If Nathan Elder’s performance on his debut for AFC Wimbledon is anything to go by, it would appear that Shrewsbury Town have some exceptional strikers. Rarely has any Dons player made such an impact in his first game: the former Brentford man, one of five in the starting line-up, effectively won all three points for his new side within the first 20 minutes.
With less than two minutes gone, Will Hendry took a Kennedy Adjei pass in his stride, spotted Elder in space near the penalty spot and lifted a perfect cross onto the powerful striker’s head. Elder buried the chance with aplomb, heading the ball across keeper Alan Marriott and into the far corner of the net. Not a bad first touch of the ball as an AFC Wimbledon player.
Elder was presented with an equally takable chance just three minutes later, when Main’s deft flick left him with a clear run on goal, but the ball bobbled up off the otherwise excellent playing surface and Elder elected to pass to the onrushing Hendry; his effort was well blocked by Scott Garner, and the ball was cleared to relative safety. Had the Dons found themselves with a two-goal lead so early, it would have been no more than an accurate reflection of their dominance – which no doubt came as a pleasant surprise for Terry Brown and Stuart Cash. Mansfield started the day one place above the Dons but had started the game looking edgy and nervous, and the home side were doing everything in their power to take advantage.
The fact that they didn’t score a second so early in the proceedings spurred David Holdsworth’s Stags into action. Louis Briscoe and Kyle Perry both went close before right-back Gary Silk missed the visitors’ best chance when he shot into the side-netting as Seb Brown came out to narrow the angle.
The Dons’ second goal came soon after Silk’s miss. After a fine passing move involving Brett Johnson and the other impressive new signings, Danny Blanchett and Glenn Poole, Adjei found Sam Hatton, who dinked the ball into the box for Elder to head an inch-perfect ball into the path of Lewis Taylor. With a sweet left-footed strike from the edge of the penalty area, the Dons midfielder bagged his fourth goal of the season.
Elder was winning every header, using his strength to great effect and looking every inch the League Two player he is, forcing Mansfield’s beleaguered defence into a series of uncompromising tackles. The visitors were using every available limb to fend off the striker who caused the Dons plenty of problems when he was a Billericay player in our final season in the Ryman Premier.
With the rested Danny Kedwell watching from the bench, Elder, who is unavailable for Tuesday’s FA Trophy clash with Altrincham, quickly won over the Dons’ supporters, and as half-time approached, both Hendry and Poole worked themselves into great positions, looking to play off Elder’s power and pace. Johnson and his central defensive partner Ben Judge were, for the most part, largely untroubled, but Briscoe’s neat turn forced a fine save from Brown, and Judge’s well-timed intervention prevented Rob Duffy from pulling a goal back.
Garner was replaced by Luke Jones during the interval as Holdsworth sought to save his side from the kind of drubbing the Dons inflicted on his twin brother Dean’s Newport County on two occasions last season. But apart from some more tenacious midfield work from Briscoe and Matt Somner, the Dons’ dominance was rarely threatened, and the 400 travelling supporters, normally among the division’s noisiest, were being kept reassuringly quiet.
The new left-side pairing of Blanchett and Poole looked as though they’d been playing together since the start of the season, such was their understanding, with Peterborough loanee Blanchett looking comfortable on the ball and regularly finding the diminutive Poole with simple but effective passes. Sam Hatton was showing why Terry Brown is currently preferring the converted midfielder to Jay Conroy in the right-back position with a display that became more assured as the game went on.
With Mansfield not threatening to pull a goal back, the Dons not adding to their tally was never really going to be a problem but Elder nearly put the issue beyond doubt when his shot was blocked by Jones, and then Hendry was unlucky to see his effort fly wide of Marriott’s goal. Even a chanceless afternoon for Main mattered little, such was the Dons’ overall performance.
Ricky Wellard’s introduction for the not yet fully match-fit Poole was almost a stroke of genius by Terry Brown as the Stags finally woke up with 15 minutes to go. First, his clearing headers from two inswinging Briscoe corners were expertly executed, and then twice within five minutes he came within an inch of scoring the goal of the season. Collecting Marriott’s mis-hit clearance some 40 yards out, Wellard beat Oliver Hotchkiss with a cute piece of skill and sent a beautiful, curling chip back over Marriott’s head that seemed destined to find the back of the net before the keeper leapt high to tip the ball over the bar. The former Ashford Town man then forced a superb save from Marriott when his left-footed piledriver from 30 yards went screaming towards the top corner.
A three-goal deficit would not have been unfair on Mansfield, but the Stags manufactured their best two chances in the closing stages. First substitute Jake Speight nipped in between Judge and Johnson to poke the ball over Brown from 12 yards, but referee Whitton eventually spotted his assistant’s flag, presumably for offside, much to the striker’s chagrin. And in the final minute Perry slid in to meet a near-post cross, but his deflected shot dribbled against the post, to the relief, no doubt, of both the Dons’ Browns.
Wimbledon had beaten a top-five side for the first time this season – something that will have to become a regular occurrence if the playoff push is to be maintained. On this showing, though, a top-five finish is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility.