AFC Wimbledon 5 - 2 Walton Casuals
Would it be unfair to say that the Dons did "just about enough" to score another five goals and beat a well-organised side that plays (or at least tries to play) good football? Am I being churlish again? Am I just so used to seeing my team crush their opponents often all-too easily that when we really have to be on our game to eke out a victory that I can?t see the wood for the trees? I don?t know and I don?t really care. Three more points, five more goals, Kevin Cooper?s fourth hat-trick of the season? and it wasn?t as cold as I thought. Pretty much a perfect evening in my book (a book that doesn?t feature Kirsty Gallacher or the girl from the Boogie Pimps? video greeting me at the front door, at any rate).
Oddly enough though, the Dons got off to a pretty poor start. The first 10 minutes were spent giving the ball away cheaply, winning it back and then giving it away again. It took an 11th minute goal from the visitors to liven things up. Back in November Walton had the temerity to take a three-goal half-time lead in the Premier Challenge Cup, and Fennell?s close range header, despatched past the helpless Lee Carroll after Matt Everard missed a deep free kick and Ball hooked his namesake back into the danger area made the more nervously disposition-ed Dons fans think that lightning might be about to strike twice.
Was it going to be "one of those evenings", the last of which came in the home defeat to Feltham in November 2002, when we did everything but score? Ryan Gray?s volley from a beautiful Lee Sidwell cross which flashed past the post did nothing to dispel the nerves, and neither did a succession of corners that were cleared by Walton defenders without too much trouble. And, more to the point, neither did Everard?s despatching of an eminently bury-able header into the gardens behind the goal. Only a 15th minute booking for Simon Bassey had any ring of normality about it. It certainly wasn?t for want of effort that the Dons couldn?t find a way through, their lack of cutting edge was a result of good defending by the always impressive but small Ennis and the player we have to be thankful for for still having Matt Everard in the startling line up, Osikoya. With the comically irascible Wheeler in goal not having to deal with much in the way of abuse or shots on target, it seemed as though unless someone produced a bit of magic, Casuals would go in at the break 1-0 up.
The fact that they went in 2-1 down was indeed courtesy of a bit of magic and a bit of fortune. First, Seb Favata?s superbly weighted through-ball allowed Cooper to sweep the ball under Wheeler for the equaliser on 36 minutes and then when Cooper?s 39th minute shot was blocked on the line by what looked like a Walton hand, Harvey was on hand to score for the fourth league game in a row with a powerful drive from 10 yards. Whether we deserved to be in front at half-time was debatable, but what wasn?t up for discussion was the quality of Lee Carroll?s save from Gale?s close-range header a minute later. A brilliant parry from a firm connection that would have made a Premiership goalkeeper proud, and it preserved the Dons lead from being one from the short-lived category.
Harvey failed to emerge for the second half, with Darren Dobinson taking his place at left-back and the job of keeping former Don Craig Carley quiet. Dobinson had never played at left-back until Terry asked him to play there at Withdean in August but Dobo Jnr seems to have taken to it like a duck to plum sauce. If Harvey isn?t able to stay beyond the end of this season, there?s a groundswell of opinion that Dobo should be given the first chance to replace him, and on his second half showing it would hard to disagree. Fortunately, he made only one mistake, and that was to allow Gale the chance to pull a goal back after Cooper had taken centre-stage again. Just past the hour mark and with a third goal looking likely to be the killer one, Coops received the ball with his back to goal on the far left corner of the penalty area, with little danger seemingly looming. But a turn, a trick and a ferocious drive into the roof of the net past a bewildered and no doubt angry Wheeler meant that the Dons had a 3-1 lead. In previous weeks, that would have probably meant that the visitors were done as far as scoring was concerned, but with the superb form of Danny Oakins has come a tailing off in the performances of Matt Everard and the Dons defence has looked a bit shaky since the Ash game in early December.
It was no great surprise, then, that Walton?s second goal, Gale?s spearing drive from the edge of the box after Dobinson and Gray left the ball to each other following a corner, arrived soon after. Last season, perhaps the Dons might have thought "have we let them back in?", but this season it?s more a case of "we?d better score another one then, just to be sure." And sure enough, Kevin Cooper?s eighth hat-trick in 71 games duly arrived to put any fragile minds at rest. Wheeler couldn?t hold a Bolger drive and Coops reacted first and tapped the ball into an unguarded net. 29 league goals in 20 games now for the car-mangling striker, and a total this season of only six short of his impressive 41 in the last campaign. Good decision by Sutton United to let him go?
The biggest cheer of the night came a few minutes later, when Cooper and the tiring Sheerin (tiring only because he?d worked so hard during the game for little reward) were replaced with eternal sub Paul Scott (making his 12th appearance from the bench) and the fit again Gareth Graham, out for eight months with a serious knee injury. Graham immediately set about making his mark, with a number of subtle touches and flicks and a couple of decent-looking tackles. It?s hardly a secret that the jovial Irishman is far too good to be playing in the CCL, but there?s a rather good chance that he won?t be next season. Although Ginge played no part in the fifth and final goal in the last minute, he must have been pleased with his contribution. That last effort was another cracker, Oakins bringing the ball out of defence nicely, finding Gray and his superb, curling pass down the left wing was latched onto by the leggy Scott who outpaced Ennis (no mean feat in itself) and slid the ball under Wheeler for 5-2, the second time in seven weeks that the Dons had "gone nap" against the perpetually irritated keeper.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Quite a few candidates, namely Messrs Oakins, Sheerin and Favata, but how can you not give the man of the match award to a player who scores a hat-trick in a 5-2 win? I don?t know. I can?t. Kevin Cooper it is. A much-deserved rest against Sandhurst awaits..