The previous week, 479 Dons fans made the fruitless trip to Bradford City and saw their side concede two horribly soft early goals and then look as though they would never get back into a game they were favourites to win. This time, AFC Wimbledon supporters had a lot less far to travel to see a repeat performance: the Dons conceded two horribly soft early goals and then failed to trouble the visiting keeper with a single shot on target until the 86th minute of a frustratingly disjointed afternoon.
Terry Brown had promised to make changes after the FA Cup defeat at Valley Parade, and he was as good as word, with Chris Bush dropped from the 16 and Brett Johnson and Christian Jolley injured. Into the starting line-up came Callum McNaughton at the start of his fourth month on loan from West Ham, the fit-again Gareth Gwillim and Max Porter.
Mat Mitchel-King was finally fit enough for a place on the bench, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the afternoon was how the Dons lined up, with Sammy Moore – a revelation in his holding midfield role this season – deployed further forward, and Ricky Wellard dropping back to protect the once-again porous defence.
With Stanley having drawn seven and lost two of their nine away games this season, and the Dons on their worst run since the club was re-formed – seven league games without a win – there was a reasonable chance that something had to give.
The game had hardly begun when Seb Brown was fishing the ball out of the back of his net for the 22nd time in ten games and two minutes. Dean Winnard’s throw to Bryan Hughes down by the corner flag caught the Dons asleep, and from Hughes’ low cross into the six-yard box Padraig Amond, the Irish striker on loan from Portuguese side FC Pacos de Ferreira, nipped in to delicately dab the ball past Brown.
The 99 Stanley fans couldn’t believe their eyes, and as Gareth Gwillim and Luke Moore argued over whose responsibility it was to pick up Amond, the Dons faithful began to wonder whether this was just the start of another deflating afternoon.
Their fears were not entirely unjustified, as Wimbledon, clearly bereft of confidence, continued to play entirely into Stanley’s hands. The visitors had come to stifle the Dons’ attacking threat, and their plan may well have been working, but it wasn’t that easy to tell because the home side were managing to nullify it themselves with a series of misplaced passes, overhit crosses and timid tackles that alarmingly echoed their performance seven days earlier.
The free-flowing attacking football that had superbly seen off Cheltenham, Bradford, Gillingham and Morecambe and propelled the Dons to third place in the table on 8 October now seemed a distant memory. The home side were making little or no headway at one end and looking increasingly likely to concede at the other.
Jamie Stuart was lucky not to be sent off for a shuddering aerial challenge in the 15th minute that had Stanley’s coaching staff springing from the bench and baying for blood (though as the game wore on, this proved to be a rather regular occurrence). But just eight minutes later, after a spell in which Stanley spurned two chances to double their lead, the Dons fell further behind.
Former Birmingham midfielder Hughes played a simple ball in behind the match-rusty Gwillim, Winnard hared after it, and from his near-post cross Craig Lindfield bundled the ball past Brown from three yards out. With 67 minutes of the match left it should not have been game over for the Dons, but in truth, it all but was. Lindfield and Long should both have netted takable chances, Brown made a fine save after a goalmouth scramble, and then Hughes fired wide from 18 yards as Stanley pressed to make the game completely safe before half-time.
The Dons, meanwhile, were giving Stanley keeper Ian Dunbavin what must have been his quietest afternoon for some time. The home side managed just one shot on goal in the entire first half, with Jack Midson a frustrated but typically tireless onlooker for much of the time, starved of possession and cutting a lonely isolated figure as James Mulley and Luke Moore offered him precious little support.
Max Porter was having an afternoon to forget, careless and sluggish in possession far too often for Terry Brown’s liking. When he was hauled off at half-time and replaced by Charles Ademeno, the Dons fans must have been expecting something of a fightback, with a stronger attacking force that would at least give the Accrington defence something to think about.
But although Wimbledon upped the ante a little, the urgency that a two-goal deficit would normally engender against a side that hadn’t won away all season just wasn’t there. The Dons had much more of the ball in the opening stages of the second half but did next to nothing with it – any crosses that were slung into Dunbavin’s box were dealt with before they caused the keeper any kind of danger, and even Wimbledon’s eight corners created little or no alarm in the visitors’ back line.
The introduction of Brendan Kiernan for Luke Moore with 25 minutes to go finally sparked the home side into life. The 19-year-old burst past three players as he ran at the Stanley defence from inside his own half, but with Midson in a great position on the edge of the box, Kiernan played the ball out wide to Gwillim, possession was lost, and with it went the impetus of what proved to be the Dons’ best period of the game. Admittedly it only lasted a couple of minutes, but it finally gave the home fans something to cheer.
With that threat dissipating before it even began, the visitors mounted a meaningful attack of their own. Despite having had so little of the ball in the second half, they now came within a whisker of making it 3–0 after some fine interplay involving that man Hughes again. But after a goalmouth scramble, Jayden Stockley’s goalward poke was blocked by a combination of Seb Brown, the post and Sam Hatton.
With four minutes to go, Wimbledon at last drew a save from Dunbavin. Kiernan worked his way into the box and got his shot away under pressure but Dunbavin palmed it away quite comfortably. At least the Dons had managed another shot on target, but it was their only and indeed their last effort on goal in the half, and they found themselves in 17th place as the final whistle blew on a cold and disappointing afternoon.
With games against Rotherham, Oxford, Southend and Swindon to come, this represented the Dons’ best chance for a month to pick up some much-need points. It was a chance they blew completely.