The Dons were a matter of seconds away from securing their third away win of the season before the hand of fate cruelly intervened in the fifth minute of stoppage time. It wasn’t that Aldershot didn’t deserve a point, far from it, but Danny Hylton’s weak shot from the edge of the box was going wide before it clipped first Max Porter’s heel and then took another touch off Gareth Gwillim’s ankle before rolling gently over the line past the helpless Seb Brown.
It had seemed as though the Dons would hold on and take all three points after Porter’s first goal for the club on 17 minutes and a performance of manful resilience against a Shots side looking to complete a fifth game unbeaten, a run that included a 2–1 win at Upton Park in the Carling Cup. By coincidence, the Hammers’ 19-year-old central defender Callum McNaughton, who had been sent off in that cup tie, was making his AFC Wimbledon debut, stepping in for the injured Brett Johnson.
The only other change to Terry Brown’s starting line-up was Christian Jolley’s elevation to the first XI at the expense of Kieran Djilali, who would have begun the Port Vale game on the bench had it not been for Charles Ademeno’s warm-up injury. It was no doubt an emotional afternoon for Brown, who had enjoyed five successful seasons at the Rec and was greeted like a returning hero. With Stuart Cash, Paul Priddy and Simon Bassey all having spent several seasons with Aldershot Town as well, it was set up to be a day to remember for the Dons’ management team.
For the first 15 minutes it looked as though it might well prove to be a day to remember, but for all the wrong reasons, as the home side bossed the game. Midfield duo Jamie Collins and Luke Guttridge took turns to pick out marauding left-back Anthony Straker with simple passes, allowing him to push forward and attack Sam Hatton at will. Three times in the opening exchanges Straker outfoxed the Dons’ right-back, but Jamie Stuart and the impressive McNaughton managed to clear the danger. The visitors just couldn’t keep Straker quiet, and he was exploiting the space in front of Hatton to devastating effect, collecting pass after pass and knowing that if he outpaced Wimbledon’s No.7 he was in with a chance of creating havoc.
A Collins drive that narrowly whistled over the bar and a Danny Hylton header were all the Shots had to show for their early endeavours, and though the Dons had their fair share of possession, they were making precious little headway, despite the admirable work ethic of Jack Midson. However, with 17 minutes gone Wimbledon took the lead when Porter got in behind right-back Ben Herd, and his header from Sammy Moore’s flighted cross bent deliciously past keeper Ross Worner’s outstretched hand and into the far corner of the net.
As it turned out, that was the Dons’ only effort on target. Jolley’s air shot after Luke Moore had evaded three challenges and chipped an inviting cross to the far post was as close as the Dons came to scoring again. Hylton and Adam Mekki both went close for Dean Holdsworth’s men, and though the pressure was building there was none of the sense of last-ditch panic about the Dons’ defending that there had been against Port Vale. McNaughton, measured and understated, complemented the valiant Stuart, 16 years his senior. There was a certain assured calmness about the Wimbledon back line, all the more reassuring given that attack after attack was breaking down 30 yards from goal.
With just over half an hour gone, Shots defender Darren Jones, earlier the victim of a wild challenge from his own keeper, Ross Worner, clattered into the back of Sammy Moore, leaving the midfielder prostrate on the turf and holding the back of his head. The referee waved play on, but halted the game when Ricky Wellard then scythed down Jermaine McGlashan and earned himself a yellow card. The clearly concussed Moore carried on for a few minutes but failed to emerge after the break, and was replaced by Rashid Yussuff. In truth, with Moore went the Dons’ midfield bite.
Wellard and Porter started to find life a little tougher without the terrier-like former Brentford and Ipswich man alongside them, and the Shots’ Guttridge and Collins were now imposing themselves on the Dons midfield, Herd now joining his fellow full-back Straker in making intelligent runs down the flanks. Hatton and Gwillim were working overtime to preserve the Wimbledon lead, but it was Stuart and McNaughton who were largely responsible for denying the home side an equaliser. When the home side did get their shots away, their finishing was lamentable: Hylton (four times), Michael Rankine, Mekki and Collins all found the upper reaches of the East Stand when well placed.
Even so, it seemed only a matter of time before the Dons’ resistance buckled, but some more timely interventions by Stuart and McNaughton denied Hylton and Rankine from seeing the whites of Seb Brown’s eyes. Hylton, who nearly joined the Dons earlier in the year, was certainly not endearing himself to the Wimbledon faithful – in fine voice throughout – with a series of dives and tumbles that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a gymnastics competition. Bursting past Stuart on one occasion, Hylton clipped his own heel and went to ground looking for a penalty – but what he got was a thoroughly deserved yellow card and a barrage of catcalls from the Dons fans.
Arron Morris’s header from a Herd free-kick came close to drawing the Shots level, but not as close as Hylton came when his deflected effort was hacked off the line by Hatton, sparking a goalmouth scramble that ended only when Brown pounced on the loose ball that had been ricocheting around the Dons’ six yard box as if in a game of human pinball. Yussuff, Wellard and Porter then all took turns to fail to clear a Straker cross after McNaughton had headed the ball away, and but for another terrible finish from Hylton the Dons would have been pegged back.
A Stuart header from a rare Dons corner was all the visitors had to show in the second half, and as the fourth official held up his board with the number 5 illuminated, the game changed. As the Shots pressed for an equaliser that seemed destined never to come, Winbledon started feel the pressure. First Wellard was shown a second yellow card for a clumsy challenge from behind, and within two minutes – with all but 20 seconds of the five extra minutes played – Shots sub Peter Vincenti teed up Hylton on the edge of the Dons penalty area for one last attempt on goal. Hylton’s miscue was heading wide before first Porter and then Gwillim inadvertently diverted the ball’s course, and as Seb Brown had dived to cover the initial shot, he was already prone on the turf and could only watch as the ball slowly span and bobbled its way over the line.
There was enough time left for the Dons to kick off, give the ball away and be thankful to Brown for smothering Vincenti’s header before the referee blew. As disappointed as the Dons were at not holding on, it would have been mightily harsh on Aldershot if their unbeaten run had ended at the hands of Terry Brown.