AFC Wimbledon put up a brave showing at the New Den but were unable to emulate the weekend’s giant-killing feats by the likes of Staines Town, Bath City and Northwich Victoria.
The 3,500 Dons fans who filled both tiers of Millwall’s North Stand got everything they would have wanted from a keenly fought FA Cup First Round tie – everything, that is, except the result. The Dons showed heart and passion and played with vigour and no small amount of ability, but the Lions showed their class in the end to earn a Second Round tie at Staines. A pre-match parade of stars who had played for both clubs, including Dons legends John Leslie and Allen Batsford made for an excellent pre-match atmosphere.
Paul Lorraine and Sam Hatton had recovered sufficiently from their viral infections, and the third illness victim, the returning Luis Cumbers, was fit enough to take his place on a packed bench. With Nathan Ashton ineligible, Brett Johnson was restored to the starting line-up along with Elliott Godfrey, preferred in midfield to Ricky Wellard.
With Millwall one place outside the League One playoffs and a fine 2-1 win over Leeds no doubt still fresh in their minds, this was always going to be an extremely tough test for Terry Brown’s men, and the first quarter of an hour was, in truth, largely hard going for the Dons. Millwall were comfortable in possession and tenacious in the tackle, with Nadjim Abdou in particular looking to have the edge on Lewis Taylor.
Neil Harris had the game’s first shot on goal, turning smartly onto Danny Schofield’s pass, but his effort sailed over the bar. James Pullen was then called into action when he pounced on a loose ball as Steve Morison attempted to burst past Paul Lorraine. Whenever Wimbledon did have the ball they were hurried and harried into making mistakes, but Steven Gregory was growing in stature as the first half wore on, despite an unfortunate yellow card.
Morison had a header easily saved by Pullen, and then Sam Hatton did well to head a dangerous far-post cross out for a corner as Millwall started to turn up the pressure. But rather than capitulate, as the Dons had done at the same stage against Wycombe Wanderers last season, the visitors began taking the game to their hosts, capitalising on Millwall’s inability to take the lead. The only problem for the Dons was the final ball, with both Luke Moore and Godfrey guilty of either not clearing the first defender or clearing everybody. The Dons came close to scoring on 28 minutes when Danny Kedwell’s deft flick from a Hatton cross trickled narrowly wide of Forde’s goal.
Alan Inns was a tower of strength at the back, and in the last 10 minutes of the half he made countless interceptions, won every header and tackled as if his life depended on it as Millwall strove to go into the break ahead – as, in truth, they deserved to. But Inns and Lorraine stood firm, and Pullen watched gratefully as Schofield’s free kick floated into the top tier.
One can only imagine Terry Brown’s half-time team talk, but as well as expressing his pride at his team’s stoic performance, keeping it tight in the early stages of the second half would surely have figured prominently. Inns’ first mistake of the game, just two minutes in, put paid to that. Attempting to head away a long ball from Paul Robinson, Inns clattered into Johnson and the ball fell invitingly for Morison. He played Harris in, and despite the ball bouncing twice just 12 yards from goal, Harris swivelled and planted a shot past the stranded Pullen.
Millwall’s lead was very nearly short-lived: within two minutes, Kedwell’s cute pass set up Jon Main, who wormed his way between two defenders, and although Robinson blocked his shot the rebound fell to Main’s feet. But under pressure from three defenders and keeper David Forde, Main could only prod the ball narrowly wide.
The Dons fans, vociferous in the first half, upped the volume in the hope that their players would raise their game on the pitch, and for a few minutes an equaliser looked more than likely. But Millwall’s rearguard stood firm, and Forde was largely untroubled. At the other end, Pullen made a stupendous save from Abdou’s deflected shot, and Schofield and Morison each had an effort blocked by Lorraine.
But then came the moment that changed the course of the game. Jason Price was brought on to replace ex-Stevenage striker Morison, and within a minute he’d doubled Millwall’s advantage. Schofield’s flighted free kick evaded all 16 players in the penalty area, but just as it was about to drift over the line Johnson somehow hooked his foot around the ball. But his clearance fell straight to Price, who with his first touch hammered the ball into the net.
The Dons kept up the pressure, and with ten minutes to go they got a goal back with what was arguably the move of the match. Derek Duncan, on for Elliott Godfrey, fed Kedwell, whose neat back-heel was inch-perfect for Taylor to run on to and plant an angled shot across Forde and into the far corner from eight yards.
Wimbledon fans sensed that a comeback was on the cards, and if Gregory had elected to pass to the well-placed Main, the striker could have had a chance to equalise. Instead, less than a minute later it was game over. Another misplaced header from the otherwise immense Inns fell kindly to Schofield, who got the ball under control before curling a right-footed shot into the top corner from the edge of the box.
If 3-1 was a little cruel on the Dons, then 4-1 was plain unjust, but Price’s neat finish after Schofield had intercepted Taylor’s cross-field ball finished the Dons off in the final minute. David Martin had the chance to make it five, but Johnson smothered his shot with the final whistle poised to blow.
At no point were AFC Wimbledon outfought or outclassed, and only in brief flashes were they outplayed by a side 50 places above them. The Dons had lost by the same score as against Wycombe last season, but the similarity ended there. Heads held high, applauded off the pitch by the vast majority of the 9,543 crowd, the players deserved to feel proud of themselves.