird angle and flew into the top corner of the net past the wrong-footed Woolley.
The Dons managed to see out the remaining five minutes, plus another five minutes of time added on, and secured a much-needed three points from a game that so often looked as though it would produce nothing. With Chelmsford losing at Bognor and Eastleigh managing only a draw at home to Bishop’s Stortford, this was a significant victory, but with Kedwell, Main, Goodliffe, Pullen and Godfrey all picking up knocks, it looked to have come at some cost.