An Ismail Yakubu header 18 minutes from time was enough to send the Dons to the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier after an evenly contested Kingsmeadow encounter.
Football fans regularly question a manager’s decision-making, often pondering long after the game has finished why an out-of-form player wasn’t substituted or why their team dropped deep and invited pressure when they were leading. There were two deciding factors that settled this game, and Terry Brown and Gateshead’s Ian Bogie were the catalysts of both. A repeated instruction by Dons boss Brown was fruitfully heeded, while Heed manager Bogie’s attempt to change the game with a substitution proved to be his side’s undoing.
Gateshead made the 350-mile trip to Surrey in good spirits after a fine run of results had propelled them into the top ten, and if the highly rated Kris Gate had taken an early opportunity to give his side the lead, their confidence might have received a further boost. Fortunately he blazed over Seb Brown’s bar, but the Dons certainly now knew, if they hadn’t before, that they had a tough opponent on their hands.
Wimbledon were moving the ball around nicely, with Sam Hatton playing Ryan Jackson in behind Paul Heckingbottom on three occasions in the first 15 minutes, but keeper Tim Deasy did well to thwart the danger twice, and only the telescopic leg of the giant James Curtis denied Ricky Wellard the chance to capitalise on a third.
The Dons then had a good shout for a penalty turned down when Deasy clattered into Wellard as they bore down on a bouncing loose ball, but referee Alan Bennett decided that Deasy had just beaten the Wimbledon midfielder to the ball before they collided.
A few more minutes of Dons pressure saw Chris Bush’s deep cross to the far post being only narrowly headed over by Sammy Moore, and it seemed as though the Dons were gearing up for another comfortable home victory. But Gate and the industrious Andy Ferrell were ensuring that they didn’t have it all their own way. Indeed, it was the visitors who twice had chances to take the lead before the half-hour mark, but Jon Shaw made a mess of Craig Nelthorpe’s teasing low cross, and Curtis got too much on a header from a corner while Brown and Bush watched, rooted to the spot, as the ball drifted inches wide.
Gateshead were playing some neat football of their own, and had former Hartlepool centre-half Ben Clark to thank for keeping Danny Kedwell as quiet as any defender has all season. Despite a couple of long-range efforts that were easy for Deasy, the Dons skipper was being marked out of the game by the experienced Clark. However, on the one occasion that Kedwell got the better of his man, getting his head to a deep Hatton cross, Heckingbottom got to the ball before Moore and hooked it away from danger with Deasy well beaten.
The visitors didn’t appear to have come for a draw, though, and Ismail Yakubu and Ed Harris had to be on top form to limit them to few clear chances as their neat approach play threatened to pay dividends on several occasions. As the half drew to a close, Steven Gregory to succumbed to an ankle injury sustained in a clash with Ferrell and was replaced by last week’s match winner, Rashid Yussuff. It was the second home game in a row that the midfielder had failed to make it past the interval.
Bogie must have been extremely happy with his charges, who had defended well, kept the ball keenly in midfield and looked sharp going forward, but within 15 minutes of the restart the Dons had almost battered them into submission. Christian Jolley was looking like the most dangerous player on the pitch, after a quiet first half, and with Jackson now forcing Gateshead to double up on him on the right, the Dons suddenly had more space to exploit. Sammy Moore and Chris Bush were the players to benefit most, and they made great use of the extra room, finding Jolley, Kedwell and Wellard with neat passes, only for the impressive Curtis and Clark to extinguish the danger.
With just over an hour gone the Dons should have taken the lead when Jackson and Hatton combined to great effect, Hatton being given time to send in a cross that Wellard really should have buried, but his header lacked power and direction and bounced off the outside of the post. The Dons now looked far the likelier to break the deadlock, but then a Curtis header from a Nelthorpe corner suffered the same fate, striking Seb Brown’s near post as the 6 ft 5 in ginger-haired defender somehow strolled into the six-yard box unnoticed.
Time for turning point number one. Just to ensure that the Dons didn’t let the lack of breakthrough affect them and make them start rushing, Terry Brown screamed at his players to keep their patience, as a goal would come. Turning point number two: as Brown finished rousing his troops, Bogie withdrew the combative Ferrell and replaced him with the lanky Shane Clarke. Within 20 seconds of coming on, Clarke tripped Jackson 30 yards from goal after some enterprising interchanges between Moore, Kedwell, Hatton and Wellard. From the resulting Wellard free-kick that swung towards the penalty spot, Yakubu outjumped the Heed defence and bulleted his header past the static Deasy to give the Dons the lead. Clarke had changed the game, but not in the way his manager had hoped.
Wimbledon were never going to settle for 1-0, even with the news that Crawley were trailing at home to Newport, but for all the hard work by Jackson and Jolley down the flanks, another clear-cut chance never materialised, and with the lead so narrow, a defensive slip or a piece of magic could easily have led to a Gateshead equaliser with only seconds left on the clock. When Heckingbottom clipped a harmless-looking cross into the Dons box, it begged to be hammered away by the imperious Harris. He slipped at the vital moment, presenting sub Josh Gillies with the chance to equalise, but Yakubu threw himself at the ball and Bush tidied up before Gillies could even think about following up.
The Dons had done enough to reclaim top spot, but Gateshead had made them work extremely hard for these three vital points.