After a run of three defeats and one draw in the last four league games, the visit of goal-shy Ebbsfleet United to Kingsmeadow was a more than welcome tonic for Terry Brown’s troops. Liam Daish’s men had not scored in seven games, managed to find the net only twice since the 2-2 draw at Stonebridge Road on 19 September, and not won in their last 14 matches.
But, in a division where almost anyone can beat almost anyone else, there was no way that the Dons would take their visitors lightly. Brown’s reshuffling of his pack into a 4-3-1-2 formation to accommodate Ebbsfleet fan Luke Moore behind Danny Kedwell and Jon Main proved to be a masterstroke.
Almost from the kick-off, AFC Wimbledon tore into United with breathtaking gusto, playing as if they were 0-1 down with a minute to go. Lightning exchanges between the midfield four of Moore, Lewis Taylor, Steven Gregory and Ricky Wellard were a joy to behold, and with Brett Johnson and Jay Conroy having the freedom of the flanks it really did look and feel as though a goal was always imminent. The fact that the Dons had to wait until three minutes before half-time to make the breakthrough was down to some stout defending by Fleet skipper Peter Holmes, who twice headed out from under his own bar after great work from first Conroy and then Main.
Paul Lorraine’s header from a corner was well saved by Cronin, who then dealt smartly with Taylor’s rasping, angled drive from 15 yards and smothered Gregory’s 25-yard skimmer. Ebbsfleet’s attacks were few and far between, and Brazilian striker Magno Vieira had his side’s best effort, forcing Seb Brown to make what was, in truth, a comfortable save. But the Dons defence were often troubled by the jet-heeled Ishmael Welsh, who outstripped Conroy, Lorraine and Ben Judge in one Usain Bolt-like sprint down the touchline. Welsh’s final ball let him down, and it didn’t take a genius to see why United had only scored 9 goals in their previous 20 games.
When the Dons did take the lead, it was through a well-worked, simple move. Wellard’s incisive pass behind full-back Will Salmon played Conroy into space, his first-time low cross was met by the instep of Moore, and the ball nestled beautifully into the left corner of Cronin’s net. Moore, as he had done in the away game, politely refused to celebrate his goal.
Often this season the Dons have emerged from the Brown/Cash/Bassey half-time team talk a different side, usually for the better. But if the first ten minutes of the second half were anything to go by, the players seemed to have taken collective pity on their opponents over their cups of tea and rub-downs. The Dons back four took it in turns to surrender position in dangerous areas, leaving Ricky Shakes, Ross Smith and Stefan Bailey all kicking themselves for not taking advantage of the Dons unwitting helpfulness.
Seb Brown extended this generosity by first hammering a clearance against Viera’s shins, and then, when poised to clear up field, rolling the ball out too far and having to make a desperate tackle to prevent Smith from firing into an empty net from 30 yards. The sub-3,000 attendance made it easier to hear Terry Brown’s instructions, and it was clear that this was hardly what he expected of his players.
However, on 63 minutes Wimbledon put the game to bed. Wellard’s deflected through-ball found Kedwell, and the striker netted with an 18-yard half-volley that arrowed across Cronin and into the far corner. Sensing that their night’s work was all but done, the Dons now relaxed, and the free-flowing football of the first half returned. Main and Kedwell made way for Luis Cumbers and Ross Montague, and almost immediately Montague was denied by a last-ditch Holmes tackle from Taylor’s cross. Moore then seemed intent on heaping more misery on his old side, first firing home a third goal on 73 minutes, turning smartly on the edge of the box and shooting low and hard under Cronin, and then being denied the hat-trick he deserved when Cronin parried his effort from just inside the box.
The Dons went in search of a fourth, but that it didn’t come mattered little. A welcome win, a two-place rise up the table and no more injuries made for a satisfying evening. Ebbsfleet, on the other hand, must be wondering where their next win will be coming from.