Maybe it’s time to invent a new football cliché: the Dons came out on top of what was, in essence, a game of three halves. The first 50 minutes belonged to AFC Wimbledon, who at that stage were cruising at 2-0 up. The next 20 minutes completely belonged to Tamworth as the home side fought back to equalise and looked the more likely winners. But for the final 20 minutes the pendulum well and truly swung back in the Dons favour, and Terry Brown’s table-toppers emerged from a six-goal second half with a fully deserved victory.
The relative mundanity of the first half belied what was to come in a crazy second. At times the Dons looked a class above their Staffordshire opponents, whose extraordinarily sloping pitch was doing as much as anyone in a red shirt to discombobulate the visitors. James Mulley had the first decent effort of the game, but only found the side-netting when Michael Wylde’s challenge forced him wide.
Tamworth offered little in the way of dangerous-looking attacks, and the Dons midfield were being allowed as much time as they needed to seek out the front three of Kirk Hudson, Danny Kedwell and Christian Jolley. Only a series of last-ditch interventions by Wylde and Aaron Mitchell prevented both Mulley and Kedwell from being presented with clear shots on goal. Tamworth’s best chance fell to Wylde when he headed a corner narrowly over Seb Brown’s bar, but within a minute the Dons took the lead.
Sam Hatton chipped a free-kick to the edge of the penalty area, Kedwell headed on, and Mulley skipped past a challenge, dummied the keeper and slotted into an empty net from four yards. At least that’s probably what Mulley would have you believe – but in truth, he miskicked as keeper Ross Atkins came at him but regained his composure sufficiently and capitalised on Atkins’ early dive to register his fifth goal of the season. As astute signings go, the former Hayes & Yeading and Chelmsford man must rank as one of Terry Brown’s best in recent years.
The Dons pushed on for a second, and a Kedwell volley that flew just wide was the closest they came to doubling the lead until the skipper worked himself a shooting opportunity on the edge of the box after a Gareth Gwillim clearance fell invitingly for him. Kedwell beat Mitchell to the bouncing ball, jinked past the defender and watched as his 20-yard chip sailed over Atkins and clipped the top of the bar.
Desperately unlucky as he was with that effort, five minutes into the second half he was celebrating his 16th goal of the season. Sam Hatton was allowed to run 40 yards unchallenged, and from the edge of the Tamworth area he slipped Kedwell in behind the last line of defence; with Wylde and Mitchell appealing in vain for offside, Kedwell confidently fired past Atkins from 12 yards, and the Dons were cruising.
The cruise, however, lasted less than 60 seconds. From a free-kick just inside their opponents’ half, Tamworth conjured up a near carbon-copy of the Dons opener. Kyle Perry adopted the role of Danny Kedwell, flicking on the ball from the edge of the area for Wylde to control it on the penalty spot and lift his shot over Seb Brown and into the unguarded net. Almost immediately, Kedwell earned himself a fantastic chance to restore the two-goal advantage, outmuscling Wylde and outpacing the lanky defender in a race from just inside the Tamworth half, but keeper Atkins came out smartly to smother his shot.
If the Wimbledon bench thought that the first Tamworth goal was soft, which it was, it was Messi-esque compared with the one that brought the hosts level five minutes later. When Brett Johnson’s back-pass to Brown fell agonisingly short, Daniel Bradley nipped in between Brown and Jamie Stuart, and although his touch was heavy, he composed himself and from a narrowing angle found the net, despite the despairing dive of Sam Hatton. The Dons had gone from comfortably controlling the game to looking likely to lose it in the space of six minutes.
Tamworth made two substitutions as boss Des Lyttle sensed that the Dons were there for the taking, and he was almost right. Johnson and Stuart, who’d had very little to do until Tamworth’s first goal, now found themselves in the thick of it as the burly Perry and impish Danny Thomas began to cause the Dons problems. Terry Brown decided that it was time for a change of his own, and removed Jolley, replacing him with new loan signing Drewe Broughton.
Broughton’s arrival at the club had led some Dons fans to question the wisdom of signing an ex-Milton Keynes player, while others were more concerned with his goalscoring record of two in his last 66 games, stretching back three seasons. It was clear that the former Peterborough front man, on a three-month loan from Lincoln City, was going to have to work harder than usual to win the AFC Wimbledon supporters over, and his first two touches of the ball did nothing to endear himself to them, tamely surrendering possession as the Dons looked to attack down the left. His third, though, was rather better, and came with 15 minutes of the game remaining.
Hudson fed Kedwell inside the Tamworth area, and Atkins once again smothered his effort, but the ball fell invitingly for Broughton, who calmly side-footed it first time into the net from 20 yards past two retreating defenders. The slightly mixed reaction that greeted his entrance had already given way to a song bearing his name – three minutes is a long time in football, it seems.
Whatever stuffing Tamworth had left in them was now well and truly knocked out. Rashid Yussuff came close to adding a fourth when he got on the end of a Kedwell cross, but Atkins again rescued his side with an acrobatic tip-over as the Dons looked to kill the game off in style. With two minutes to go, the energetic Mulley was pulled down by Richard Tait inside the box, and the referee, rather surprisingly from Staffordshire, had no alternative but to point to the spot. Kedwell stroked home his 17th of the season, but the Dons – and their skipper – were far from finished.
A minute into injury time, Hatton found Kedwell hugging the right touchline with his back to goal, and in a flash he turned sharply, shrugged off the challenge of Tom Marshall and whipped in a low cross that evaded Wylde and allowed Yussuff all the time he needed to control the ball and slip it under the advancing Atkins for the Dons’ fifth.
The 605 AFC Wimbledon fans who had battled through traffic jams on the M25, M40, M42 and M6 had seen seven goals and a game that, bizarrely, could easily have mirrored Gateshead’s 7-2 crushing of Wrexham at the Racecourse Ground – or, if Tamworth’s comeback had not fizzled out, could have ended in a disappointing defeat. Along with footballing ability, one thing you need to win any championship is character, and it’s clear that the Dons have a seemingly limitless supply of that at the moment.