If the fourth qualifying round win at Maidstone was a case of the occasion somehow not living up to the achievement, the defeat to League Two pacesetters, Wycombe Wanderers, was the complete opposite. Everything about the occasion – the ticket arrangements, the stewarding, the size of the crowd, the condition of the pitch, the behind the scenes work, the presence of Setanta – all pointed towards a thoroughly professional run event. The only thing missing was, sadly, the Dons defence on four, easily punished occasions.
Terry Brown had spoken about making some difficult decisions regarding team selection and his two changes from the defeat at Chelmsford nine days previously certainly reflected that. Out went Chris Hussey for the more experienced Michael Haswell and Tony Finn for the returning Elliott Godfrey, making his first start since the defeat at Hayes & Yeading on 20 September. Wycombe boss Peter Taylor had the luxury of fielding a former Scottish international in former Kilmarnock and Norwich midfielder Gary Holt and paired the towering Matt Harrold with ex-Millwall man Chris Zebroski, who had played against the Dons for Torquay in the FA Trophy back in February.
The Dons had made a habit of conceding early goals this season so the majority of the record 4528 crowd were pleasantly surprised when Godfrey and Jon Main forced the Wycombe defence into conceding two corners in the opening 90 seconds. Both were dealt with easily by the visitors defence but at least the vociferous home fans, in particularly fine voice, had something to cheer early on. Two Tom Davis efforts aside, though, that was pretty much it on the positive side for the next half an hour. Despite having as much of the ball as the unbeaten League Two side, the Dons never really threatened Scott Shearer in the Wycombe goal and with Holt in commanding yet unspectacular form in midfield, Kennedy Adjei was denied the space he has worked so diligently in this season.
Within 10 minutes Adjei misdirected a pass back to Jake Leberl and when the defender attempted a pass back to him instead of launching the ball out of danger, Adjei’s split second hesitation was pounced on by Harrold and the former Southend striker strode into the box and placed his shot between Andy Little’s legs and into the far corner.
Wycombe sensed that the Dons were rattled, and set about putting the game to bed within the first quarter of an hour. Zebroski looked good in possession, Holt and Mousinho were closing down Davis, Adjei and Sam Hatton and the Dons just couldn’t get going. Admittedly they were playing against the best side they are likely to come across for some time, but simple passes were going astray, the playing-it-out-from-the-back tactic was looking decidedly unwise and when the ball did make it into the Wanderers half, Main and Danny Kedwell were unable to get more than one touch before being expertly dispossessed by McCracken and Spence.
That a second Wycombe goal didn’t arrive for another 27 minutes was partly due to Harrold missing a simple headed chance from six yards and Zebroski and Phillips not making the best of their opportunities. When it did come it was another goal that disappointed Brown. A long kick by Shearer was flicked on by the unmarked Zebroski allowing Harrold to run onto it, get round Little and plant a left foot shot calmly into the net. Harrold almost completed a first half hat trick moments later, but his goalbound effort from 12 yards was turned brilliantly onto the inside of the post by Little.
Terry Brown’s team talk clearly had the desired effect as the Dons finally started taking the game to Wycombe and making them work for their victory. Hatton, the fourth qualifying round’s man of the round, looked stronger, Adjei had more time, Davis had more of the ball and Luke Garrard was now able to adopt his usual overlapping full back role, rather than being restricted to marshalling Zebroski.
Eleven minutes into the half, the Dons pulled a goal back. Tom Davis’ low cross across the six yard box escaped the defenders and was slotted home at the far post by Hatton, sparking wild scenes of celebration and the hope that the Dons could haul their way back into the game. An audacious 30 yard chip from Davis flew a foot or so over Shearer’s goal and into the Tempest End and the possibility of an upset was back on.
However, Wycombe simply moved up a gear and thanks to a generous piece of refereeing, Peter Taylor’s side restored their two goal advantage six minutes later. Harrold seemed to jump at Leberl but the referee saw nothing wrong with the challenge and when Mousinho rampaged forward and fed Phillips, it was almost inevitable that Andy Little would have no chance with the shot and the ball would be nestling in the corner of his net for a third time.
Game over for all intents and purposes but the Dons continued to fight on. Finn and Hussey replaced Godfrey and Haswell and Hatton had a great chance to pull a goal back when Davis’ pinpoint pass found him unmarked at the far post, 10 yards out. He chested the ball down, hammered it towards goal and the net billowed, but unfortunately for the Dons’ fans it was the sidenetting. Harrold showed how to take a chance minutes later when yet another defence splitting pass left him with another one on one with Little and yet again a simple, calm finish topped off a fine Wycombe move.
The Dons were well beaten by a much better, stronger side, but all four goals were the result of generous defending by the home side. Fine performances by Garrard and Davis and a battling display by Kedwell were three of the positives that the Dons boss can take from the game and at least we can now concentrate on the League... and the FA Trophy... and the Surrey Senior Cup.