If Danny Kedwell is fulfilling a childhood dream by playing for Gillingham, then this must have seemed to the former Dons’ skipper like a 90-minute nightmare. Finding his new team 3–0 down so soon was bad enough, but Kedwell didn’t manage a single shot on target and cut a largely frustrated figure on an extraordinarily hot afternoon.
Gillingham started the better of the two sides, with Luke Rooney at the heart of much of their good early work, but they couldn’t make their pressure and possession tell as the Dons rearguard stood firm. Terry Brown had kept faith with the starting XI that won at Valley Parade the previous week, but before the game was five minutes old Gareth Gwillim went down clutching his right knee after playing a simple-looking pass to Luke Moore. As Mike Rayner tended to the stricken defender, Jamie Stuart signalled to the bench that the former Histon left back’s game was already over. Fit-again Brett Johnson took his place and settled in immediately, twice repelling Rooney with superbly timed tackles as Kedwell and West Ham loanee Frank Nouble loitered with intent in the penalty area.
If there was to be an early goal, it looked odds-on that the visitors would score it. But on 10 minutes Sam Hatton launched a long ball into the Gills half for Christian Jolley to chase. Jolley looked second favourite: the highly experienced Matt Lawrence had a clear start on him, but the former Palace defender slipped over as he vied with Jolley, leaving the Dons striker free to take an unchallenged shot at goal. And he delivered it with Thierry Henry-like aplomb, opening his body up and sweeping the ball under the diving Ross Flitney to give Wimbledon the lead, rather against the run of play.
If that was unexpected, what happened 80 seconds later had the home supporters rubbing their eyes with disbelief. Luke Moore pressured Gills skipper Andy Frampton into conceding a throw near the corner flag, and from it Sam Hatton curled in a low, inviting cross that was headed home emphatically by Jolley. 2–0 to AFC Wimbledon.
Gillingham briefly rallied, and Jamie Stuart and Callum McNaughton had to be at their best to prevent Nouble and the imaginative Rooney from pulling a goal back, but other than having to make two well-judged punches, Seb Brown was by and large untroubled. The same couldn’t be said of Flitney, who before the mid-point of the first half was picking the ball out of his net for a third time. Luke Moore and Lee Minshull seemed to have made a bit of a mess of a Dons attack on the left edge of the penalty area, but Matt Fish’s hesitation allowed Moore to hook the ball across the box for Jack Midson to nip in ahead of the static Lawrence and side-foot home from 15 yards.
It was virtually Moore’s last slice of the action as he was forced off after half an hour, the result of the second of Charlie Lee’s questionable but unpunished tackles. Gillingham made a change of their own, hauling off the hapless Lawrence and sending on Curtis Weston in place of the clearly unhappy defender.
Dons fans could have been forgiven for thinking they were suffering from heatstroke-induced hallucinations on the hottest October day since 1895 – but their side really were 3–0 up. Would Wimbledon sit back and protect their lead? Would Andy Hessenthaler’s side power back and make a game of it before half-time? The answer to both questions was a resounding No.
With Sammy Moore and Lee Minshull having arguably their best games in Dons shirts, the Gills midfield were being given no time on the ball, rendering Charlie Lee and former Maldon Town man Chris Whelpdale, highly influential in their last two wins, virtually anonymous. Nouble and Kedwell, hardly surprisingly, were working hard up front but to no great effect as the Dons defence stood firm.
A Jolley effort that flew across Flitney’s goal and somehow avoided getting a touch from any of the 13 players in the box was the nearest Wimbledon came to adding to their tally. But the Gills came no closer at the other end, and the half ended with the Dons still three goals to the good.
As good as Wimbledon were in the first half, the Gills had been disappointing, and their 776 supporters packed into one end of the John Smith’s Stand were surprisingly quiet. But the visitors started the second half looking a lot more solid. Weston’s extra pace made a better foil for Gary Richards, who had regularly come off second best against the non-stop Midson.
Whelpdale and Lee started to impose themselves on the game, and now that Rooney had decided that staying on his feet would be of greater benefit than looking for free-kicks, Sam Hatton had a job on his hands as the tricky winger set about finding space behind the Dons defence for Kedwell and Nouble to exploit. But all Nouble found was his name in the referee’s notebook. When he was penalised for a foul on Seb Brown, with his team three goals down, the Gills striker walked off clutching the ball, effectively wasting his own time. Brown tried to wrestle the ball from his grasp and Nouble reacted by pushing the Dons keeper in the face.
The visitors now had the majority of the possession, but they were making little of it. The Dons, on the other hand, were looking the more likely to score. Jolley was prominent, bursting past Frampton at will and narrowly failing to find Midson on three occasions, and testing Flitney with two rasping efforts when he cut back inside. Rashid Yussuff, perhaps the only Don not at his very best, then wasted a glorious opportunity to play Jolley in for his hat-trick goal when he over-hit a simple pass into space for Jolley to run on to, and the former Gill then elected to turn back into trouble on the edge of the box when a first-time shot seemed the obvious option.
Gillingham needed a goal – and with 20 minutes to go, they got one. Lee’s 20-yarder into the top left of the net gave Brown no chance after the Dons failed to clear a long throw, and both sets of supporters suddenly realised that another Gills goal could completely change the game. A Kedwell header and a Rooney shot flew just wide; Nouble narrowly failed to convert a Jackman cross; a Jo Kuffour drive flew across Brown’s goal; and the Dons keeper made a superb double save.
But time was running out for Hessenthaler, and so was his players’ patience. Lee finally got himself booked after a ludicrous late swipe at the marauding Minshull, and Lewis Montrose somehow escaped punishment for a wild kick at Jolley as the Gills sensed that the game was slipping away from them. The Dons nearly made it four in the closing moments when Yussuff and Midson both had efforts blocked and the ball fell invitingly for the latter to get another shot away, but his effort whistled narrowly over Flitney’s crossbar.
There was just time for Kedwell to make an uncharacteristic mess of a header from a right-wing cross. It’s doubtful that many Dons fans would have begrudged him a consolation goal, but as the ball sailed over the Kingston Road End, Gillingham’s chance of a lifeline went with it.
The final whistle was greeted with rapturous applause that was fully deserved after one of the best collective performances in the nine-year history of AFC Wimbledon. The applause continued as Kedwell showed his appreciation of his former adoring public, but there was no room for sentiment on the pitch, and Wimbledon overtook the Gills to move into fourth place. That 3–0 home defeat to Northampton suddenly seemed a long, long time ago.