AFC Wimbledon extended their unbeaten run to six games, coming away from icy Darlington with a hard-fought point.
The fixture survived two pitch inspections before being given the go-ahead. Both teams will feel it was a point picked up rather than two dropped on a surface that was quite clearly only just playable. “I think it would have been harsh for either side to have lost that, but it was debatable whether it should ever have been played,” Terry Brown said afterwards.
New Dons signing Jamie Stuart went straight into the line-up alongside Fraser Franks at centre-back. Wimbledon adopted a familiar 4-3-3, with Danny Kedwell leading the line. Injuries and illness limited the Dons to a bench of just four; Ismail Yakubu and Jon Main were among those not travelling with the squad.
Darlington settled the better of the two teams and looked much more assured going forward early on. However, the 2,046 fans inside the Northern Echo Arena had to wait until the 16th minute for the first attempt on goal, Darlington’s Curtis Main firing just wide with a shot that Seb Brown got a hand to.
That apart, clear-cut chances were few and far between in the opening 30 minutes, the treacherous playing surface making it difficult to string passing moves together. Danny Kedwell showed his frustration on the half-hour mark with a wayward effort high and wide of the Darlington goal. But his work ethic was unperturbed by his five-game goalless streak.
But it was the Dons who ended the first half the stronger team, winning a succession of corners and beginning to move the ball around in a fashion more typical of a team at the top of the table. Kedwell was the main danger up front, feeding Ryan Jackson on the right and using his pace effectively to harry the Quakers’ back line.
Wimbledon carved out a hat-trick of chances in the final few minutes of the half. The first saw Kedwell slip through 25 yards out, but with a defender on his shoulder he was muscled off the ball, and Darlington keeper Sam Russell was able to come out and claim it.
Christian Jolley, who had had a quiet game on the left, managed to create a chance for himself in the 43rd minute. His neat turn and shot inside the Darlington area forced Russell to parry the effort wide for a corner.
Russell was again called into action after what was undoubtedly the best chance of the game so far. Sammy Moore collected a flick-on eight yards out, and as the Darlington back line stood motionless, expecting an offside flag that never came, he fired straight at Russell, whose palms must have stung in the cold air.
For the second time in three games Terry Brown made changes at half-time, introducing Mark Nwokeji and Luke Moore in place of Jolley and Jackson. The second half started in frantic fashion with chances at both ends. Wimbledon were the first to threaten after the interval, but it was Darlington who should have taken the lead in the 50th minute, but they were denied by a combination of poor finishing and a superb Seb Brown save.
A scramble in the Darlington box followed a Chris Bush throw-in, Russell eventually diving on the ball to halt the flurry of attempted clearances and shots. Almost immediately afterwards, Darlington should have scored. Seb Brown was forced to make a point-blank save after a Darlington player turned neatly on a sixpence in the area and fired in a shot low.
The Darlington barrage continued: little over a minute later, centre-back Adam Quinn powered in a header that rebounded off the Wimbledon crossbar. Mark Cooper’s side were enjoying a purple patch of possession, but the visitors were just about holding on.
The condition of the pitch continued to dictate the style of play, with players having to tread very carefully in some areas, and the long-ball option was apparently being encouraged from both dugouts.
Darlington continued to dominate. Curtis Main had two chances to find the back of the net, first with a shot that zipped two yards wide of Brown’s near post, and then with a glancing header that trickled just wide of the Dons’ goal.
There was a Wimbledon resurgence in the final 20 minutes, and they nearly broke the deadlock in the unlikeliest of ways. Kedwell won a corner with a fine shot from the edge of the area after neat build-up play from Nwokeji. The corner was swung in left-footed by Chris Bush and was headed against the underside of the Darlington crossbar from a defender on the line.
There was time for Brown to make one more impressive save, this time from Curtis Main’s replacement, Tommy Wright. He found time and space for a shot from the edge of the area which looked destined for the top corner until Brown, at full stretch, tipped it round the post.
The Dons had a mild penalty claim turned down in the first of three minutes of stoppage time when Luke Moore appeared to be pushed in the back, but the game ended goalless. It was an impressive debut for Stuart, who marshalled the back line to ensured a clean sheet. “We wouldn’t have got a point without Jamie Stuart today,” said Terry Brown afterwards. “I thought Jamie’s experience made all the difference for us. Him and Kedders were our best players.”
On a pitch that hampered Wimbledon’s normal passing game, the Dons showed grit and determination to leave the North-East with a point and look towards the midweek meeting with Luton as an opportunity to consolidate their promotion challenge.