The Dons returned to the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier after a hard-fought but eventually comfortable win in the ghostly surroundings of the Gateshead International Athletics Stadium.
First things first, though. How often have you read a report and wondered whether the reporter was actually at the game? Well, in this case, he wasn’t: this match report could well be the first ever to be written from a carvery. But the atmosphere inside the Back Bar at Kingsmeadow, packed with 150 dining Dons fans watching the game on the big screen, was probably better than the ambience at the game itself, where a similar number of hardy souls were huddled together in one corner of the giant stand, the other three sides of the voluminous ground remaining unlit and empty.
Terry Brown’s description of Gateshead’s playing style as akin to Real Madrid’s, coupled with the home side’s recent good run of form, may have made the travelling fans a little apprehensive about this Friday-night encounter in the cold North-East. There was more to worry about: Sammy Moore, Ed Harris and Kirk Hudson had had to drop out at the last minute, so not for the first time this season AFC Wimbledon were unable to name a full complement of subs, with the injury list lengthening and Brett Johnson still not fit enough to return.
After the first ten minutes of action, it looked as though this would not be be Terry Brown’s only food for thought, as the Heed started brightly with Jon Shaw and Phil Turnbull both testing Seb Brown with decent efforts. The Dons took their time getting into the game – as, by all accounts, do most visiting sides when they travel up to Gateshead on the day of a game. But despite their slow start they restricted Ian Bogie’s men to constructing attractive passing movements across the pitch.
Their wide men Martin Brittain and Joan Simun Edmundsson, the Faroe Islands international on loan from Newcastle (as half the Gateshead side seemed to be if Steve Bower and Ian Snodin’s commentary could be believed), were the obvious outlets, and both players looked to be the home side’s most dangerous methods of attack. Edmundsson’s snap shot was well gathered by Brown just after the quarter-hour, and Brittain’s crossing was giving Jamie Stuart and Ismail Yakubu plenty to think about as Shaw and his strike partner Gary Mulligan were each proving to be a handful.
Despite Gateshead’s early pressure, the Dons almost took the lead on 22 minutes with their first meaningful attack. Luke Moore, who otherwise had a quiet evening, swung over a cross that keeper Tim Deasy really ought to have claimed, but he mistimed his jump, allowing James Mulley to slide in at the far post. Mulley’s sliding volley struck the upright, and just as Danny Kedwell was shaping up to tap the rebound into the unguarded net from six yards, defender James Curtis denied him with one of the tackles of the season so far, and the Dons had to settle for a corner that came to nothing.
Two minutes later, Gateshead once again gave the Dons a helping hand. This time Sam Hatton’s cross into the box was cleared in ungainly fashion by Carl Jones, who slipped as he went to head the ball to safety and ended up ballooning the ball out for a corner with the back of his neck. The Dons were now looking much the better side, and Hatton and Gareth Gwillim were getting the measure of Edmundsson and Brittain, forcing their hosts into rather predictable passages of play that failed to test the Dons’ defensive mettle.
Gateshead forced a succession of corners towards the end of the half, but they were all dealt with comfortably. The only other incidents of note both involved Stuart. First, the Dons defender was fortunate to escape without a booking after clattering into Edmundsson on the halfway line and then appearing to tug Curtis’s shirt as the giant defender launched himself at a free-kick, but referee West failed to notice or possibly took no notice as Curtis theatrically crashed to the turf like a felled tree. The Dons were still occasionally troubled by the Heed’s two tricky wide men, and the home side almost took the lead as the half drew to a close when Shaw got to yet another Brittain cross before Stuart, but his first-time effort cannoned off the post and was cleared by the grateful Gwillim.
It may have been a fairly even first half, but five minutes into the second the Dons could have been 3-0 up. They had to settle for a single-goal margin, but the transformation was quite remarkable. Three minutes after the restart Steven Gregory found Christian Jolley with an inch-perfect pass, and Jolley cut in from the right, performed his customary three stepovers and lashed home a powerful left-footed drive inside Deasy’s near post to give the Dons an advantage they then never looked like losing.
Less than a minute later another Gregory pass found Kedwell in space on the right, and the Dons skipper sent in a low centre that was begging to be converted. But just as Mulley was about to sweep the ball into the net it struck a divot, and the impressive former Hayes & Yeading man could only connect with his shin. Deasy made a fine save to prevent the Dons from doubling their lead, but the pitch played as big a part in that as the keeper’s hands.
Not to be denied, the Dons continued to attack the shell-shocked Heed, and before 50 minutes had passed they spurned another chance to seal the game with a little less than half of it left. Jolley’s cross from the right arced off Michael Liddle’s knee, Deasy flapped at the ball and could only palm it into the path of Gregory, but the Dons midfielder couldn’t keep his shot down and the ball disappeared over the bar and into the darkness, never to be seen again. Gregory’s last goal for the Dons was on 5 December 2009, against Gateshead, and this was as good a chance as any he’d had in the 40-odd games since then.
Gateshead’s only home losses this season had been to York and Cambridge, but they were now staring defeat in the face and could feel its frosty breath. Whereas in the first half they had at least looked dangerous, in the second they now looked devoid of ideas. The supply to Edmundsson and Brittain had dried up, and they were guilty of trying to pass the Dons into submission, but too often they were undone by their own slackness in possession.
A one-goal lead is never that comfortable, but with Yakubu and Stuart in such commanding form a second goal didn’t seem to be entirely necessary. But when it came, with 12 minutes remaining, it was more than welcome – and a touch fortunate. Sam Hatton had spurned a great chance to put the game to bed when he streaked forward but elected to pass when bearing down on goal, a decision that looked poor when his final ball to Rashid Yussuff was intercepted on the penalty spot.
The Dons full-back, voted man of the match by Snodin, now found Jolley out wide with a well-executed pass, and the scorer of the first goal beat his man again and crossed low into the box looking for Kedwell. Curtis stretched out a leg and diverted the ball back to keeper Deasy, who was clearly unsure whether he was receiving a back-pass. Unusually for a keeper, he didn’t err on the side of caution, and after controlling the ball with his feet he picked it up, only to be penalised by referee West. From the resulting indirect free-kick on the edge of the six yard box, Yussuff tapped the ball to Kedwell and the Dons skipper smashed it into the roof of the net via the smarting thigh of the Heed’s James Tavernier.
Gateshead rallied somewhat in the last ten minutes, with Shaw going close after Seb Brown fumbled a quickly taken Brittain free-kick, but apart from another Brittain free-kick that fizzed narrowly wide, the Dons keeper was rarely called upon to do anything other than take goal-kicks as the visitors coasted to what turned out to be a surprisingly comfortable victory.