Goals 14 minutes into each half saw Darlington end AFC Wimbledon’s unbeaten home record in a game in which the Dons failed to capitalise on their superior possession.
In October of last year Mark Cooper brought his workmanlike Kettering side to Kingsmeadow and, despite the Dons having the lion’s share of possession and chances, went away with all three points. Twelve months later he repeated the trick with his new charges from the North-East. The Dons certainly had the edge in terms of possession, shots on goal and corners, but when it came to the statistics that really matter in a football match, they were definitely second best.
A quiet first half in which clear-cut chances were at a premium came to life just before the quarter-hour. Although the Dons were having far more of the ball than the Quakers, they looked unlikely to threaten Sam Russell’s goal. But as soon as Darlington found themselves in a good position they made the most of their opportunity. Chris Moore fed Tommy Wright on the edge of the box, and after drawing Ed Harris towards him he made great use of the space behind the home defence and slid Chris Senior in with a slide-rule pass. The diminutive former Altrincham striker slipped the ball past the onrushing Seb Brown to give Darlington the lead, against the run of play.
Wimbledon tried to step up a gear to get back on level terms, but the visitors, beaten only once on their travels this season, showed why they are so hard to beat away from home with a display of obdurate defending and tenacious midfield work. Credit to Mark Cooper, though, for doing his homework. The Dons have benefited from the speedy wing play of Christian Jolley and Ryan Jackson this season, and part of the Quakers boss’s game plan was clearly to stop the supply to Wimbledon’s wide men.
For the majority of the first half it worked: Brown and Ian Miller gave the youngsters precious little room to manoeuvre, and on the odd occasion when they did get the better of their more experienced opponents, Danny Hone and Liam Hatch – usually a striker – were rock solid at the heart of the defence. They limited Danny Kedwell to hopeful pot-shots and forced the Dons to overplay in front of goal as shooting chances diminished. Chris Bush really should have done better when presented with a chance to cross low into the crowded six-yard box, but he clipped the ball back behind the waiting masses at chest height and the chance went. Sammy Moore then had the opportunity to swivel onto Kedwell’s pass, but took too long, and Steven Gregory wasted another great chance when he blazed wildly over from 18 yards.
Aaron Brown was then involved in an incident that can only be described as bizarre. Darlington were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out. Smith back-heeled the ball back to Brown, who found Kedwell bearing down on him, and before he could get his shot away the Dons skipper nipped in to clip the ball from him with a well-timed tackle. Unbelievably, referee Mr Bull decided that winning the ball cleanly was an offence worthy of not just a free-kick, but a yellow card too. Terry Brown and Simon Bassey were apoplectic, Kedwell was bemused more than anything, and even the Quakers’ assistant manager Richard Dryden shook his head in disbelief. Smith’s 30-yard free-kick sailed narrowly wide of Seb Brown’s right-hand post; six inches more to the right and the Dons would have conceded a quite extraordinary goal.
Wimbledon had just one more good chance in the first half, Jackson finally getting the better of Brown and crossing low for Moore to touch back to Gregory, but the midfielder – who has yet to score a goal for the Dons with his favoured right foot – made a mess of the chance, and from 12 yards out the skewed off his trailing leg and went tamely wide for a goal-kick.
The second half, sadly, was pretty much the same story – precious few clear-cut chances, and the Darlington defence standing strong in the face of Dons pressure – and the visitors looked more likely to add to their lead than the Dons did of nullifying it. Just short of the hour mark, Cooper withdrew Wright and threw on Jefferson Louis, who had scored twice at Kingsmeadow for Crawley Town last season. Now on loan at Darlington from Gainsborough Trinity, Louis didn’t have long to wait before making his mark on a Dons game again.
At a left-wing corner Gregory was adjudged to have fouled Hone in a crowded penalty area, and Mr Bull pointed to the spot, with both sets of fans thinking that he was awarding a foul against the visitors. When reality dawned, Louis’s first touch of the ball was to place it on the spot, and his second was to drill it hard and low to Seb Brown’s left. But the Dons keeper made a superb two-handed save, pushing the ball to the edge of the six-yard box and the three awaiting Dons defenders – none of whom reacted as quickly as the Quakers’ Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, who nipped in between them and fired the loose ball into the back of the net to give his side a 2-0 lead that they didn’t really deserve.
Terry Brown decided to go for broke and took off Sammy Moore and Ryan Jackson for Luke Moore and Jon Main, but the substitutions did little to change the course of the half. Hone hit the bar with a header from a corner, and Seb Brown saved brilliantly again at the feet of Louis, before Jolley wasted the Dons’ best chance when he could only find the side-netting. When Sam Hatton tested Russell’s reflexes with a 35-yard howitzer of a free-kick, the keeper dealt with it expertly, as he did with Kedwell’s overhead kick from a tight angle.
As the game wore on, Hatton failed in four attempts to pick out a Dons head with his crosses, and despite Rashid Yussuff’s prodding and probing, Darlington held firm. Sub Danny Powell almost made it 3-0, but Brown saved his near-post effort with his feet. As the five minutes of added time ticked by, even a consolation goal was to evade the Dons as by visitors closed ranks in typical Cooper style, blocking efforts from Kedwell, Luke Moore and Yussuff and ensuring that Yakubu was sufficiently off-balance when trying to get on the end of a corner. Hatton had what looked like a very good penalty shout turned down when Hatch first tripped him and then pulled his shirt as the Dons right-back chased a pass into the area.
A game that can be put down to being “just one of those days” for the Dons was over, and Darlington’s very vocal but perfectly behaved band of 350 or so supporters headed off in high spirits for their six-hour journey home.