A pre-match conversation with a Rovers official that ended with “Sorry mate, can’t stop, I’ve got to go and get my badger head on” was your reporter’s introduction to a rather unusual afternoon in Gloucestershire for the Dons.
Despite ten changes to the side that beat Mansfield on Good Friday (it would have been eleven if Ed Harris had not been injured in his last game on loan at Dover) and the absence of Terry Brown, who had finally succumbed to the bug that had laid low most of his squad at some time since Christmas, AFC Wimbledon comfortably held on for the point they needed to secure the Blue Square Bet Premier runner’s-up spot.
However, a beautifully sunny afternoon in the Cotswolds at the league’s friendliest and most health-conscious club deserved far better fare than the two sides served up. While the Dons’ squad players often struggled to make the best use of possession, Forest Green Rovers looked like a side in dire need of a victory but unable to capitalise on their visitors’ below-strength starting line-up. To add to the atypical atmosphere, the seated Dons fans were almost a full pitch length away from those who had chosen to stand, and the PA announcer was finding some of the Dons’ players names a little too exotic – though it was encouraging to hear that Israel Yukkaboo had recovered from his bout of illness to take his place at the heart of the Dons defence.
Whatever qualities the Dons were going to miss by resting Sam Hatton and Gareth Gwillim, there was no lack of pace in their replacements for the full-back positions, Ryan Jackson and Christian Jolley. Jackson started the game particularly well, easily outpacing Rovers’ Craig Armstrong (who was rather mystifyingly named Man of the Match) on three occasions early on and finding the head of Lee Minshull with crosses on the run. Minshull forced keeper James Bittner into a smart low save with one effort, defenders Luke Jones and Gavin Caines being forced into hurried clearances from the others.
The Dons were all over Rovers, but couldn’t find a way through, despite some enterprising channel work by Jolley and Jackson in combination with Brendan Kiernan, making his first Dons start, and Kirk Hudson. Rovers were defending as if their Blue Square Bet Premier status depended on it – which it did – but they could make little headway in attack and surrendered possession far too easily and far too often. Luke Jones’s volley after the Dons failed to clear a corner was their only meaningful attempt in the first half-hour. The Dons’ midfield were proving to be Rovers’ most potent attackers: most of the home side’s laboured attempts to move forward were sparked by AFC Wimbledon giving the ball away as often as they got it back.
Mark Nwokeji was making a nuisance of himself, though, and a Ricky Wellard pass in behind the defence gave the diminutive striker sight of goal, but Caines got back and thwarted him. Minshull then went down in a heap after a challenge by Jared Hodgkiss, but referee Barratt waved away both the Dons’ appeals for a penalty and the home side’s appeals that Minshull had dived.
Then, within two minutes of each other, both sides came within an inch of taking the lead. First an inswinging Wellard corner struck the bar, only for an assistant referee to indicate that the ball had gone out of play (some feat for an inswinging ball), and then Rovers nearly snatched a goal in what would have been controversial fashion. Two Rovers players went for the same corner, and both got a touch on the ball, which Seb Brown watched carefully as it landed on top of the net. But Mr Barratt saw it differently and awarded Rovers another corner, from which Caines outjumped his man and saw his flicked header whistle just over the bar.
Their goal still intact, the Dons waited all of eight seconds of the second half to force Bittner into the save of the match. From the kick-off, Minshull found Hudson in acres of space on the right, and the on-loan Brentford winger unleashed a powerful drive from 22 yards that the Rovers keeper did well to parry at his near post. Although a draw would have been enough to guarantee second place, the Dons clearly wanted to go into the final league game of the season having won six in a row, but were denied a chance to take the lead 10 minutes in. Kiernan and Jolley combined on the left, and as Kiernan flicked the ball over Jones’s head, the big defender clumsily clattered into him and sent him sprawling. But despite vigorous appeals, the referee once again ruled in favour of the home side. Rovers at last woke up, and with the Dons still complaining, Keiron Forbes had the first of two chances to put his side ahead, but, as he did with his second attempt later on, he failed miserably to hit the target.
Rovers manager Dave Hockaday then brought off combative striker Reece Styche and replaced him with the less mobile but equally physical Robbie Matthews, a move that prompted booing from the home supporters who, according to the figures, outnumbered the visiting Dons fans by almost 800. With boos still ringing around the picturesque New Lawn, keeper Bittner pulled off another good save. After some sustained Dons pressure, Jackson’s cross was spectacularly volleyed goalwards by Yakubu, only for the affable Bittner, who had earlier been laughing and joking with Dons fans who were ribbing him about his kicking, to tip his effort round the post.
The withdrawal of Kiernan, Nwokeji and Hudson for Danny Kedwell, Kaid Mohamed and Brett Johnson then gave the Dons some renewed sparkle, and all three were involved in the game’s remaining chances. First, Mohamed couldn’t sort his feet out as the ball deflected invitingly to him on the edge of the six-yard box following a goalmouth scramble. Then a long ball from Jackson was chased down by Kedwell, who turned Armstrong twice before delivering a pinpoint cross for the onrushing James Mulley, but his header lacked power and direction and allowed Bittner to claim the loose ball before Mohamed could pounce on it.
Wellard then headed over from two yards when under pressure from Bittner and Caines, and with the time edging towards ten to five Johnson got his head to a corner, only for Bittner to deny him a fifth goal in seven games. The Dons were comfortably holding on, and were, in truth, not overly untroubled, although Forbes was presented with the second of his two chances when Stuart and Yakubu played themselves into trouble on the edge of their own box, but Forbes succeeded only in hitting the corner flag with only Seb Brown to beat.
Second place was assured, though, and the two legs of play-off semi-final against Fleetwood Town now awaited.