A Danny Kedwell penalty on the half-hour mark earned the Dons all three points in a hard-fought, often tetchy encounter that saw Rushden almost snatch a draw in time added on.
This was certainly an important victory: three of the teams just below the Dons in the table – York, Kidderminster and Fleetwood – all recorded equally narrow wins on the day, and what would have been a record fourth league defeat in a row for AFC Wimbledon might well have signalled to those rivals the start of their own last-ditch play-off push.
Terry Brown once again shuffled his pack, with Sam Hatton and Danny Kedwell returning from injury and illness and Ricky Wellard returning from his loan spell at Cambridge, while Ismail Yakubu stepped in to replace the ineligible Jamie Stuart. It was the personnel change up front that was the subject of most interest, with Thursday’s deadline day signing, Welshman Kaid Mohamed, making his debut and Kirk Hudson dropping to the bench.
The visitors created the first chance, with Matt Johnson heading over the roof of the Tempest End from Alan Power’s cross, and Power then made himself some room before firing narrowly wide of Seb Brown’s far post with a dipping drive. Rushden weren’t having it all their own way in terms of possession, but the Dons’ new-found habit of over-passing on the fringes of the penalty area twice denied them clear opportunities to shoot. First, Mohamed looked to profit from some indecisive defending, but from 20 yards out and with the ball sitting welcomingly on his favoured right foot, the former Bath City striker elected to find Ryan Jackson on the opposite side of the pitch and the chance was gone. Rashid Yussuff passed up a similar chance shortly afterwards.
Wimbledon were still looking dangerous and, for the first time for five games, comfortable in possession. They almost took the lead in comical fashion when Diamonds keeper Joe Day misjudged the flight of an inswinging Sam Hatton corner and was forced to punch the ball out from under his bar with the ball barely five feet off the ground. Rushden eventually cleared their lines, but Day looked unsure of his position whenever the ball was pumped into the box.
The Dons continued to look their old assured selves, despite missing the pace and energy of the suspended James Mulley. But Wellard, back from nine games for Cambridge, looked strong, and Steven Gregory was putting in his finest display for some time, winning tackles and headers and using the ball sensibly and simply.
With half an hour gone, some more intricate exchanges by the Dons on the edge of the box saw Yussuff find Mohamed with a superb flick around the corner; as Mohamed shaped to shoot he was shoved over inside the penalty area, and referee Atkin pointed to the spot. Kedwell hammered his 21st goal of the season into the roof of the net to at least temporarily silence the Rushden fans, who had somehow come to the conclusion that the Dons skipper was overweight.
Five minutes after the Dons took the lead, they really should have doubled it with their next meaningful attack. Jackson and Kedwell set up Yussuff, but from only six yards out he dragged his shot wide with Mohamed in acres of space in front of goal. The ball wouldn’t sit for Yussuff, and but for better footwork he would have netted his fifth goal of the season – he waited too long and fluffed what turned out to be the Dons’ clearest chance of the game. The worry was now that Rushden would make the Dons pay for their profligacy, but Yakubu and Brett Johnson were doing a sterling job of shackling Ryan Charles and Michael Gash, and the Dons reached half-time a thoroughly deserved goal to the good.
The second half, as had often been the case in recent games, turned out to be an almost completely different story, with referee Mr Atkin at the centre of much of the action. Three rather soft free-kick awards in favour of Rushden set the tone for the half but, in fairness to the official, the emergence of a potent Rushden attacking threat had far more to do with the Dons sitting too deep. Wimbledon just couldn’t get out of their half for the first 20 minutes of the half, with Rushden penning them further and further back, and the Dons readily accepting the invitation of pressure.
With the home side offering precious little attacking threat and the visitors looking certain to equalise, Terry Brown’s side were grateful for three things as they hung on for dear life – a superb fingertip save from Seb Brown to keep out a Max Porter free-kick, an offside flag to wipe out Johnson’s acrobatic volley, and, with Rushden about to benefit from a numerical advantage as they pushed deep into Dons territory, referee Atkin pulling play back to award them another soft free-kick and book Luke Moore, who had replaced Jackson only a few minutes earlier. The Dons were both fortunate and thankful.
From a Seb Brown goal kick they almost doubled their lead. Kedwell fed Moore wide on the left, and he unselfishly tried to set up the onrushing Mohamed and Yussuff, but Shane Huke beat them to it and cleared effectively. Kedwell then fashioned a great chance to seal the victory but his shot was weak and easily saved. As he turned away, he collapsed to the ground holding the back of his right leg – a sight that panicked the Dons fans – but it turned out to be cramp, although severe enough for Kedwell to be replaced by former Rushden striker Drewe Broughton.
Broughton was on the pitch long enough to be the third in a series of Dons players to be penalised for winning the ball cleanly in time added on. Sam Hatton and Brett Johnson had also conceded the softest of free-kicks within Porter’s shooting range, neither of which unduly troubled Seb Brown, but from this one, awarded for Broughton’s fine clearing header, defender Huke’s volley evaded Brown but smacked into the far post, and Gareth Gwillim, who had had an excellent game, cleared his lines.
The Dons held on for their first league win in a month. If Terry Brown’s pre-match maths was correct, the Dons needed ten points from their final seven games to clinch a play off spot. Now it was seven from six.