The Dons may have come within a couple of minutes of throwing away two points on Saturday, but 48 hours later they didn’t have the luxury of a winner in added time to rescue a game that on balance they should have won. But none of the four goals were the main talking point afterwards – that was referee Ian Cooper, with his perplexing decisions and eight bookings.
A look at the statistics of this game won’t give you much of a picture. The Dons had the majority of possession but failed to force a single corner; they scored with both their efforts on target (one a penalty), although Newport keeper Glyn Thompson hardly covered himself in glory, making something of a hash of the second Wimbledon goal. Newport looked a decent side in the first half, but they barely threatened until the last ten minutes of the game, when – like Eastbourne two days before – they equalised and sensed that Wimbledon were prone to the footballing equivalent of a batting collapse, and came close to stealing all three points at the death.
Terry Brown again juggled his starting XI, restoring Jon Main and Ricky Wellard in place of Luke Moore and Lee Minshull. For the first time this season he decided to do without a central defender on the bench, naming the attack-minded Ryan Jackson and Rashid Yussuff to keep Moore, Minshull and Jack Turner company on the sidelines. County had had a reasonable start to their first Conference National campaign, and in strikers Craig Reid and Robbie Matthews they had perhaps the ideal partnership to trouble Ismail Yakubu and Brett Johnson, combining power, pace and finishing ability.
Matthews had the first decent attempt on goal, but Seb Brown dealt with it easily enough. County’s resolute back line of Chris Todd and Gary Warren were doing a fine job of keeping Danny Kedwell quiet, but Christian Jolley was looking bright and lively on the right and gave the Dons an outlet ball when the play got bogged down in central midfield.
On 16 minutes Jolley played in Sammy Moore in acres of space in the County box, and as he made for the byline, with just Kedwell to aim for, former Stevenage midfielder Eddie Odhiambo nudged him with enough force to send the former Dover man over and earn the Dons their third penalty of the season. Kedwell’s spot-kick was low and true, and although Thompson got his hand to it the ball was struck with enough force to give the Dons the lead.
Paul Bignot escaped a booking when he unceremoniously dumped Jon Main into touch as the Dons’ No.10 tried to get a cross into the box, but just a minute after the goal the referee produced a yellow card for Sam Hatton’s slightly mistimed clip of Odhiambo’s heels, and brandished another when Andre Blackman and Charlie Henry collided when the diminutive Newport wide man was chasing a Danny Rose pass. Both Wimbledon full-backs were now on a booking, with 72 minutes of the game remaining.
Blackman set about righting the wrong. When Steven Gregory fed him a pass wide on the left, he tore down the wing and cut inside, only to be brought down just inside the penalty area, but the referee saw no foul. The Dons certainly weren’t getting the rub of the green with decisions – the combative Matthews got away with several shoves, barges and elbows, whereas Brett Johnson was penalised for the cleanest of challenges on the edge of the Wimbledon box.
With 25 minutes gone, Rose slid a pass in the direction of Matthews, who, with the ball at least two feet away from him and Yakubu the same distance behind him, threw himself to the ground theatrically. Mr Cooper blew his whistle, not to book the Newport man for diving, but to point to the spot. Reid despatched the spot-kick cleanly, and the Welshmen were level.
Neither side created a clear-cut chance for the rest of the half. Main looked again to be struggling to find his form, and Sammy Moore was almost anonymous. Ricky Wellard was having one of those days when the game seems to pass you by, and even when you do get the ball you don’t know what to do with it.
When Brett Johnson succumbed to his earlier knee injury, Terry Brown was left to rue his decision to not include either Ed Harris or Fraser Franks on the bench; Lee Minshull, who can count himself unfortunate not to be in the starting line-up after his excellent showing as an attacking midfielder at the weekend, was sent on in the centre of defence.
Shortly before the whistle for half-time, centre-back Warren coolly cushioned a half-volleyed back-pass to keeper Thompson, who inexplicably picked the ball up. A clear free-kick to the Dons, surely … but no, Mr Cooper waved play on, to the vociferous displeasure of the Tempest End and the Wimbledon bench.
The second half began in much the same way as the first had finished, with Matthews escaping a booking despite challenging Hatton elbow-first and sarcastically applauding the referee’s decision to award the Dons a free-kick. But just nine minutes into the half, Wimbledon struck. Gregory’s diagonal ball out to Kedwell was inch-perfect and gave the captain the time and space to thread a cross to the back post, where Jolley arrived to meet it with a first-time shot that crept under Thompson’s body and over the line.
Newport had offered little in the opening stages of the half and could count themselves lucky to still be playing with a full complement. Jolley made minimal contact with Todd when the former Torquay defender cleared a Dons attack, but it was enough for the County No.6 to push Jolley in the chest. Warren then joined in and had a go at Jolley. Kedwell’s bullish attempts to restore calm had the opposite effect, and soon 14 players were jostling and barging each other. There were yellows for Kedwell, Jolley and Todd, though not for Warren. But the bookings were soon evened up when Matthews was carded for his fifth rambunctious tackle of the afternoon, crashing into Hatton with a rugby-league style body check.
Things seem to calm down after that. Wellard’s 25-yarder narrowly evaded the post, and sub Luke Moore, on for Main, took too long to get his shot away. The Dons, though, seem to relax a little too soon, and as they had done in the previous two games they began to give the ball away with increasing regularity and recklessness: Hatton and Gregory were particularly culpable when their stray passes out of defence fell kindly for Reid and Matthews, but the Newport strikers weren’t able to make the best use of their free gifts.
With ten minutes to go, Luke Moore strayed offside 20 yards inside the County half, and five seconds later Wimbledon’s lead evaporated. Thompson’s flighted free-kick saw Yakubu lose a header for the only time in the entire match, Hatton was caught ball-watching, and Reid tucked a highly takable chance under the onrushing Brown. Despite Minshull’s efforts to keep the ball out, it was 2-2.
Newport now sensed victory. Their 400-strong support found their voice, and the Dons’ nerves started to fray. Thankfully, substitute Darryl Knights headed wide from only six yards out after he got free of the otherwise excellent Yakubu, but that apart neither side produced a particularly meaningful late attempt on goal, and the spoils were shared.
Another look at the stats will show that Newport had most of the attempts on goal, the only corners, and more possession in the attacking third of the field, but the Dons will see this is as two points dropped, and Dean Holdsworth’s visitors as a point gained. Mansfield’s late fourth goal at Altrincham knocked the Dons off top spot, and only a goal separated the two sides from third-placed Crawley. That it was a soft goal will rankle all the more with Terry Brown and his team.