The Dons ended 2011 on the end of another confidence-draining defeat. Although they took the lead and had much the better of the opening exchanges against promotion-chasing Southend, they conceded yet more sloppy goals and had Christian Jolley sent off for a two-footed lunge. The word ‘eventful’ could certainly be used to describe this game right from the off.
If the first 60 seconds was anything to go by, this was destined not to be Wimbledon’s day. When Luke Moore and United’s Mark Phillips tussled for the ball in the visitors’ area, Phillips gave Moore a less than gentle shove and sent the Dons striker crashing into the advertising hoardings at the Kingston Road End with a sickening thud.
While the player received treatment, Sam Hatton misjudged a Neil Harris flick-on, and as Michael Timlin collected the loose ball the Dons right-back redeemed himself with what appeared a perfectly timed tackle on the edge of the penalty area. But, to the disbelief of almost everyone inside the ground, referee Kettle pointed to the penalty spot, despite the ball having clearly been played first and the “offence” taking place at least a foot outside the area.
Puzzlingly the referee neglected to caution Hatton, which, if the letter of the law was being applied, was the least he should have done. But from the resultant spot-kick Seb Brown produced a stunning right-handed save to deny former Millwall striker Harris. Justice was most certainly done, but with only seven minutes gone Brown’s superb save was looking even more crucial.
When Luke Moore, who had recovered sufficiently from his bang on the head to continue, played a harmless-looking ball into the Shrimpers’ box, Chris Barker sliced it straight into the path of the waiting Jack Midson, who drove his first-time shot past keeper Luke Daniels and into the far corner. It was the first time the Dons had taken the lead in a league game since 19 November.
Just two minutes later, the lead was almost doubled. Jolley weaved his way into United’s box, cut in from the right and unleashed a powerful drive from ten yards that Daniels did superbly to deflect with his shins. The Dons were playing perhaps their best football since the hot and heady spell in early October when they were the division’s form team, and had Daniels not dived full length to tip away a stinging Luke Moore drive, a repeat of the Dons 3–0 half-time lead against Gillingham would have been on the cards.
However, as has happened too often since then, the concession of a goal that owed much to fortune but nevertheless should have been avoided turned the game on its head. United had offered very little until a cross from the byline ballooned off Sammy Moore and deceived Seb Brown, his fingertip-touch falling at the feet of Ryan Hall, who tapped the ball over the line from barely a yard out.
Hall’s last goal against the Dons, for Bromley in April 2009, was scored in rather different circumstances, and he wasn’t about to be forgiven for his irksome lack of sportsmanship. Celebrating in front of the Tempest End didn’t earn him any brownie points either, but referee Kettle let him off what seemed a certain booking with a stern talking-to.
A fortuitous equaliser with half an hour gone shouldn’t signal a complete change in direction of a game of football. But even the most ardent of Dons fans could see that after Hall’s tap-in there was only going to be one winner: the confidence visibly drained out of the Dons and transferred itself to United’s players, almost by osmosis.
If Wimbledon could have got to half-time at least level, then an exciting second half could have been on the cards, but although they ended the half with the score still at 1–1 they were by then a man down. Midson lost possession 30 yards from goal, and as the ball squirted out to Sean Clohessy, Jolley dived in two-footed on the United right-back and the referee was left with no option but to dismiss the returning striker, who will now miss the next three games.
With the scores level and “only” a striker light, the Dons had 45 minutes to hold on for a draw or even nick a much-needed win, as long as they kept it tight at the back. That has proved to be far easier said than done this season, and with just six minutes gone in the second half the ten men fell behind to a goal that was nothing short of slapstick.
Mat Mitchel-King did well to prevent Hall getting his shot away in the box, but when the loose ball rolled to the feet of Rashid Yussuff, the Wimbledon midfielder, instead of turning and clearing or passing out wide to the waiting Sam Hatton, turned the ball back into the penalty area. As Mitchel-King reacted quickly to hack the ball to safety, Jamie Stuart stepped into its path and could only watch in horror as it rocketed into the net off his shin with Brown stranded.
It was the kind of goal that would deflate any team, but for one so shorn of confidence it proved to be a killer blow. After a further 13 minutes, during which time the Dons had contrived to give the ball away numerous times and mount no attack of their own, they conceded a third, and this time in owed nothing to misfortune, just poor marking. A United corner was half-cleared, but as the ball was knocked back into the penalty area the nearest challenger to Phillips was his own team-mate Chris Barker, and with the simplest of headers the Shrimpers’ towering centre-half gave his team an unassailable lead.
Two goals behind and a man down – surely the Dons would now throw men forward in an attempt to get something from a game that for 20 minutes they had controlled. But it was United who looked the more likely to score again. Try as the Dons might to find Midson, who had spent almost the entire half ploughing a lonely furrow up front, any Wimbledon pass that was intended for the former Oxford man was instantly gobbled up by the United defence. At the other end, the visitors threatened whenever they crossed the halfway line.
A fourth goal seemed inevitable, and with ten minutes left it came. Again it owed much to fortune – or misfortune, depending on your perspective. United launched a long ball into Dons territory, Mitchel-King’s headed clearance struck Harris on the chest, and the ball fell invitingly for the vastly experienced lifelong Southend fan to lob it over Brown, who was well off his line.
Midson then had the Dons’ first shot on target since the 23rd minute when he got the better of Barker and fired in an effort that Daniels got down to comfortably. This was now the 87th minute – Wimbledon had gone over an hour without a shot on target in a home game they desperately needed to win.
Their third consecutive home defeat, the fifth in the last seven, in which time they have picked up just two points at The Cherry Red Records Stadium, left the Dons still in 17th place but now just a point clear of the rapidly improving Bradford City. With other teams in the bottom seven starting to pick up points, January and February are going to be crucial months in the Dons’ quest for Football League survival.