The Dons came from behind twice during a dramatic second-half injury time to scrape a draw from a game they should have won handsomely. Glenn Poole’s 96th-minute penalty, the Dons’ second of the game, denied Dean Saunders’ men two more points than their display deserved.
Maybe it was because the two home defeats in the previous seven days had all but put paid to their playoff hopes, but Wimbledon began with a style, panache and quickness of passing that had been sorely lacking in recent weeks. Indeed, they hadn’t played with such freedom and expressiveness since the defeat of Mansfield at Kingsmeadow back in January.
Terry Brown had lightly shuffled his pack again, fielding a third pairing of full-backs in the space of a week, with Jay Conroy and Danny Blanchett either side of Paul Lorraine and Brett Johnson; Ben Judge and Glenn Poole dropped to the bench. The manager’s manoeuvring seemed certain to pay early dividends as the Dons moved the ball about superbly, with Sam Hatton, Steven Gregory and Will Hendry all looking lively and taking it in turns to show off a range of passing that hadn’t been evident in recent pressurised weeks.
Conroy was making the most of having absolutely nothing to do defence-wise and playing the role of marauding right-back to perfection. It was Hendry who nearly gave the Dons a thoroughly deserved lead with less than 10 minutes gone, showing a hitherto unseen burst of speed after chesting down a bouncing ball near the halfway line and haring past former Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair and Ashley Westwood to find himself one on one with keeper Chris Maxwell. But Hendry’s clipped effort struck the inside of the far post and bounced along the line to safety.
Maxwell then presented the Dons with an even clearer chance when his casual pass to Brown was easily intercepted by Luke Moore, but the keeper more than made up for his mistake when he deflected Moore’s powerful drive for a corner with his legs. The Dons were now turning the screws as hard as they had done all season, and it seemed only a matter of when Wrexham would crack.
Hendry again showed electrifying pace when he took a Gregory pass in his stride and bore down on goal once more, but this time his lung-bursting run was brought to an ugly end by Curtis Obeng’s desperate lunge. Despite being the last man back and Hendry being just 20 yards from goal, referee Mr Long deemed the foul worthy of only a yellow card, and Hatton’s free kick-came to nothing.
Wimbledon kept on coming at Wrexham and the Dragons just couldn’t cope with Moore’s guile, Gregory’s distribution and Conroy’s energy – it may have been an obvious route to goal, but the Welsh visitors seemed clueless as to how to deal with it. If you are wondering why there’s been no mention of a Wrexham attack, the answer is simple – there weren’t any, other than Andy Mangan’s weak effort straight at James Pullen after the keeper’s attempt to head clear outside his penalty area had almost gone horribly wrong.
With just over half an hour gone, Conroy nutmegged Brown and burst into the penalty area, only to be upended by Christian O’Leary for the kind of penalty decisions officials probably dream about. Danny Kedwell, who had been having one of his quieter games up to that point, re-assumed spot-kick duties but saw his low effort comfortably saved by Maxwell, who did well to get up quickly and block Hatton’s attempt to score from the rebound. It was a near carbon-copy of Jon Main’s penalty miss against Barrow the previous week, and it proved almost as costly.
Wimbledon seemed to let the miss affect them, and for the first time in the game Wrexham mounted what could loosely be described as attacks, but a quieter half James Pullen could not have wished to have. How the game reached the break scoreless was one of the season’s great unanswered questions, but Saunders looked relieved as the two sets of benches made their way to the dressing rooms.
Glenn Poole replaced Ricky Wellard at half-time; the lanky midfielder had managed just four touches of the ball in a first half that completely passed him by. Within minutes of the restart, the Dons found themselves a crazy goal down. O’Leary found Holden in acres of space on the right, due in no small part to Holden being three or four yards offside. But the assistant referee incomprehensively kept his flag down, and from the resulting corner Pullen had a mad minute and all but handed Wrexham the lead.
After flapping the ball against his own bar under little pressure he then failed to deal with the subsequent long throw, and his hesitation gave Holden the chance to shoot from 10 yards – his attempt would have gone wide but Lorraine’s attempted clearance cannoned into Pullen and flew into the net. Wrexham had taken the lead with their first meaningful attack of the game.
To the Dons credit, they set about rectifying what they clearly saw as an injustice as picked up the pace immediately. Danny Blanchett was offering himself as an attacking option, and with both full-backs now free to attack at will, Gregory was able to show off his impressive range of passing. Kedwell was beginning to give the veteran Sinclair a run for his money, and if it wasn’t for Wrexham’s other former Premiership star Gareth Taylor’s persistent fouling, the visitors would have made as little a mark on the game as the sad remains of Fisher Athletic had done last season.
It was easy to see why Wrexham games produce so few goals once they tightened up at back – meagre in defence, uncreative in midfield and with one of their strikers looking completely uninterested in the ball. Taylor somehow escaped a second yellow card when he aimed a verbal volley of expletives at the assistant referee, but his own manager had seen enough and hauled him off with 20 minutes remaining.
The Dons were continuing to huff and puff, Poole orchestrating proceedings with aplomb, and despite Wrexham’s dogged resistance the sense that an equaliser would come was palpable. Maxwell saved well from Poole, Sinclair headed clear from Blanchett, and Conroy’s crosses and Moore’s trickery were providing openings for Hendry and Kedwell in the finest display of Wimbledon attacking prowess seen for some time. Kedwell’s hammered shot across the face of the goal, which somehow avoided being touched by any of the eight players in the six-yard box, was the embodiment of the Dons’ frustrating evening.
That it took the home side until the 90th minute to level the scores was the only surprise, but the Dons had Sinclair to thank as the game took a series of extraordinary added-time twists. First, from Poole’s flighted free-kick, Johnson’s flicked header was diverted into his own net by the veteran defender to hand Wimbledon a most deserved equaliser.
Then, as the fourth official held up a Ryman substitution board, the electronic board having suffered a malfunction, bearing the number 5, the game turned on its head. The Dons went looking for a winner but within two minutes of drawing level it was Wrexham who seemed certain to have taken all three points – Johnson stood appealing for offside as sub Baynes played in Mangan, who was clearly on, and the ex-Forest Green marksman raced clear of the Dons defender and shot powerfully into the roof of the net from 18 yards as Pullen advanced towards him.
A weaker set of characters than AFC Wimbledon’s would have taken that as a sign that it was just wasn’t their night, but incredibly, the game had more late surprises in store. Obeng and Maxwell made a complete hash of seeing the ball out for a goal-kick that would have heralded the final whistle: they left it to each other and allowed Blanchett to steal in and slide the ball towards the goal from an acute angle. Westwood hacked it out for a corner ... cue Mr F. Sinclair. As Poole swung over the ball, Sinclair swung his right arm into Kedwell’s face, the assistant referee spotted it through a crowded penalty area, and signalled for a foul. Referee Long concurred, pointed to the spot for the second time in the game and, after some discussion with his assistant, despatched Sinclair down the tunnel.
Poole kept his nerve in the near-two-minute wait to take the kick, and although Maxwell guessed the right way, the ball found its way into the bottom corner of the net and the Dons had rescued a point, for the second time in six minutes.
It was the last meaningful action of what could have been a meaningless game. But at least a point meant that the Dons hadn’t lost three home games in a row for the first time since their formation eight years ago. What’s that saying about small mercies?