The odds on both Blue Square Bet Premier semi-final play-off first legs ending in comprehensive away wins must have been rather long. Wrexham certainly didn’t look as though they had a 0-3 defeat in them, given their recent good run, and the meeting of the division’s two form sides at Highbury seemed unlikely to produce such a comfortable win for either side. Football has the power to confound and delight in equal measure, and the 625 Dons fans who made the 520-mile round trip to the Lancashire coast were probably prepared for a rollercoaster ride of both. As it turned out, Terry Brown’s Dons came away with a healthy lead to take into the second leg.
Brown had sprung something of a surprise with his team selection, preferring the cultured left foot of Ricky Wellard to the combative cult hero Lee Minshull – a sign that the AFC Wimbledon management team had not been preparing their side for a defence-minded 90 minutes – and Ismail Yakubu had every right to consider himself unlucky to make way for Jamie Stuart. Both moves proved to be masterstrokes, with Wellard putting in arguably his best performance in a Dons shirt and Stuart defending as if his life depended on it.
In an understandably nervy start, both sides began slowly, careful not to give the ball away in dangerous areas and hand the initiative to their opponents. Fleetwood’s marauding left-back Junior Brown was the star of the opening minutes, twice bamboozling Sam Hatton, but his crosses lacked the accuracy required. Brett Johnson and the imperious Stuart dealt with everything Fleetwood threw at them, handling the 22-goal Magno Vieira with surprising ease. Fleetwood were certainly making the most of their impressively flat and lush pitch, seeking out wide men Sean Clancy and Jamie Mullan at every opportunity, but with Gareth Gwillim and Hatton denying them any space, it was Junior Brown who put in another pair of telling crosses that at last called Seb Brown into action. Mullan then tricked Gwillim with his first show of skill, but his cross was deflected behind by Johnson for a corner.
Danny Kedwell, up to this point well shackled by the weighty combination of Sean Gregan and Steve McNulty, finally got free of his marker when Wellard’s cute through-ball set him away down the right, but his whipped first-time cross was hit with slightly too much power for Luke Moore to connect with. Wellard then set up Steven Gregory with a shooting opportunity, but the midfielder, yet to score this season, made a hash of his shot after holding off the attentions of Anthony Barry.
After a cagey opening, the game was now starting to take shape, with both sides looking just as likely to take the lead. But with 38 minutes gone, a mix-up in the home defence proved hugely costly. Brown and Gregan exchanged passes 30 yards from their own goal, but Gregan’s first-time pass back to keeper Danny Hurst fell well short, and as the keeper hesitated, Moore nipped in and slotted the ball into the far corner of the net. The Dons’ travelling supporters, already in perhaps their finest voice of the season, went berserk.
Mickey Mellon’s Cod Army struggled to respond. Some great work by Yussuff set up Moore with a 20-yarder that Hurst did well to push away, and all of a sudden the game opened up. Kaid Mohamed, who had been going about his work in a quietly efficient manner, came to life and twice linked well with Kedwell to force Gregan and McNulty into hasty clearances. Gregan was then involved in the game’s only unseemly moment when his studs-up lunge on Gwillim resulted in a 21-man set-to. The former Leeds and West Brom defender was lucky to receive only a yellow card, but the referee showed another two to Beeley and Kedwell for their involvement in the melee. Kedwell emerged from the ruck with a torn shirt for his trouble.
A Mullan cross from the left caused Seb Brown some consternation as the half drew to a close, but Fleetwood’s reaction to the Dons taking the lead was surprisingly low-key.
One can only wonder what Terry Brown’s message to his troops was at half-time, but “keep it tight and nick another goal” was probably in there somewhere. And with less than three minutes of the second half gone, they did just that. Wellard slid another perfectly weighted pass in behind Gregan, Moore latched onto it and cut it back to Mohamed, and the former Bath striker clipped the ball sweetly into the far corner. Fleetwood keeper Scott Davies’ first touch of the ball after coming on for the injured Hurst at half-time was to fish it out of the net.
Defending a lead for 42 minutes isn’t really in the Dons’ nature, and in the next quarter of an hour they could have doubled if not trebled their lead. Moore’s first-time effort from the edge of the box after Hatton’s cut-back missed Davies’ near post by inches; Beeley headed a Hatton cross out from under his own bar; Yussuff dragged a 20-yarder wide after Fleetwood backed off. On the hour mark Kedwell robbed substitute Keigan Parker after Fleetwood had half-cleared a Wimbledon corner, and from his cross with the outside of his right foot Brett Johnson somehow contrived to side-foot over from four yards.
The Dons were as dominant in the opening 20 minutes of this half as they had been at any time during any game this season, and a third goal, replicating Luton’s win at Wrexham the previous evening, seemed highly likely. It was a joy to watch Wimbledon play Football League standard stuff in front of the best stand in non-League football. The rain that began lashing down just after Johnson’s miss made the pitch slicker, suiting the Dons passing game down to the ground.
Junior Brown, arguably the best player on the pitch on the night, forced Hatton and Seb Brown into action when his bursting run down the left threatened the Dons goal, but apart from that the home side were looking sorry for themselves. But for some poor final balls Wimbledon could have wrapped up the tie, and not just this first leg, as Moore, Mohamed and Yussuff all failed to make the most of three breakaways.
When Gareth Gwillim was forced off, Johnson moved to left-back and Ismail Yakubu slotted into the centre. Maybe Fleetwood saw Yakubu as the Dons’ weak link, as his introduction coincided with a noticeable upturn in volume from the home fans and in performance from Mellon’s players. Brown forced Brown into a fine save, Barry had an effort blocked, and the otherwise invisible Vieira saw his best effort of the night turned behind for a corner. The Dons scrambled the ball clear, and from the breakaway Lee Minshull, on for Yussuff, was presented with a clear shooting opportunity after Kedwell and Moore combined well, but the substitute couldn’t get his shot away.
Vieira failed to trouble Seb Brown with the evening’s last chance as Fleetwood staged one final rally, but the Dons held firm. It was only Gwillim’s twisted knee that tainted an otherwise perfect night. Given their excellent first season in the Conference, Fleetwood would be capable of turning this tie on its head, but as the Dons fans filed out to the strains of “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, only the most ambitious of betting men would even have considered it worth a flutter.