Sometimes it’s just your day, sometime it just isn’t. Today was very much Terry Brown’s day as the Dons chalked up their first home win back in the Football League, despite losing a player in the warm-up and being eternally grateful to lady luck and poor finishing for not being at least 4–0 down at half-time. How they went in at the break a goal up will remain one of life’s great unsolved mysteries.
Brown had planned on countering Micky Adams’ 5–3–2 set up with a 4–4–2 formation with Ricky Wellard and Luke Moore at opposite tips, and Sammy Moore and the restored Max Porter occupying the central berths. However, during a close-passing exercise in the warm-up Jamie Stuart clattered into Charles Ademeno, and the former Crawley striker hobbled off before the game had even started.
New signing Kieran Djalili who had been named as a substitute, was drafted in to replace the unfortunate No.9, and Christian Jolley, who had failed a fitness test earlier in the day, stepped in as a last-minute substitute having expected to watch the game from the stands. Vale were not without selection problems of their own: strikers Sean Rigg and Doug Loft, who between them had already scored six this season, were both unavailable.
If losing a player in the warm-up wasn’t bad enough, the very thought that this was destined to be the Dons’ day was far from anyone’s mind for the first 40 minutes of the half. Vale had to do very little to gain possession and were able to create chance after chance that, thankfully for Wimbledon, they consistently failed to take. To make matters worse, the vast majority of those chances were the direct result of some kamikaze defending by the Dons.
First, when Ben Williamson misdirected his header after an aimless punt into the penalty area, Brett Johnson and Gareth Gwillim alarmingly left the loose ball to each other, and Tom Pope nipped in and poked it goalwards – the shot didn’t have the strength to reach the line, and Gwillim was on hand to clear. Then Louis Dodds was left unmarked in the area and seemed certain to volley home from Williamson’s cross, but he somehow managed to smack the ball into his standing leg, sparking a goalmouth scramble that ended only when what looked like Sam Hatton’s outstretched foot deflected Pope’s eventual effort.
Poor marking at a corner less than two minutes later saw the towering defender Clayton McDonald get his head to the ball first, but thankfully Gwillim had positioned himself perfectly and made the third goal-line clearance of the afternoon. If that wasn’t enough, Johnson and Jamie Stuart then got into a tangle on the edge of the box and allowed Dodds to nip in between them and slide the ball under the advancing Seb Brown. But once again Gwillim, this time with a far greater degree of difficulty, managed to scramble back and not only hack the ball clear from on the line but also manage not to crash it into Johnson’s legs.
The Dons were, in all honesty, at sixes and sevens and with a bit more luck in front of goal Vale could easily have been six or seven ahead. Left wing-back Rob Taylor was in outstanding form, using his pace, power and skill to outfox Sam Hatton on more occasions than the Dons’ Player of the Year would care to remember. It was from the right, though, that Vale again almost took the lead when Anthony Griffith rattled Seb Brown’s right post with an 18-yard rocket after Ricky Wellard had surrendered possession in midfield.
Then, as the half drew to a close, Dodds propelled a half-volley towards what appeared to be an unguarded net after Pope had beaten Stuart in the air, but Hatton appeared from nowhere and seemed to block the effort with the side of his head, and Johnson hammered the loose ball clear. It was quite incredible that Terry Brown’s side were on the verge of going in all-square at half-time. But then, on a breakaway from a Vale attack, Luke Moore’s raking pass found Djalili behind the visitors’ defence. His electrifying pace took him clear of skipper John McCombe, and as he entered the penalty area and went to take the ball round Stuart Tomlinson, the onrushing keeper caught the former Palace man’s ankles, and referee Scott pointed to the spot.
The phrase “against the run of play” was never more apt. But Tomlinson made amends as he parried Moore’s spot-kick, only to see Jack Midson react first and net the rebound smartly. Midson was then denied by Tomlinson after his near-post flick from a Wellard corner almost sneaked in. Somehow, against all the odds, Wimbledon led 1–0 at the break.
Vale trudged off, aghast at how they weren’t out of sight, but within 40 seconds of the restart the football gods finally smiled on them. Pope held the ball up in the area and laid it off to Dodds, and from 20 yards the striker bent a glorious effort past the outstretched fingertips of Seb Brown. At last, Wimbledon’s opponents had scored a goal they had created themselves with enterprising play – no blame attached to that one, at least.
With Luke Moore withdrawn at half-time, Terry Brown thrust Christian Jolley into the action, and what a masterstroke it proved to be. Whatever knock had originally kept the 22-year-old out of the game had either cleared up in the space of 45 minutes or he was playing through the pain barrier. The former Kingstonian man all but singlehandedly suppressed the previously rampant Taylor’s marauding up and down the flanks, as, ably supported by the now far wider Sammy Moore, he provided the Dons midfield with not just an out-ball but a tangible barrier between the Vale’s left flank and Wimbledon’s danger area.
No longer could Vale just stroll forward and create havoc. They were now having to work for their possession, and the Dons were settling back into a 4–4–2 with the sprightly Djalili now on the left and Jolley up front alongside the hard-working Midson. The home side was now playing their football again, and if only Max Porter’s cross into the box for Midson hadn’t been slightly overhit, the Dons would have surely regained the lead. Sam Hatton then repeated the trick and put too much weight on a cross with Midson, Jolley and Djalili all waiting in the box.
But on the hour mark the Dons did retake the lead, with a goal right out of the top drawer – and a drawer marked “Unlikely Scorers” at that. Porter won the ball in the centre circle and exchanged passes with Wellard before finding Midson, with his back to goal on the edge of the D. With a superb flick, Midson found Gwillim running onto the ball from the left-back position, and from 22 yards the defender struck the sweetest of first-time left-footed volleys that arrowed past Tomlinson and into the net, just inside the keeper’s far post. Kingsmeadow erupted, and Gwillim, the archetypal defender’s defender, looked as surprised as anyone.
Djalili was replaced by Rashid Yussuff to give the Dons a solid-looking four-man midfield, and it was from a cute Yussuff pass that Jolley came close to putting Wimbledon 3–1 up. With Midson to his left and open space to his right as Jolley bore down on goal, McCombe showed him right, so Jolley worked the ball onto his left foot and bent a curling shot that beat Tomlinson all ends up but was just inches wide of the keeper’s right post. Jolley’s pace and trickery, not to mention his much improved steelier determination, was giving the Vale defence nightmares.
The Dons back four, now holding a far firmer line, just needed to stand strong to secure that first home win of the season. Even a succession of corners failed to worry them much, but just as it looked as though they would hold out, Johnson conceded another corner when he sliced an attempted clearance over his own bar with just six minutes to go. Although Stuart got his head to the original cross, the ball fell kindly for sub Sam Morsy, and the diminutive striker’s shot through a sea of legs caught Seb Brown unsighted and found the far corner of the net for Vale’s second equaliser of the half.
A point from this game would not have been a disaster. But in the first minute of the six added on, Morsy’s deep cross found Pope in acres of space in the box. With the goal at his mercy and no Dons defender within five yards of him, he couldn’t decide whether to control the cross or hammer the ball home first time. He ended up kicking his standing leg and stumbling over the ball, watching in horror as it rolled harmlessly towards the clearly grateful Seb Brown.
Then, with the referee looking at his watch and all six minutes of additional time played, the Dons snatched a sensational winner. Lee Minshull, on for the injured Porter, sprayed a 60-yard diagonal ball into space for Jolley to chase. The Dons sub kept the ball in on the right-hand touchline, cut in past Owen, shimmied past McCombe and unleashed an unstoppable low left-footed drive from 20 yards that buried itself into the right corner of Tomlinson’s net.
Terry Brown couldn’t contain his delight, and ran with arms aloft towards the corner flag as if he’d netted that corker himself. And no one could deny him the right to celebrate. An afternoon that had started with his skipper crocking his centre-forward at a quarter to three had ended with a penalty won by a player he hadn’t intended to start, a goal of the season contender from a player who hadn’t scored for three years, and the winner scored by a player who hadn’t been fit enough to make the squad.
Sometimes it really is your day.