The phrase “routine victory” probably wasn’t one that AFC Wimbledon supporters thought they’d be using too often in this, the club’s debut season in non-League football’s top flight. But after the largely untroubled fourth victory (and clean sheet) for the Dons in 11 days, it’s an apt epithet. A game that featured two stunning goals took a while to come to life, but when it did, the 3,209 fans sheltering from the winter rain were served up plenty of pre-Christmas fayre.
Terry Brown lightly shuffled his pack. Steven Gregory came back in for Kennedy Adjei, and Luis Cumbers – whose loan had just been extended for a further, hopefully more productive month – dropped out of the 16 to make way for Will Hendry at the forward tip of the diamond. Gateshead started with the prolific Daryl Clare up front on his own in a bid to nullify the Dons’ increasingly attack-minded midfield.
Wimbledon started like a boxer, carefully weighing up the potential threat of his opponent without landing too many decent punches of his own. Jay Conroy and Brett Johnson had the freedom of the flanks, so the Dons were in effect playing largely with six in the midfield for the opening exchanges. The full-backs were working well with Lewis Taylor and Will Hendry, testing out Gateshead’s defensive mettle with balls to the feet of Danny Kedwell and Jon Main, and a succession of crosses that the giant James Curtis in particular, dealt with reasonably comfortably.
It was Conroy who started the move that led to the Dons taking the lead midway through the half. Gateshead were undone when Conroy’s chipped pass to Taylor was headed into the path of Gregory, who after skipping past two challenges hammered the ball past Paul Farman, via the underside of the bar, from 25 yards. The goal was all the more special as it was struck with Gregory’s supposedly weaker left foot.
With Seb Brown rarely called into action for the fourth game running, despite some neat one-touch football from Gateshead, the Dons had little to worry about, but with Clare around, fresh from scoring a hat-trick last week, they could never truly settle. Kedwell almost made it two, but his header from Gregory’s deep corner hit the bar and was scrambled to safety. Hendry then miscued when well placed, and Wimbledon went into the half-time break a single goal ahead.
Hendry failed to appear for the restart, having succumbed to the AFC Wimbledon injury curse by pulling a hamstring, but his able replacement, Elliott Godfrey, stepped seamlessly into the “hole” behind the 26-goal partnership of Main and Kedwell.
Ten minutes into the half, the Dons were denied a second goal by a questionable decision. When Johnson cleared a Gateshead free-kick into the visitors’ half, Kedwell set off after it like a hare on Red Bull. He beat Mark Robinson to the ball, cut inside the defender and planted a perfect, curling shot round keeper Farman. But the assistant referee had raised his flag for a foul, indicating that Kedwell had pulled his man back. It looked to most of the crowd as if Robinson had merely been caught in Kedwell’s slipstream, and that Dons striker was being penalised for outpacing an opponent.
Five minutes later, the Dons did double their lead. Godfrey was fouled on the edge of the box, and from the resulting free-kick Ricky Wellard curled an absolute beauty over the wall and into the far corner of the net. Wellard’s assured and skilful performance was in complete contrast to his early-season showings, when he seemed to lack even the thinnest shred of confidence. When, a few minutes later, he was replaced by Kennedy Adjei, the ovation he received was a sure sign that he is fast becoming a fans’ favourite and one of the first names on Terry Brown’s team-sheet.
There was plenty of time for the Dons to squander three or four great chances to put the game out of Gateshead’s reach. Main’s pass to the unmarked Taylor was poor, and Adjei’s powder-puff finish when set up by the industrious Godfrey was wasteful. The visitors almost made the Dons pay when Curtis’s header from a Phil Turnbull corner hit the underside of the bar, bounced on the line and was cleared by the imperious Ben Judge. Turnbull then danced past two challenges and curled a 20-yarder narrowly wide of Brown’s far post. The Dons were on the verge of needing that third goal to make sure, but watched relieved as Armstrong’s last-minute volley crashed into the back door of one of the houses behind the Kingston Road End.