On the Sunday before this game, my Spurs-supporting brother-in-law texted me from Wembley, knowing that I wouldn’t have known the score from the FA Cup semi-final. “We lost 0-2 to a relegated team, can’t [expletive] believe it.” Last night’s shock defeat at the hands of Grays Athletic gave me the opportunity to sent his message back to him.
The 0-5 reverse at the hands of York City the previous week may have been AFC Wimbledon’s biggest-ever defeat, but the Dons’ fourth home loss in the last three weeks, to already-relegated Grays, could easily be described as the worst. Grays hadn’t won away from home all season and had been victorious just three times in their previous 41 games in 2009/10. But they and their 15-strong band of supporters left Kingsmeadow with three rather unexpected points and some pride salvaged.
The Dons at least started brightly, but a glaring miss from Sam Hatton after just four minutes set the tone for what was to follow. Luke Moore’s clever dummy allowed Hatton to burst through from midfield unchallenged, but 20 yards out and with just the keeper to beat he scuffed his shot so horribly wide that it was close to going out for a throw-in.
Any team that expects a side managed by Julian Dicks to just roll over and die clearly doesn’t know its football history. Although the Dons were clearly the better side, Jamie Guy almost gave the visitors the lead, but he skied his effort from 10 yards out after great work down the left by the speedy former Brentford winger Alex Rhodes.
When Brett Johnson had to be substituted midway through the half with a leg injury, Jay Conroy moved to centre-back, Hatton reverted to right-back and Elliott Godfrey, back from his loan at Staines Town, came on in midfield. The rejig did nothing to change the Dons’ fortunes.
Rhodes himself was extremely unlucky when his bullet of a shot narrowly raked over Seb Brown’s bar, but by then the signs that this was going to be one of those nights were beginning to appear. Danny Kedwell and Glenn Poole both blasted over against their former side, but clear-cut chances were few and far between, due partly to some obdurate defending, but also to carelessly wasted possession by the Dons midfield, who seemed to be finding men in white more often than team-mates in blue.
Kennedy Adjei went close with an angled drive, Hatton had a shot blocked, and Moore wriggled himself into space twice but gave the ball away on both occasions. Glyn Garner then made a fine save to deny Kedwell before the former Grays man went even closer when his volley, after some neat chest control, skimmed the bar.
The match was goalless at the break, but nothing had prepared the home supporters for the 45 minutes to come. Nine minutes of fruitless huffing and puffing later, the Dons were undone by a quick free-kick. Alex Osborn raced onto it, held off Ben Judge’s challenge and slotted the ball past the advancing Brown. Far from getting their consolation goal in early, Grays now sensed that the Dons, tired from playing four league games in eight days, were out on their feet and that their first away win of the season was within reach.
Terry Brown reacted by withdrawing Poole and Adjei and throwing on Nathan Elder and Will Hendry in the hope of getting more than just an equaliser, but a combination of awful finishing and dogged defending saw his hopes dashed. First, Elder drew a fine save from Garner, but Kedwell hammered the rebound high and wide. Then Hendry shot over from the edge of the box before Godfrey repeated the trick by ballooning an 18-yard effort the same distance over the bar.
Hendry smashed one free-kick into the wall, and another cannoned off a PA speaker in the roof of the Tempest End. The Dons started to realise that this was not their night. Kedwell saw Garner parry his fierce drive into Moore’s path, but his follow-up was so weak that Garner was able to get up and catch it comfortably. Crosses rained in on the Grays defence but captain Harlee Dean was more than equal to all of them. The Dons fans grew more frustrated.
Frustration turned to despair with 17 minutes left. Rhodes burst into the box in a rare Grays attack, and as he turned Conroy with a clever bit of footwork, the Dons defender slipped and touched the ball with his trailing arm. A fifth stonewall penalty in the last three games gifted Grays all three points as Jamie Guy confidently struck his spot-kick past Saturday’s double-penalty-save hero Seb Brown.
With time running out, the Dons needed a goal quickly. But they had not scored in open play for nearly five home games, and now their fortune took a turn for the worse with one of the most amazing misses you will ever witness.
Godfrey worked himself free on the edge of the penalty area and floated a shot across Garner that was heading for the bottom-right-hand corner of the net, but inexplicably Elder’s striking instincts got the better of him, and he slid in with the intention of nudging the ball over the line. Somehow, seeming to defy the laws of physics, he managed to shin the ball over the bar from almost on the goal-line.
Terry Brown couldn’t bear to look, and fixed his stare at the well-worn grass in front of the bench. Grays boss Dicks stifled a laugh, though the fans in the Tempest End couldn’t stop themselves. There was still time for Danny Kedwell to shoot wide, twice, when through on Garner’s goal.
It was fortunate that the Dons had already missed out on a playoff place, because this would have been a calamitous result if anything had been riding on it. Wimbledon’s home record was now identical to that of relegation-threatened Forest Green Rovers, having lost four of the last five, despite losing only four of the first 16 games at Kingsmeadow. A season that promised so much was fizzling out rather unpleasantly. If Terry Brown was unaware of just how much work he needed to do over the summer, he surely knew now.