In football, as in life, you tend to get what you deserve – but try telling that to Dons boss Terry Brown. AFC Wimbledon can count themselves extremely unlucky not to have taken all three points from this top of the table encounter, never mind the point they would have got had Danny Kedwell not missed a late penalty.
Oxford came to Kingsmeadow having won four and drawn one of their five games this season, and the manner of their victories (excepting the one gained with two goals in the last three minutes) suggested that the Dons were in for a tough afternoon. But as has been the case this season, the home side started brightly.
Most of the early attacks originated with Jay Conroy in the right-back berth, but Kedwell was getting little change out of the giant Mark Creighton and his more mobile defensive partner Luke Foster, and moves too often broke down when Kedwell’s flick-ons found United defenders. Lewis Taylor and Luke Moore, deployed wide of the Dons’ five-goal target man, weren’t able to feed off his deft touches, and only Moore’s shot on the turn after a Foster mis-kick threatened the Oxford goal.
Oxford looked strong in every position, and their 4-5-1 formation was clearly set up to catch the Dons on the counter-attack, with James Constable leading the line and Adam Murray tucked in behind. Matt Green, somewhat surprisingly, was on the bench. Constable was being superbly policed by Paul Lorraine and Brett Johnson, and despite some inventive passing from Danny Bulman, Adam Chapman and Marcus Kelly, Constable was limited to one flicked header that looped just wide of James Pullen’s far post on 20 minutes.
The Dons were more than holding their own, but chances were few and far between at both ends, and an enthralling first half ended goalless.
Four minutes into the second period, the visitors took the lead. Conroy and Lorraine left a harmless looking ball to each other, Murray nipped in between them and fed Chapman, who slipped right-back Damian Batt in behind Chris Hussey, and from the near-post cross a combination of Constable and Conroy sent the ball spinning past the stranded Pullen and into the far corner of the net.
Against a side as strong as Oxford it would have been easy for the Dons’ heads to go down, but the goal spurred them into one of the best 40 minutes of attacking play they’ll muster all season. Moore was re-energised, and the ball seemed to be glued to his feet as he danced through the United midfield at will, setting up Steven Gregory for a series of pinpoint passes out to Conroy as the Dons searched for the equaliser they deserved.
Sam Hatton was having his best game of the season so far, and Derek Duncan was becoming a growing influence on the game. Wimbledon were determined to even things up, but it took an injury to Lewis Taylor to swing the balance back their way. In the 70th minute Taylor controlled another Gregory pass brilliantly but was scythed down by Kevin Sandwith – who, to be fair, did seem to be going for the ball. But now Elliott Godfrey’s introduction, together Ricky Wellard, on for the tiring Duncan, gave Wimbledon a new attacking dimension. Foster and Creighton were performing heroics for Chris Wilder’s men, but with 18 minutes left the Dons were awarded their fourth penalty in six games.
Moore played Lorraine in with an overhead kick on the edge of the box, but as the defender was about to shoot from 12 yards Batt hauled him back and the referee pointed to the spot. Despite the clear goalscoring opportunity, the challenge was deemed worthy of only a booking, but worse was to come as Ryan Clarke brilliantly parried Kedwell’s spot-kick to safety. Kedwell could justifiably point to the near three-minute delay between the award of the penalty and him being allowed to take it as a reason for his failure, but Clarke guessed right, despite the striker’s more than sufficient contact.
Conroy was then withdrawn, Jon Main coming on as Terry Brown reverted to 4-4-2 with 10 minutes of normal time to go. Sam Hatton dropped into the right-back position, and it was his cross that somehow eluded Wellard and Main when a touch from either of them would have brought the Dons level. On 86 minutes Chris Hussey’s deep cross was headed back across goal by Kedwell, but Wellard’s tentative header from just five yards out was easily saved by Clarke when a goal seemed certain.
With Wimbledon intent on forcing an equaliser, Oxford twice almost capitalised with lighting-quick breaks. First, Constable somehow fired wide from 10 yards when Green’s pace had taken him away from Hatton, and then Lorraine’s last-ditch tackle prevented the pacy substitute from finishing off his own good work in the final minute.
The final whistle was greeted with raptures by the travelling United fans, but that was clearly mixed with relief as their resilient side had held out in the face of 40 minutes of almost remorseless attacking by AFC Wimbledon, who deserved at least a point from this feisty but largely fair encounter.