They say there’s no room for sentiment in football, but it seems that no-one told Dons boss Terry Brown. Jon Main’s final appearance in an AFC Wimbledon shirt turned from an emotional 25-minute cameo into a period in which two decisions became the post-match talking points.
Brown had restored the nine outfield players who were rested for Monday’s trip to Forest Green Rovers. Ismail Yakubu retained his place alongside late contender for Player of the Year Brett Johnson, actual player of the year Sam Hatton returned at right-back, and Gareth Gwillim, in perhaps his penultimate AFC Wimbledon home game, regained the left-back spot.
The Dons started brightly. Ricky Wellard, rejuvenated after his spell on loan at Cambridge United, adopted the unwell Steven Gregory’s holding midfield role and started proceedings by finding Danny Kedwell with a beautifully weighted pass that the Dons skipper couldn’t make the most of. However, with only six and a half minutes gone the Dons took the lead, and it was that man Wellard who was the catalyst.
Winning the ball 20 yards inside the Mariners’ half, Wellard spotted Luke Moore’s intelligent run in behind Garner and took the pass in his stride before resisting the defender’s attempts to pull him down. As Grimsby keeper Kenny Arthur came out, the former Ebbsfleet man tucked the ball beyond him and into the back of the net. It would have been easy to forgive the Dons for having one collective eye on Friday’s semi-final first leg at Fleetwood, but if the way they started this game was anything to go by, they were fully concentrated on the job in the hand.
Town had endured an up-and-down first season in non-League football for 100 years, but on their day they are capable of more than matching the top sides, and within two minutes Rob Scott and Paul Hurst’s side could have at least been level. First Seb Brown did well to keep out Alan Connell’s low effort, and then Sam Mulready’s acrobatic volley from 25 yards flew narrowly over the bar. Grimsby, backed by over 350 travelling fans – fantastic support considering that the fixture was all-but meaningless for their side – were not going to roll over and let the Dons tickle them: they clearly wanted to end the season with a win. And for the next ten minutes it seemed that Wimbledon were happy to help them.
Between them, Brown, Hatton, Gwillim and Yakubu contrived to give the ball away in their own half on three occasions – and every time it was Brett Johnson who dug them out of their self-made hole. Connell was one ahead of Kedwell in the scoring charts, and didn’t need anyone’s help, but had it not been for Johnson, the Irishman could have been a goal or two clear of the Dons captain.
Rashid Yussuff then carved out a chance that seemed destined to regain the Dons the upper hand when he outfoxed right-back Peter Bore and chipped an inch-perfect cross onto the head of Kaid Mohamed. But Arthur, with a combination of his right arm and his body, somehow kept the point-blank effort out and the ball was scrambled away to safety. Mohamed congratulated the Mariners' keeper for his wonder save, but five minutes later he was cursing Arthur’s agility as the visitors drew level.
Bore’s long ball down the Dons’ left flank found the suspiciously offside-looking Mulready, who found the equally offside-looking Connell in space with a well-weighted cross-field ball. The Mariners’ top scorer took the pass in his stride and let fly with a fine angled drive from 18 yards that arrowed into Seb Brown’s top-left hand corner for his 25th league goal of the season.
The Dons continued to play their brand of football for the remaining eight minutes of the half, with Wellard, Yussuff and Lee Minshull at the heart of everything, and although their final balls more often than not lacked accuracy, the home crowd fully appreciated their efforts to play such an attractive style of football.
The 3,700-plus Dons fans basking in the sunshine didn’t have to wait long in the second half to see their side retake the lead. Arthur had beaten away a Kedwell drive, and from Gwillim’s corner Minshull didn't make the most of his header but succeeded in flicking the ball on to a Grimsby defender, who watched in horror as it flew off his body, struck the underside of the bar and bounced into the net off Johnson’s shin. It was the defender’s fifth goal in eight games – and the second in consecutive home games that he knew very little about, having deflected Christian Jolley’s shot into Mansfield’s net with the small of his back on Good Friday.
Mohamed then forced Arthur into another fine save, the keeper getting a touch to a shot from the narrowest of angles as the Dons looked to finish off the visitors, and the regular season, in style.
Then it was enter Jon Main, the striker who through a combination of circumstances had never really rediscovered the superb form he showed in the Blue Square South season, when his 33 league goals helped the Dons to win the league title. Main had failed to score for Wimbledon this season and spent much of it on loan, at Dartford and Dover, but he was desperate to sign off with a goal – and so, it seemed, were his team-mates, who looked for the former Tonbridge man at every opportunity.
Only five minutes after his entrance, Main was involved in the game’s most contentious moment. Chasing a ball to the corner flag, he managed to keep it in, but as he turned to regain control of it, Grimsby left-back Bradley Wood ran into Main and floored him. Main reacted to the challenge, and within seconds players from both sides joined in, with Terry Brown and the Dons fans at the Kingston Road End imploring them not to get involved and risk a ban from the play-offs.
When the dust had settled, referee Long booked Wood for the assault, booked Main for his reaction – and awarded Grimsby a free-kick. Minshull and Hatton then combined to find Main, who stepped inside Charlie I’Anson and then had both legs whipped from under him by the defender’s clumsy challenge on the edge of the penalty area. The referee’s view was that I’Anson had won the ball, to the outrage of Dons fans who felt he had got nowhere near it. It clearly wasn’t going to be Main’s day after all.
If the Wimbledon teams of the 1980s were renowned for their direct, physical approach, the 21st Century Dons are in danger of being accused of overplaying – shortly after Main’s penalty appeal was turned down, some intricate passing between Gwillim, Kedwell and Yussuff set up Minshull with a shooting chance on the edge of the box but instead of going for goal the midfielder cut back inside Wood and laid the ball back for Kedwell who had to rush his effort which allowed Bore to clear off the line.
James Mulley then replaced Luke Moore after an I’Anson challenge that earned him a booking, and the sub had the Dons’ best chance to double their lead when he repeated Main’s trick just inside the box, but his left-footed drive was weak and easily collected by Arthur. It wasn’t as though Grimsby weren’t making chances of their own, or that the Dons weren’t presenting them with some thanks to another set of defensive lapses; Micky Cummins hit the bar from 30 yards, Michael Coulson hooked wide from 15 yards, and veteran sub Lee Peacock just failed to connect with a dangerous cross.
But the Dons saw the challenge out and ended with a thoroughly deserved 17th home win of the season in the bag, Danny Kedwell lifted the runners-up trophy, and thoughts could now turn to the following Friday night in Lancashire.