Don’t let anyone try to convince you that the phrase “a game of two halves” is nothing but a cliché – AFC Wimbledon’s inexplicably narrow win over Kettering, after cruising to a 3-0 half-time lead, was exactly that.
The visitors had recently given up a long unbeaten run after a poor start to the season that had precipitated a change of manager, and Terry Brown knew that his troops would be in for a tough game. With that in mind, coupled with the Dons’ heavy fixture schedule and two-hour FA Cup battle the previous Thursday, he made a number of changes to his starting line-up. Ed Harris came in for the unfortunate Brett Johnson, Chris Bush returned at left-back for the injured Andre Blackman, Steven Gregory was not involved at all and Ricky Wellard started, and there were two changes to the front three, with Christian Jolley and Luke Moore preferred to the rested pair of Danny Kedwell and Ryan Jackson.
The changes in personnel seemed both to unsettle Wimbledon and to baffle Kettering, as the sides spent the first 10 minutes giving the ball to each other in the scrappiest of openings, giving the Kingsmeadow crowd no indication of the feast of football that was about to be laid out before them.
So it came as something of a surprise that with their first well-crafted attack the Dons took the lead with 11 minutes gone. Ricky Wellard took control of a bouncing ball just inside his own half and struck a beautiful half-volleyed pass some 50 yards into the path of Luke Moore, who needed to take just a single touch, such was the weight of the ball, before calmly slotting home from 15 yards as Poppies keeper Kelvin Jack tried to narrow the angle.
This was Moore’s first goal of a stop-start season, but eight minutes and one Paul Furlong miss later, he had his second. Sam Hatton fed Sammy Moore on the edge of the box, and although his first-time shot lacked power, the rebound came straight back to him and his first touch took him into the box, where Kettering’s Nick Green upended him with a slightly late, ungainly challenge. Referee Cooper awarded the penalty, and the former Ebbsfleet man despatched the spot-kick to Jack’s right to double the Dons’ lead.
The 41-year-old Furlong was proving to be a handful for Harris and Ismail Yakubu, and Bush had to be alert to thwart Patrick Noubissie after Furlong had cleverly flicked a Marcus Kelly free-kick towards Seb Brown’s far post. Kettering probably didn’t deserve to be 2-0 down, as their slick passing moves were keeping Rashid Yussuff and Sammy Moore largely quiet, and the pacy ex-Milton Keynes striker Serge Makofo was keeping Hatton busy. However, the Dons seemed able to prise Kettering apart at will, and Sammy Moore missed a great chance to make it three when Bush’s cross found him unmarked in the box, but he couldn’t keep his header down and the ball flew narrowly over Jack’s bar.
Wimbledon weren’t to be denied, though, and with just over half an hour gone they put themselves in what appeared to be an unassailable position. Hatton and Wellard exchanged passes before Wellard’s cute delivery into the box saw Mark Nwokeji and Jolley both beat Jack to the ball, and as Nwokeji’s shot looped off Jack, Jolley pounced to head home his eighth goal of the season from a couple of yards out.
Worse was to follow for Kettering, as in the build-up to the goal Jack had clattered into team-mate Sol Davis, and the former Luton defender was taken off with a broken collarbone – and then his replacement, Brett Solkhon, was booked within 45 seconds of coming on after he tried to stop the Dons taking a quick throw. Jolley then almost rubbed salt into the wound when he controlled Nwokeji’s cross on the edge of the box and fired in a crisp volley that struck the underside of the bar, bounced on the goal-line and was cleared by Luke Graham with the Dons appealing in vain for a goal.
With the game seemingly safe, Hatton’s knee injury, picked up three days earlier in the FA Cup, was deemed too risky to allow him to continue, and he was replaced by Ryan Jackson. 3-0 at half-time was a little harsh on Marcus Law’s men.
Five minutes into the second half, Law made an unusual but like-for-like substitution that quickly changed the face of the game. The lively Kelly was replaced by Jean-Paul Marna, and within minutes Marna’s cross was headed home by the unmarked Solkhon. Kettering realised that this was more than a consolation goal, and the Dons did too. In an instant the mood inside the ground changed, the sides swapped momentum, and a second and even a third Kettering goal looked far more likely than a Wimbledon fourth.
Makofo whipped in three crosses in quick succession that Harris, Bush and then Yakubu did well to clear, but whenever a Dons defender cleared any sort of danger, the midfield managed to lose it again and the pressure was only momentarily relieved. Jackson then had to go off after crashing into the advertising hoardings trying to prevent a corner, and Fraser Franks was pressed into action in an unaccustomed right-back role.
The pace of Marna and Makofo was now surely going to be exploited as the Dons came under increasing threat from a resurgent Kettering, especially as they had been so profligate in possession on the few occasions they had managed to get forward. Danny Kedwell replaced the tiring Nwokeji, but two minutes after entering the fray the Dons skipper watched in horror as Wellard lost possession after Harris had cleared a corner, and as the ball was played back in, Furlong outmuscled Yakubu and prodded the ball past Brown.
The Dons were truly reeling, and it wasn’t long before Yussuff surrendered possession on the right. Marna fed Makofo, and his low cross into the box was met with a thunderous volley from Furlong – and only a world-class save by Seb Brown, acrobatically tipping the drive over the bar, prevented Kettering from completing an extraordinary comeback and becoming the second Blue Square Bet Premier side to claw back a three-goal deficit on the weekend.
With Kettering pushing for an equaliser they were now wide open at the back, but Wimbledon just couldn’t find a way through. Jolley had a shot blocked after a breakaway but couldn’t find Sammy Moore with the follow-up, then both Moores had chances to set up Yussuff when the midfielder was in space, but they both made a mess of the final ball. Sammy Moore opted to shoot from distance when Kedwell was all alone at the back post and screaming to be set up for a tap-in.
From cruising at 3-0 up, the Dons were now relying on breakaways to make the game safe while defending manfully at the other end. It was a quite unexpected turn of fortune in a game that was expected to be a tight, strategically close affair. After one more headed clearance from Harris, the referee had seen enough, and to the relief of the increasingly anxious home fans he blew for full time. Wimbledon were back on top, Kettering were finally floored and the club could start gearing up for the Second Round of the FA Cup in six days’ time. Breathless stuff.