It was a perfect set-up. The home team newly promoted from the Conference, a full house, the Sky and BBC TV cameras in evidence, 750+ away fans following a team freshly relegated from League One…and the whole day testament to the hard work and dedication of several hundred people who had overseen AFC Wimbledon’s unheralded, perhaps never equalled, rise from formation to Football League in only nine years. And even the rain held off for a while. Nothing was going to spoil the party atmosphere…well, nothing other than two Bristol Rovers goals in the space of two first half minutes, both the results of sloppy Dons defending that threatened to put the game out of the new boys’ reach before it had really begun.
Life as a Football League club had started rather comfortably for the Dons. For the first 15 minutes or so the sides had looked remarkably equal, given that the two sides were two divisions apart last season, although in truth Paul Buckle’s Rovers were fielding an almost-entirely different starting 11 to the side that had gone down on the last day of last season. Brett Johnson and Jamie Stuart, who had the unenviable distinction of being the first Dons player to be booked after a clumsy challenge after just 4 minutes, had coped admirably with 200-goal Scott McGleish, leading the Pirates’ impressive forward line and fellow new arrivals Matt Harrold (who scored a hat trick for Wycombe Wanderers on his last visit to Kingsmeadow) and Chris Zabroski, who like fellow debutant, 6ft 7in keeper Scott Bevan, had followed Buckle from Torquay during what passed for a summer. Only a Matt Gill free kick that sailed just wide of Seb Brown’s goal had suggested what was to come from Rovers. The Dons settled down well and any post-hoopla nerves were dispelled when a raking Stuart pass was dummied by Jack Midson and latched onto by Christian Jolley. His slightly heavy second touch as he raced into the penalty area allowed the enormous Bevan to come out and get a crucial touch to his shot, sending it looping over his bar for the Dons’ first corner as a League side.
Neither team had made a clear-cut chance although both were certainly trying to show off their inventive sides, until a calamitous moment of uncertainty in the Dons half gifted Rovers the first goal of the 2011/12 season. Seb Brown rolled the ball out to Ricky Wellard, some 30 yards from goal. In previous seasons Wellard would have been given time to turn and pick a pass but on this occasion Gill raced 30 yards to take the ball off his toe, play it simply into McGleish and stand back and admire as his 38 year old teammate calmly planted a crisp shot into the far corner from 12 yards.
Just two minutes later, the Dons were guilty of overplaying it again and it cost them just as dearly. Brett Johnson and Rashid Yussuff played themselves into trouble just inside the Dons half, Johnson stretched to rectify his miscontrol and allowed a clear run on goal. Brown smothered his shot but McGleish reacted to the rebound first and chipped the ball to the near post for the waiting Harrold to power a header home from six yards. Two mistakes, two goals…to add to the three mistakes, three goals equation from the Crawley defeat in the Carling Cup eight days earlier.
For the next twenty minutes, Rovers looked in complete control and the Dons party balloons were well and truly deflated. Gill and Craig Stanley at the heart of the midfield were dominating proceedings, with Max Porter and Wellard never allowed a moment’s peace on the ball and the Rovers front six far more comfortable in possession Wimbledon.
It seemed only a matter of time before Rovers put the game out of the Dons’ reach but a chance fashioned, and missed, by Luke Moore after good work by Midson, seemed to give the home side hope. It was hope that had a sting in the tail – after Michael Smith fouled Jolley, 40 yards from goal, by the Dons’ left touchline, Sam Hatton’s inswinging free kick was powerfully headed home by Stuart for the prestigious honour of him being the club’s first Football League goalscorer - certainly a better accolade than the first booking anyway. After the disastrous three minute spell earlier in the half, Terry Brown would have taken being one goal down at the interval but in added time Rovers almost regained their two goal lead. McGleish’s header at the back post was met by Harrold and somehow Seb Brown got a fingertip to it and touched it onto the bar. The danger wasn’t over as the Dons failed to clear and only Johnson’s dive in the way of Zebrowski’s follow-up prevented Rovers from taking a 3-1 lead.
Terry Brown’s half time team talk, whatever its contents, should be bottled and kept for best. His side came out all guns blazing in the second half and by the time Seb Brown had tipped a stinging 25 yarder from Gill over the bar, the Dons could have been in front. Jolley forced Bevan into a decent save and then floated a delicate chip just over the bar after his customary stepovers had discombobulated Lee Brown. If Hatton and Yussuff had been more accurate with their crosses, Midson could have easily added to his Carling Cup goal and then a Moore chip into the box just evaded Jolley’s forehead. It was the former Kingstonian man’s last action as he was replaced by Charles Ademeno just minutes after Porter’s afternoon came to an end when he was substituted for Lee Minshull.
Three minutes after Ademeno’s entrance, the two subs combined to give the Dons their hard-earned equaliser. Minshull got his head to a high ball on the edge of the penalty area and fellow sub Ademeno turned his defender and slammed his shot past Bevan from 10 yards to send the home fans wild.
The game was now anyone’s – Rovers sub Jo Kuffour forced Brown into a superb reflex save when he met Mustapha Carayol’s tantalising cross with a powerful header and then a combination of Gareth Gwillim and Brown denied Carayol when Harrold’s pass found the former Torquay and Lincoln striker in space.
The Dons were hanging on somewhat but a draw looked to be the likeliest outcome until an inexplicable loss of concentration from the usually reliable Johnson. A Rovers free kick was swung in from the right and the Dons defender, under pressure from Harrold and Adam Virgo, swung his right arm in the direction of the ball, made contact and could only watch in horror as referee Stroud correctly pointed to the spot. Former Celtic man Virgo made no mistake from the spot and even penalty hero Brown couldn’t get near it. The Dons had five minutes of normal time plus another four to get back into the game but try as they might the Rovers defence stood firm and Buckle’s men had all three points.
Six mistakes in their first two games as a League side has seen the Dons concede six rather needless, and certainly preventable, goals. The trick will be how quickly Terry Brown’s side can learn from those errors.