Ross Montague’s towering header deep into injury time rescued a point for the largely below-par Dons, and they had to be content with a third successive draw after this stuttering performance at Stonebridge Road.
If any of AFC Wimbledon’s players were still under the impression that all they needed do to win games against sides in the lower reaches of the Blue Square Premier was turn up, then this narrow escape against Liam Daish’s early-season strugglers should have put them straight. From the moment that former Don Will Salmon’s 25-yard drive clipped the top of James Pullen’s bar, the visitors knew that they weren’t in for as comfortable an afternoon as the two sides’ league positions might have suggested.
Try as they might, Wimbledon just couldn’t get going, and Steven Gregory didn’t touch the ball until the 13th minute. Fleet’s impressive centre-half pairing of Leon Crooks and Darius Charles had Danny Kedwell and Jon Main under control, and Luke Moore, playing against the side he supports, was worryingly quiet. Fleet’s default setting, whenever the ball was on the floor for long enough to do anything with it, was to seek out pacy right-winger Ishmael Welsh. Jay Conroy, whose afternoon was to end prematurely, was finding Welsh too hot to handle at times, but the winger’s crosses were easily cut out by Paul Lorraine and Brett Johnson.
All of the Dons’ hard defensive work was then nearly undone when Pullen spilled Gavin Heeroo’s 20-yarder, but the ball spun just wide of the post and out for a corner. Just before the half-hour mark the Dons took the lead, rather against the run of play. Moore turned sharply just outside the box and drove a bouncing shot across keeper Lance Cronin and into the bottom left corner of the net. Pleasingly for the ’Fleet fans, Moore chose not to celebrate.
The goal settled the visitors down, and Gregory and Lewis Taylor began to see a lot more of the ball, but the Dons were also seeing a lot more of the assistant referee’s flag – seven times in less than 15 minutes a Dons striker was caught offside, much to Terry Brown’s audible frustration. Brown was left even more frustrated four minutes before half-time when referee Burt played a significant role in Ebbsfleet’s equaliser.
Taylor was caught by James Lindie as he cleared on the edge of his own box, but the ball broke to Sam Hatton, who touched the ball on to Main on the halfway line. To everyone’s amazement, the referee then blew for the original infringement some 40 yards further back, after Main had turned his marker. From the free-kick Crooks won an unchallenged header and Heeroo thumped the ball 50 yards deep into the Dons’ half. Lorraine misjudged the flight, and another former Don, Luis Cumbers, held off the challenge and hammered a shot high into the roof of the net past Pullen.
After the break, both sides started to show a little more finesse and prowess in attack, but neither looked like scoring in the opening exchanges. Cumbers and Lindie’s replacement, the Brazilian Magno Vieira, looked a better combination, and when Main was replaced by Montague it gave Crooks and Charles something more to think about, but the disjointed play of the first half was still very much in evidence.
Kane Wills’ curler from 20 yards was well left by Pullen, and Montague had a goal disallowed for offside, but the game didn’t really come to life until the 80th minute. First Sam Hatton took a touch with the goal at his mercy from three yards out and allowed Dean Pooley to block his goal-bound shot after great work from Kedwell and Conroy; soon after, Kedwell couldn’t get enough of his body behind the ball to divert Luke Moore’s cross-cum-shot over the line from little further out. The Dons were to rue those misses. Chris Hussey got a touch to Pooley’s pass and the ball fell invitingly for Vieira, whose sweetly timed strike whistled past Pullen to put the ’Fleet within minutes of their first home win of the season.
With just a minute of normal time remaining, things got worse. Conroy found Pullen with a simple back-pass, but Ebbsfleet substitute Forshaw somehow ended up on the ground. What appeared to be an innocuous collision to most pairs of eyes in the ground was deemed a professional foul by Mr Burt, and Conroy was sent packing, despite Pullen having cleared the pass upfield before Forshaw tumbled over.
Four minutes of added time was announced, and the home side’s Stefan Bailey nearly made it 3-1 with a dipping shot, but as the referee added a further few seconds the Dons drew level. Hussey’s right-footed cross to the far post was headed home imperiously by Montague for his first goal of the season, Crooks and Charles having switched off for the first time in 94 minutes and 55 seconds. The Dons fans went home happy with a point, which before kick- off they couldn’t have imagined themselves doing.