AFC Wimbledon returned to earth with a reality-checking bump after the mild euphoria of Saturday’s late equaliser in the season’s opener against Luton Town. A narrow defeat at the hands of a hard-working and resolute Eastbourne Borough, when the Dons had done enough to secure another point, was hard to take for Terry Brown and Stuart Cash, not to mention the 1,200 or so fans who made the trip to Priory Lane.
As they had three days earlier, the Dons started brightly, but failure to turn possession into clear-cut chances, let alone goals, cost them dear. Brown had brought Jon Main into the starting line-up at the expense of Sam Hatton, adopting an attack-minded 4-3-1-2 formation. The Wimbledon players soon sensed that Borough defender Marc Pullan looked nervous, and opted to pump high balls in Danny Kedwell’s direction, hoping for a costly error from the lanky, awkward-looking defender.
After surviving a couple of scares at the other end, the Dons’ plan nearly bore fruit. Pullan ducked out of the way of a clearance from his near-namesake James Pullen and then compounded his error by passing the loose ball to the feet of Main, some 30 yards from goal. Main’s path to goal was blocked by Dan Smith, but the striker’s attempt to set up his partner Kedwell was slightly overhit, and the chance was lost as Kedwell could only clip the ball over the advancing former Don Danny Knowles and the bar.
Eastbourne, with another ex-Don, Jamie Taylor, up front, had posed little threat up to this point, but their midfield string-pullers, Ben Austin and Paul Armstrong, were getting the better of Steven Gregory and Lewis Taylor, and Jamie Taylor’s probing runs in particular were causing Paul Lorraine and Brett Johnson to work overtime. Two Taylor headers, either side of a Kedwell free-kick at the other end, were easy meat for Pullen, but further up the pitch the Dons’ problems were of their own making.
With Elliott Godfrey tucked in behind the strikers, Taylor and Derek Duncan – so effective in the second half against Luton – were unable to use the flanks as much as their full-backs, Luke Garrard and Chris Hussey, would have liked. On Wimbledon’s left side, Duncan and Hussey looked for each other in vain on several occasions as the half wore on. A fairly even but scoreless first half came to a close, with some bizarre decisions from referee Whitton the main talking point.
Just five minutes into the second half the game swung in the home side’s favour. Lewis Taylor lost possession on the halfway line, and seconds later the ball was in the back of Pullen’s net. Left-back Neil Jenkins, a product of the Wimbledon FC academy, exchanged passes with Armstrong, took the ball in his stride and struck a stupendous 25-yarder past the helpless Pullen and into the top right corner.
Rather than galvanise the Dons, this blow seemed to unsettle them. Possession was given away cheaply, long balls sent towards Kedwell were not reaching their target, and Main just couldn’t get into the game. A series of corners failed to produce a single good chance, and the Eastbourne defence flung themselves in front of shots, the ball invariably deflecting away to safety.
As the Dons fans become slightly restless, concerned at their side’s lack of cohesion, Luke Moore and Sam Hatton came on for Duncan and Godfrey, and of the two it was Moore who immediately looked the more likely to get the Dons back in the game. But before he had a chance to make an impact, Borough’s Taylor had two chances to put the game out of Wimbledon’s reach – but failed to take either. First he elected to try and find sub Andy Atkin when he himself was better placed to shoot, and then he sent a looping header inches past Pullen’s far post.
Lewis Taylor was working tirelessly down the left, and on three occasions his crosses were half-cleared only to fall nicely for Eastbourne defenders. But with 10 minutes left the home side’s lack of communication nearly cost them the game. Armstrong and Baker left the ball to each other on the halfway line, allowing Moore a clear run on goal, but his powerful shot lacked accuracy and was smartly saved by Knowles.
The keeper was called into action again shortly afterwards when he collected an underhit Main effort, and then Lewis Taylor was denied the goal he deserved when his glancing header from a Moore cross was easily collected by the Borough keeper.
Wimbledon deserved at least a point from this game, but other than Jenkins’ screamer it was the pace of the Eastbourne midfield – who seemed to anticipate the Dons’ every move – that was the main difference between the two sides. There is very little wrong with Terry Brown’s side at the moment. With just a few minor tweaks the points will come, but it’s clear that the gap between Blue Square South and Premier is wider than many of us expected.