The Dons’ FA Cup dreams were extinguished by a Stevenage side that, notably in the first half, outplayed, out-thought and at times outfought Terry Brown’s men.
Wimbledon supporters could have been forgiven for thinking that playing Stevenage, who lie 10th in their debut season in League 2, represented a better opportunity for their team to progress to the Third Round of the FA Cup for the very first time, than facing MK Dons would have. Putting aside the emotional turmoil that the club would have had to endure had Graham Westley’s side not won their First Round replay, pitting their wits against a side that was only 14 places above them would give them a more realistic chance of being drawn against a Premier League giant. As it turned out, Stevenage emerged with a reasonably comfortable victory, aided by some resolute defending, an admirable work ethic and a spate of highly debatable decisions by referee Mr Stroud before the ITV cameras.
When Stevenage last visited Kingsmeadow in April they eased their way 3-0 past a tiring Dons side on their way to the Conference title, and from the off it was clear that since then Westley had cleverly strengthened his side. Eight of the starting XI had turned out against the Dons at Easter, but the additions of John Mousinho, Jay O’Shea and Watford loanee Josh Walker have added guile and creativity to the otherwise functional midfield. It wasn’t as though Wimbledon were in awe of their opponents, but from the opening exchanges it was clear that they were up against a faster, stronger and quicker-thinking side.
Mousinho and the combative Chris Beardsley combined to provide Michael Bostwick with the game’s first clear-cut opportunity as the visitors looked to turn their early superiority into goals. The Dons weren’t helping their own cause: both Ismail Yakubu and Chris Bush gave the ball away cheaply, and Ricky Wellard was robbed of possession twice, luckily not to Stevenage’s advantage.
Going forward the Dons were finding it difficult, with Christian Jolley up against the stocky Scott Laird and unable to make use of his undoubted pace against the competitive left-back, and Luke Moore starved of anything like a decent supply, leaving Danny Kedwell to fight a lone and losing battle against the giant Jon Ashton and Mark Roberts. Stevenage were looking far likelier to score, despite not creating much themselves, but on 24 minutes they took the lead in, as far as the Dons were concerned, unfortunate fashion.
Steven Gregory beat Lawrie Wilson to the ball on the edge of the box with a well-timed sliding tackle, but as Wilson got up to contest the loose ball he tripped over Gregory’s outstretched leg and Mr Stroud awarded Stevenage a free-kick. Walker, who had hardly touched the ball up to this point, curled his shot over the wall and Seb Brown could only watch as the ball hit the inside of his right post and rebounded back across goal and nestle just inside the net on his left.
Stevenage’s fans, who appeared to be auditioning for a new production of Stomp, finally had something to drum about. A Dons equaliser, which would surely have been met with chants of “You’re not drumming any more” never looked overly likely to materialise. Jolley had more than met his match, at least physically, in Laird, and neither Gregory nor Wellard were able to find any room to manoeuvre, Bostwick and Mousinho closing them down at every opportunity. Luke Moore went down under a challenge by Ashton looking for a penalty, but Mr Stroud wasn’t fooled. Stevenage had looked worryingly at ease throughout the first half and thoroughly deserved to end the half a goal to the good.
After the break, things were rather different. A quiet opening spell ended with Jolley’s withdrawal and Rashid Yussuff’s introduction, so that Kedwell now had L. Moore for company as S. Moore moved out to the right and the Dons changed to a 4-4-2 formation. The transformation was almost instantly successful, as Kedwell finally shook off Ashton down the left, checked back onto his right foot and floated a cross onto Luke Moore’s head, just eight yards out, but he couldn’t keep the effort down and the ball cleared the bar by a couple of feet. At least it was a decent effort on goal by the Dons, and it was made possible by Kedwell being able to pull wide and knowing that he wasn’t leaving a hole in the middle. The crowd sensed that the Dons were growing in confidence, and suddenly the home side looked capable of clawing the game back from Stevenage’s grasp.
Try as they might, though, Wimbledon just couldn’t break the League Two side down. Roberts charged down a Kedwell snap-shot, Yussuff tested Chris Day’s concentration with a scuffed 20-yarder. Stevenage finally looked worried by a succession of Dons corners that they cleared with some difficult on each occasion. A Gregory 20-yarder that cleared the Tempest End roof was at least a sign that Wimbledon believed they could get something from the game, and another Kedwell effort, this time a header, floated narrowly wide. And shortly after, Kedwell was only inches away from running on to a Sam Hatton through-ball which would have seem him through on goal. Roberts forced him wide, and the chance had gone, as no one was able to get on the end of his whipped cross.
Despite the pressure, clear-cut chances were still at a premium and Mr Stroud denied the Dons a great chance to make it count, failing to play the advantage when Chris Bush made a great run on to a Gregory through-ball with 40 yards of open pitch in front of him – instead bringing the play back for a foul on Sammy Moore.
When the advantage was next played, it was game over. Harris clattered into Beardsley with a chest-high challenge reminiscent of Nigel De Jong’s kung-fu hack at Xabi Alonso in the World Cup Final, but as Wilson had possession of the ball the referee correctly let play continue. From his deep cross, substitute Femi Odubade netted with a mis-hit volley that deceived Seb Brown and bobbled into the far corner of the net. Harris, who had been booked just before half-time, was shown a second yellow card as he recovered from his self-inflicted injury.
The Dons had no option but to go for broke in the last 10 minutes, and played with three at the back, but Stevenage were unable to make their numerical advantage count, thanks in no small part to Brown’s smart save from David Bridges’ close-range effort. As the clock ticked down, the Dons denied themselves the chance of a consolation goal with a most untypical miss by captain Kedwell. Hatton floated a great cross into the box, and with the goal at his mercy and Day static, Kedwell got his feet in a muddle and shanked the ball tamely past the post with his left ankle.
It had been a far better second half for Wimbledon, but it was Stevenage who progressed to the Third Round and a home tie with Newcastle United. There’s a good chance that Dons v Boro could be a League Two fixture next season, and if Terry Brown was looking for a benchmark for what to expect if his side win promotion this season, he now had one.