AFC Wimbledon’s first foray into Carling Cup territory lasted only one game, but Terry Brown was able to take enough positives from the team’s performance to bolster his belief that the Dons are comfortably good enough to hold their own in League Two.
Maybe it is a little early to suggest that Brown can concentrate on the League (at least until our entry into the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in October). But this defeat, due in no small part to a series of uncharacteristic defensive errors, has at least left the Dons boss without the distraction of a visit to Selhurst Park to take his players’ minds off their first couple of league games.
For both sides, it was a cagey start to life as Football League clubs. Crawley’s new signing from Macclesfield, Tyrone Barnett, had the first decent opportunity of the game but could only find the side netting with an angled drive from ten yards. In what would prove to be a torrid evening for last season’s Player of the Year, Sam Hatton, the Dons’ right-back was nowhere to be seen when Dannie Bulman’s hopeful ball over the defence found the striker in acres of space. Jamie Stuart and Brett Johnson had done a fine job in keeping the prolific Matt Tubbs quiet, but left-back Dean Howells seemed to have the freedom of the park and all the time he needed to seek out the Red Devils’ new strike pairing with a series of dangerous crosses which thankfully came to nothing.
After 25 minutes of feeling each other out, so to speak, the Dons took the lead with a brilliant goal. When Luke Moore collected a Ricky Wellard pass a yard or so inside the Crawley half, there seemed to be no imminent danger – the entire Town defence were between Moore and their goal. But a powerful, mazy run, a pair of fleet-footed shimmies and a low 20-yard drive later, the ball was nestling inside Michel Kuipers’ far post.
Within two minutes the Dons came within a whisker of doubling their lead: Max Porter’s reverse pass found Rashid Yussuff in behind Kyle McFadzean, but the midfielder, in fine form in pre-season, dragged his left-footed shot wide of the far post.
The thought of going two goals down seemed to spur Crawley on. Only some poor finishing by Sergio Torres and the tetchy Barnett, after more good work by Howells down the left, preserved the Dons’ lead. But ten minutes before half-time, Wimbledon’s first defensive mix-up handed Crawley their equaliser on a plate. The Dons failed to clear a corner, and when Yussuff badly scuffed his attempted clearance straight to Howells, the ball was returned with interest – Barnett flicked it on, and Hope Akpan, Crawley’s new signing from Everton, was perfectly placed at the back post to control the cross and drive it low and across Seb Brown.
Within 30 seconds of the restart Brown was in action again – and again the move stemmed from some lax defensive play. Stuart miscontrolled another Barnett flick-on and the ball found its way to Tubbs, whose first-time shot was athletically palmed away by the Dons’ penalty-save hero from the City of Manchester Stadium.
Wimbledon very nearly went in at the break 2–1 down, but 25 seconds into the second half they went into the lead, albeit rather fortuitously. When McFadzean slipped on the freshly watered pitch as he looked to clear a loose ball from the far edge of the penalty area, the impressive Christian Jolley wasted no time in latching on to it, racing past the prone defender and picking out Jack Midson’s run into the six-yard box. It was a simple task for the former Oxford striker to side-footed the ball home.
The Dons had held on to their first-half lead for only 10 minutes, but that was twice as long as they managed this time. From David Hunt’s long throw into the box, Barnett again got his head to it first, and from his flick-on Seb Brown could only watch as Torres, somehow unmarked at the back post, planted a low left-footer into the corner of the net.
Tubbs had what appeared to be a decent shout for a penalty turned down when it looked as though Johnson’s hand had deflected his header from Howell’s latest foray into the box, and then Josh Simpson’s 20-yarder skimmed just wide as the home side turned up the heat in search of a third goal.
On 63 minutes they got it, and it was yet another piece of soft defending by the Dons that handed it to them. Another Hunt throw into the box was only partially cleared, and when Stuart could only knock the ball down into Tubbs’ path near the penalty spot, there was only one likely outcome: Crawley went in front for the first time.
That goal seemed to kill off the Dons’ resistance. Wellard, Hatton and Yussuff surrendered position to Akpan and Bulman with worrying regularity, and it was questionable whether the home side would have made so little of the gifts of possession had this game not been taking place on a weekend on which they would have expected to be playing their final pre-season friendly.
Crawley’s lack of a killer fourth goal could have come back to haunt them, as in the final 15 minutes the Dons rediscovered their first-half form. Charlie Ademeno replaced Jolley and immediately he was in the thick of the action against his former side (though he wasn’t coming to face to face with many of his former team-mates).
A misplaced header from a Hatton cross aside, Ademeno’s best chance – in fact the Dons’ best chance – of the second half came when Chris Bush’s miscued volley from a Luke Moore cross fell invitingly to him. But as he shaped to shoot from just six yards out, the Dons’ new No.9 miskicked with Kuipers on the ground, and McFadzean cleared the danger. In the next attack, Moore forced Kuipers into the save of the game when the big Dutchman acrobatically parried the Dons’ man of the match’s fierce 18-yard drive.
That wasn’t the last of the action the keeper saw, though – the former Brighton man, sent off twice in his first three appearances for Crawley last season, came haring out of his goal to clear from the onrushing Ademeno on the edge of the penalty area, and the two players’ momentum saw them crash into each other as Kuipers hammered the ball into touch for a Dons throw. Or so the 1,024 Dons fans thought – but bewilderingly, referee Darren Deadman not only awarded Kuipers the free-kick but booked Ademeno for the challenge.
As the Dons ran out of steam in time added on, Mr Deadman ran out of patience with Town debutant Akpan, who had already been booked for juggling the ball instead of giving it back to the Dons after he had conceded a free-kick. His second show of petulance, volleying the ball 60 yards away after Torres had clearly fouled Ademeno, earned him a needless second yellow and the red that duly followed.
And thus AFC Wimbledon were knocked out of the Carling Cup at the first attempt. Hopefully their second attempt next season will see them take their place in the First Round Proper in a game against a League One giant rather than foes as familiar – and, frankly, as good – as Crawley Town.