Thousands of Dons fans woke up the morning after this extraordinary game wondering whether it had all been a dream. Was in fact Wednesday morning, and were they still facing a day worrying that the two-goal lead the Dons gained the previous Friday might not be enough to see them through to the play-off final?
Well, this was no dream. Terry Brown’s men really did beat Fleetwood Town 6-1 on the night and 8-1 on aggregate – surely a record score for the Conference play-off semi-finals – and any nervousness that there was around the ground at 7.45 was gone by 7.46. Despite Micky Mellon making three changes to his starting line-up, Fleetwood’s defensive horror-show showed no sign of any pause as their back line handed the Dons at least three of their goals on the night after gifting Luke Moore the all-important first at Highbury in the first leg.
Fleetwood got off to the worst possible start. In the opening seconds of what could well have been a tricky tie for AFC Wimbledon, Gareth Gwillim launched a hopeful long ball into space behind the Fleetwood rearguard which cruelly exposed Sean Gregan’s lack of mobility. Even though he had ten yards on Kaid Mohamed, Gregan couldn’t cope with the former Bath striker’s pace and could only watch as Mohamed took the ball round him and coolly slotted past advancing keeper Danny Hurst from six yards out. Dons fans who were praying for an early goal to calm their nerves got exactly what they wanted, albeit a little earlier than they’d expected.
Fleetwood, now needing three goals to force extra time, set about their unlikely task in admirable fashion, pouring forward at every opportunity. First George Donnelly’s 25-yard rasper flew just over Seb Brown’s bar, and then Gareth Seddon should have done better when the Dons defence seemed to switch off as one – so compact have the back four been of late that they even lost concentration together – but his shot lacked accuracy. Another sleepy moment at the back almost gifted Town an equaliser when Brown and Gwillim seemed to leave the ball to each other, but Magno Vieira’s weak attempt to find the empty net was easily hacked clear by Sam Hatton.
The Dons were still in control of the tie, but not necessarily of the game, and Terry Brown, Stuart Cash and Simon Bassey urged their players to focus as Fleetwood threw themselves forward with abandon and forced a series of corners. Fortunately for Wimbledon they all came to nothing, and with almost half an hour gone the Dons put the tie out of Fleetwood’s reach. Hatton found Danny Kedwell with a sublime diagonal pass from just inside the opposition half, and the skipper got the ball under control and slid it past Hurst for his 26th goal of the season, matching his total from last term.
The stuffing was visibly knocked out of the Trawlermen, and a few minutes later another defensive lapse allowed the Dons to score a surprisingly simple third. The otherwise impressive left-back Junior Brown tried to beat Luke Moore 30 yards from his own goal, but the in-form Don robbed him, sped into the penalty area and, with no other Fleetwood defender in sight, rolled the ball across the box for Mohamed to tap into the empty net with keeper Hurst nowhere. What had promised to be a tight game was turning out to be anything but.
Mellon made two changes at half-time, bringing on Sean Clancy for the ineffective Vieira up front and replacing the statuesque Gregan with Paul Linwood. Within two minutes of the restart, Town notched their first goal of the tie. As Jamie Stuart stood and appealed for offside, Clancy got his shot away and Brown could only parry it to the feet of Seddon, who couldn’t miss from two yards. An Alex-Ray Harvey free-kick then tested Brown’s reflexes again before Donnelly shot over as the visitors reacted well to their travelling fans’ unstinting support.
But a second goal didn’t materialise, and Fleetwood’s resistance, perhaps understandably, wilted. With 63 minutes on the clock Dons sub Christian Jolley found Kedwell in space down the right, and the captain dinked a cross into the box to Rashid Yussuff, whose first touch took him past Linwood into the six-yard box. Hurst blocked his shot, the post denied Steven Gregory his first goal of the season from the rebound, and as the ball bounced back into play Mohamed prodded it over the line for perhaps the simplest hat-trick he’ll ever score.
Five minutes later came the fifth, thanks to yet another calamity at the back. Stuart’s through-ball set Jolley off on a mazy run at the Fleetwood defence, and once he’d shaken off Peter Cavanagh and turned Steve McNulty inside out he found himself 15 yards from goal. Hurst did well to block his shot, but as the ball span loose, Junior Brown inexplicably knocked it back into Jolley’s path, and the substitute stuck out a long leg and diverted the ball past the helpless keeper. Fleetwood had one of the tightest defences in the league this season, but now they had gifted the Dons at least half of their eight goals in this tie (along with Jolley’s winner in the league encounter at Kingsmeadow in February).
The visitors were out on their feet. After Kedwell was subbed to rapturous applause five minutes after Jolley’s strike, his replacement James Mulley made it six. Intercepting a loose pass on the edge of his own box, he carved through Town’s midfield, took on two defenders, found Yussuff in space to his right, accepted the return pass, rounded Hurst and slotted home for the choicest of the tie’s nine goals. Moments later he nearly made it seven, but narrowly failed to get on the end of Hatton’s mis-hit free-kick. When Mohamed raced away and seemed certain to net his fourth, McNulty denied him with a well-timed tackle, and Ricky Wellard couldn’t make the most of the rebound. Mulley then fired wide from 12 yards after another Mohamed set-up, but the hard work was done.
In front of the biggest crowd of the season, including Dons legends Lawrie Sanchez, Dave Bassett and John Hartson, Terry Brown’s side were now on the verge of gaining legendary status of their own.