The last time a Wimbledon side met Swindon Town in a League match was in April 1994, when the Dons condemned the Robins to relegation in what would prove to be their only season in the Premiership. Two goals from Robbie Earle were bookended by strikes from John Fashanu and Dean Holdsworth in a game that wasn’t hugely high on quality.
It could be argued that this November 2011 League 2 encounter was the better of the two games, however unlikely that may sound. For this was a pulsating end-to-end clash that featured superb goalkeeping, resolute defending, two midfields that were by turn dogged, determined and creative, and two three-man forward lines that worked tirelessly in a game that was a credit not only to both teams but to League 2 itself.
With Jamie Stuart suspended, Terry Brown brought Callum McNaughton into the back four, with Ricky Wellard displacing Max Porter on the left of midfield and Ryan Jackson keeping his place in the side at the expense of the player he replaced after 10 minutes against Scunthorpe, Kieran Djilali. Swindon were without their top scorer, the rangy Mehdi Kerrouche, and his place was taken by Birmingham City loanee Jake Jervis in a like-for-like swap.
Perhaps encouraged by the performance against League 1 Scunthorpe the previous weekend, AFC Wimbledon started like the proverbial house on fire. Swindon were on a run of nine unbeaten games in which they had conceded only a handful of goals, but they were put under immediate pressure by the harrying of Jack Midson and Christian Jolley and the pace of Jackson.
It was through Jackson that Midson really should have given Wimbledon the lead with just two minutes gone. McNaughton’s 40-yard pass to Rashid Yussuff’s feet was laid off to the speedy winger, and his first-time cross to the edge of the six-yard box was begging to be headed in by the diving Midson. But the 10-goal striker got his bearings and angles slightly awry, and the ball looped harmlessly over the bar.
Not to be deterred, Wellard and Sammy Moore then set about working Jackson into space behind the Robins’ young left-back Liam Ridehalgh. From the resulting corner the ball was only half-cleared, and from Jolley’s persistence the Dons won another corner. After the ball ricocheted around the box it dropped at the feet of Sam Hatton, whose first-time shot seemed to lack both power and accuracy. But the ball struck a Swindon knee and found its way into the net past keeper Wes Foderingham (who conceded four to the Dons when on loan to Histon some seven months ago).
The on-loan Palace custodian was helpless as he watched Hatton’s effort bulge the back of his net with just six minutes gone, but three minutes later he pulled off a world-class save when a Hatton corner to the near post was flicked on by Midson. The ball seemed to be arcing its way into the top corner, but Foderingham stuck out his left hand and brilliantly diverted it over the bar for yet another corner.
This was as good a start as the Dons had made to a game all season. Had it not been for some sturdy defending by the giant Aden Flint, the home side could have gained a commanding early as they had when Gillingham visited at the beginning of last month. Wimbledon were, rather surprisingly, dominating possession and the midfield three were looking remarkably comfortable.
But just as thoughts of another three-goal half-time advantage were beginning to take hold, Swindon almost equalised. From a driven low cross, McNaughton and Brett Johnson got into a tangle and the ball fell invitingly for Alan Connell, the former Grimsby striker who had scored a sumptuous goal at Kingsmeadow on the final day of last season. But Seb Brown reacted superbly to tip his volleyed effort away for a corner.
Paolo Di Canio’s Robins had been uncharacteristically subdued for the first 20 minutes of the half, and for all the Dons’ dominance the home side hadn’t secured the second goal they quite clearly needed. Now that the visitors had woken up, the comfortable win that looked as if it may have been on the cards was looking increasingly unlikely.
Brown was forced to make two more fine saves, from Jervis and the influential Matt Ritchie, before Wimbledon grabbed back the initiative. From yet another corner, Brett Johnson reacted quickest to the loose ball, and only Alan McCormack’s goal-line hack prevented the defender from notching up his first goal of the season.
A second goal would not have been undeserved as the Dons were turning up the heat in Foderingham’s kitchen, especially after they had spotted that Swindon right-back Paul Caddis wasn’t the tallest player on display and attempting to get Jolley in behind him with a series of searching angled balls over the top.
Jolley’s pace and trickery, combined with the strength and ability of Chris Bush, were more than a match for Caddis and seemed to be the Dons’ most likely route to that second goal. But shortly before half-time Jolley limped off to be replaced by James Mulley. Town had lost striker Raffaele De Vita moments earlier in similar circumstances, the seventh first-half substitution seen at a Dons home game this season.
Wimbledon thoroughly deserved to go in ahead at the break, but they almost surrendered their lead when after an added-time goalmouth scramble both Jervis and Connell forced Brown into admirable reflex saves before first Hatton and then Johnson cleared the danger. It would have been hard on Terry Brown’s side, and the superb Moore in particular, to concede so late in the half.
Fans in the Kingston Road End of the ground were probably quite grateful that they hadn’t seen a huge amount of action in the first half and were hoping that the Dons’ attacking fervour would be carried into the second period and they’d now get a close-up view of their team’s endeavours. However, as the half panned out it became clear that those supporters in the Tempest End were going to be seeing the majority of the action in both halves.
Di Canio’s half-time team talk must have been suitably inspiring as his charges set about doing to the Dons what the Dons had done to them. Namibian international Oliver Risser and former Celtic midfielder Simon Ferry looked far more up for the fight and were closing down Moore, Wellard and Yussuff much quicker than they had in the first half. With Ritchie starting to look like the Championship player he was until last season, Wimbledon would now have their work cut out if they were to clinch their first home win since that unseasonably hot 1 October.
The all-important second goal wouldn’t come, though, despite some concerted pressure that ended with Johnson’s far-post header from a Hatton corner forcing Foderingham into an acrobatic save. With Swindon upping their own game, it was looking more likely that a 1–0 lead wasn’t going to be enough.
But for all their second-half possession, Swindon couldn’t make it count either. McCormack’s header from a corner sailed narrowly over, and Jervis failed to get any sort of touch to Flint’s knock-on. Then, with the goal at his mercy following a quick break, Connell scuffed his shot and could only watch as the ball bounced off Brown’s far post and bobbled towards the waiting Hatton to clear.
Di Canio now sprang something of a surprise, withdrawing Ritchie and throwing on Dutch winger Etienne Esajas, who had looked a constant danger when the two sides met in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy 10 days earlier. The Dons’ star performer that night, Lee Minshull, was then introduced into the action in place of the tiring Jackson, and with Midson moved wide, the former Tonbridge Angel slotted in in an unaccustomed centre-forward berth.
However, it was Esajas’s introduction, not Minshull’s, that proved to be pivotal. Six minutes after his arrival, Moore brought him down some 40 yards from goal. From the resulting short free-kick, Caddis clipped the ball into the box, Jervis helped it on and Connell poked it past Brown for an equaliser that Swindon, on the balance of play, deserved.
The Dons weren’t content with a point, though. From a clever short-corner routine Hatton got in behind Caddis, and only another timely intervention by Flint prevented Midson from putting the home side back in front. Soon after, Yussuff and Mulley combined on the edge of the box to set up Wellard, and his 20-yard bending left-footer was superbly tipped over the bar it was about to strike by the impressive Foderingham.
A draw now seemed likely. But as the clock struck 90, Dons fans had one of those heart-in-mouth moments they have grown used to over the past nine years (remember Jason Walker’s 90th-minute header that rebounded off the inside of the post at the City of Manchester Stadium). Caddis was given far too much time and space to run at the Dons defence, and after scorching his way past Moore and Wellard he broke into the box. As Midson approached him he crashed to the ground, and the Swindon players, bench and supporters all howled for a penalty. Referee Williamson pointed to the spot . . . but then with his other hand produced a yellow card and booked the moustachioed full-back for simulation and awarded Wimbledon a free-kick 12 yards from their own goal.
The four added minutes failed to produce a clear chance for either side – probably the longest the game had gone without one – and both Terry Brown and Paolo Di Canio had to settle for a point. The Dons had now drawn five games in a row, but conceded just three goals in the process. But after a performance, and a match, like this it can be only a matter of time before the wins start to come again.
But bear this in mind, as a marker of just how far the Dons have come: there was a slight air of disappointment around the players as they warmed down after a game in which they had picked up a well-earned point against a club that 18 months ago was one bobble away from a place in the Championship.