Football fans often regale their friends with tales of how the game “could have ended 10-5”, but after this very open encounter at Bridge Road, Wimbledon supporters would not have been exaggerating in claiming that their team could easily have won by just such a scoreline.
Right from the kick-off it was clear that this was never going to be a dull 0-0. Brett Johnson’s untypically tentative clearance with less than a minute gone presented Adriano Rigoglioso with the first clear-cut chance of the afternoon, but Paul Lorraine’s quartz-precision timing got his defensive partner out of a hole. Less than two minutes later, the tall Grays striker was bringing a fine save out of James Pullen, the keeper turning away a powerful header after a Poole cross.
The Dons hit back immediately with Jon Main heading goalwards after Elliott Godfrey had whipped a pacy cross in from the right, but Preston Edwards in the Grays goal parried the ball to safety. Three great chances, and still only four minutes gone. The Dons – so efficient at the back this season that three of the four goals conceded had been a penalty, an own goal and a shot of which Steven Gerrard would be proud – were looking decidedly ill at ease. Rigoglioso and Danny Charge got the better of Brett Johnson and Paul Lorraine on several occasions, and Luke Garrard was looking uncharacteristically edgy on the right.
Terry Brown had brought in Kennedy Adjei and Ricky Wellard for the injured Lewis Taylor and the rested Steven Gregory, and it was apparent that Gregory’s largely unseen defensive work was what the Dons were missing. Fortunately though, with 10 minutes gone, Grays unwittingly helped the Dons to take the lead. Godfrey was needlessly fouled some 40 yards from goal on the touchline, and Hussey’s pinpoint, in-swinging free-kick was headed past Edwards by the stooping Johnson.
Grays reacted well to going behind, and Richard Graham was unlucky when his 20-yard effort hit the inside of Pullen’s left post and rebounded across the goalmouth to safety, but Grays were causing the Dons defence more problems than had the more lauded strike forces of Luton, Altrincham, Oxford and Kettering. The Dons needed a second goal, and with 20 minutes gone they got one, but not before Jon Main had contrived to miss two eminently takable chances.
First, Luke Moore found Main with a delightful reverse pass in the penalty area. Main rounded the keeper but his firm shot, with Godfrey lurking unmarked at the far post, lacked accuracy and was too powerful for Godfrey to control, and the ball deflected off his shins and wide of the post. Then, when Edwards flapped at a corner, Main headed over from 10 yards with the goal at his mercy.
Kennedy Adjei it was who, in the 21st minute, set up Main for a one-on-one with the keeper which ended with the striker’s heavy touch sending him clattering into Edwards – and the Dons were presented with their fifth penalty in six games. Main converted with ease to put the Dons comfortably 2-0 up. Seven minutes later that lead was halved and looking anything but unassailable. Again, unusually lax defending played a part: Sam Cutler’s cross from the right bounced between Lorraine and Johnson, and Gaughran nipped between them and planted a firm header past Pullen.
The home side sensed that Wimbledon were now there for the taking. It took some timely interventions from Chris Hussey to prevent first Charge and then Cameron Mawer from finding unmarked team-mates in the Dons area, and Terry Brown on the touchline was looking increasingly exasperated. A more open first half you are unlikely to see all season, and as the half-time whistle blew, both sets of fans were wondering how on earth they had seen only three goals.
Just two minutes into the second half, they saw another. More confusion in the Wimbledon box presented Charge with a clear sight of goal, and he despatched the ball high into the roof of the net from 12 yards. Suddenly, the Dons were drawing a game they could have been winning handsomely, and more indecision at the back nearly cost them dearly when Grays sub Jamie Slabber twice found himself in good positions, but on both occasions Johnson denied him with last-ditch tackles of the highest order.
The home side were now applying more and more pressure, but just after the hour mark they hit the self-destruct button, shortly after Moore had missed another golden chance when he deflected Wellard’s seemingly goal-bound shot on the turn over the bar from five yards.
The turning point came when Gavin Hoyte let Pullen’s clearance bounce in front of him, and by the time the giant centre-back had turned, Danny Kedwell had collected the ball and sped into the box, pursued by Mawer. A tangle of legs later, the Dons had their second penalty of the afternoon and Grays were down to ten men. Mawer argued his case, but it was a clear foul and the referee had no option but to point to the spot and dismiss the full-back. Main fired past Edwards for his third goal – and third penalty – of the season to put the visitors back in control.
Brown now made a double substitution, bringing on Sam Hatton and Steven Gregory for Ricky Wellard and Elliott Godfrey, and Gregory’s defensive security – not to mention his passing ability – finally gave the Dons the stability they needed. Grays seemed to have burned themselves out in the 26-degree heat, and Wimbledon began to stroll through the home side’s midfield. Adjei and Gregory were finding Garrard and Hussey at will, and it took fine saves by Edwards to deny Hatton and Kedwell, and some slightly wayward finishing to deny Main his hat-trick and Hussey his first Dons goal from open play.
Wimbledon had a claim for a third penalty of the day turned down when Moore turned his marker after fine approach play from Adjei and was sent crashing to the ground. Maybe the referee decided that two stonewallers in one game was more than enough.
In the final 15 minutes, wave after wave of Wimbledon attacks bore down on the Grays goal, but somehow the home side survived until the 90th minute before conceding again – though the Dons’ intention to walk the ball into the net clearly helped to keep the score down. Derek Duncan, who had earlier replaced Main, started the long passing move that saw Hatton and Gregory exchange one-twos before the latter found Kedwell on the edge of the box. The former Grays hitman turned his marker and fired home his sixth goal of the season.
A breathless end-to-end encounter in the late August sun had somehow only produced six goals, two penalties and a sending-off. The afternoon provided plenty of entertainment for the fans -- but also plenty to think about for Terry and Stuart Cash ahead of Saturday’s visit to fellow BSP new boys Tamworth. And the Dons now found themselves third in the table.