A good Burgess Hill team plugged away manfully at Kingsmeadow, but the AFC Wimbledon title bandwagon rolled onward with an impressive 2-0 win, combining hard work and endeavour across the park with no little skill and subtlety in possession.
Dave Anderson mixed his team up in terms of shirt numbers, but the positions were predictable enough on the pitch. With Richard Butler failing a fitness test and Ryan Gray seemingly dropped after his Saturday red card, Leon McDowall partnered Andrew Martin up front and Gareth Graham started in midfield. With Rob Ursell playing in the proverbial hole behind the strikers, the starting formation was 4-3-1-2, in contrast to the more orthodox 4-4-2 the Dons have favoured of late.
McDowall won the ball on the right to set up Wimbledon?s first chance, but after Martin dug out his low cross, he could only chip weakly straight at Gannon. The Dons had the best of the early exchanges, but their play-off chasing visitors looked more than capable of making a game of it. Ursell and Gell combined to send Martin away, but he was halted by the linesman?s flag for a decision that must have been tight to say the least. If his first flag was contentious, his second was downright wrong. Graham won the ball and played Martin in down the right-hand side but the linesman raised his flag for McDowall being offside in the middle, at least 15 yards from the play.
Midway through the first half, Steve Butler limped off injured and was replaced by Steve Gibson, with Antony Howard moving in to centre-back. As he had on Saturday, Chris Gell assumed the armband in Butler?s absence.
A poor kick by Gannon from a backpass as Martin closed in allowed the Dons to keep up the attacking pressure. Mark Jones won a corner and a fizzing Ursell effort narrowly eluded the leaps of Martin and Mark Cooper, eventually curling just beyond the far post.
McDowell was then fouled out by the touchline and Gannon flapped to punch an Ursell curling cross behind from the free-kick. But a short corner came to nothing as Graham?s cross didn?t beat the first man.
Paul Smith had a little bit to do, clearing one ball with a great piece of improvisation as he slid towards the edge of the area, pushing the ball away from himself and leaping up to hack it away. He then easily held a shot from distance by Fillery as Burgess Hill tried to get into the game more. Edmonds sent a header over from a corner on another away foray forwards.
More good work from McDowall saw the Dons go close again. He won the ball on the right, beat his man and laid the ball back for Ursell, who managed to squeeze a shot in as the ball got stuck under his feet, but Gannon got down well to save. The corner resulted in a brief game of head tennis, before Burgess Hill were relieved to see the linesman?s flag raise for offside.
The thing that shone out most in the first half was the workrate of both sides, typified for the Dons by the harrying of McDowall and Ursell upfront and the combative battling of the midfield three. But both defences, especially the visitors, did enough to keep the scoresheet blank.
But it took just six minutes of the second half for the deadlock to be broken. Once again it was McDowall who did the hard work, shrugging off his marker and only being denied by a last-ditch challenge from Jay Head. The ball rolled free to Ursell, who hammered it first time beyond Gannon?s dive. As the team rushed to congratulate both goalscorer and provider you could see how much the breakthrough meant to a visibly tightly-knit side. Including friendlies, the goal was the Dons? 500th since their reincarnation as AFC Wimbledon.
McDowall was then crudely hacked down by Geard the next time he had the ball, and the Burgess Hill man was booked for the challenge. He continued to be a thorn in the visitors? side, heading just over the bar and subsequently winning another corner, which nearly went in off the head of Bates at the back post.
For their part Burgess Hill looked more than confident of getting back on terms, and fashioned their best chance of the match just after the hour mark. Geard found himself in space in the box from a cross and was half-blocked by Gibson, but got to the bouncing ball first. Smith came off his line smartly to save well as he spread himself. Wimbledon broke at speed, but, with McDowall free on the left, Ursell picked the wrong option as he tried to slide in a heavily-marked Martin up the middle.
A ball over the top as the linesman?s flag stayed down gave the Dons another scare, but Harper had one shot blocked by Howard and hammered the second into the sponsorship hoardings to the left of Smith?s goal. As the visitors committed more men forward in search of an equalizer, Jones headed away under pressure from under his own bar and Fillery saw a shot from a long way out deflect behind off Cooper?s heel.
For their part the Dons looked comfortable enough in defence and still threatened at the other end as the game drew to a conclusion. Cooper had a header saved from a corner and McDowall sent a chipped shot over the bar. But Burgess Hill refused to accept defeat and continued to plug away.
Finally, with a minute remaining the Dons had the cushion their attacking opportunities probably deserved on balance. Just as the man-of-the-match award was announced as going to Ursell, the indefatigable McDowall, who in the press box?s opinion had richly deserved that honour for his immense contribution, added his own comment by setting up the second. The ball was laid back to Gell on the edge of the area, who steered a precise low shot into the bottom corner to make the three points safe. McDowall left the field to a standing ovation in injury time ? if that?s the way he plays in it, Dave will have to give him the number four shirt more often.
With their game in hand out of the way, the Dons opened up a still wider gap at the top of the table with this fine display and sent out a clear message to the chasing pack.