Trailing 1–3 with 14 minutes left, and facing a not altogether deserved defeat after the previous week’s highly encouraging win away at Port Vale, the Dons turned this game on its head as Jack Midson netted twice in the final four minutes to give AFC Wimbledon their sixth away win of the season.
Terry Brown was forced to make one change to his starting XI. Jason Euell had failed to recover from multiple knocks the previous weekend, so the on-loan Charlton man was replaced by Luke Moore, scorer of the winner at Vale Park. The key to ensuring that those three points were not a one-off would be to carry last Saturday’s positives into this Saturday’s game against a strong Gillingham side featuring debutant striker Gavin Tomlin – but with less than four minutes on the clock that was looking to be a difficult task.
Danny Jackman found Tomlin in space, and with his first touch in a Gills shirt the former Dagenham & Redbridge striker controlled the pass comfortably, with Mat Mitchel-King wary of diving in, and with his second touch he despatched a low 20-yarder into the bottom corner of the net. Seb Brown would doubtless be disappointed that he got a firm hand to the ball but couldn’t prevent it from trickling in.
This was not quite the start the 1,163 travelling Dons fans had come to see, but in truth it was the only goal-bound effort by the home side that troubled Brown in the first half. Two long-range Charlie Lee shots notwithstanding, Tomlin’s fellow strikers, Jo Kuffour and former Dons skipper Danny Kedwell, didn’t muster one attempt on goal between them.
The same, however, could also be said of the Dons front pairing of Jack Midson and Byron Harrison. Record signing Harrison had the visitors’ best two chances: first he hesitated when put through by the impressive Billy Knott, allowing Gills keeper Ross Flitney to smother his poke at goal, and then his header from a deep Gareth Gwillim cross was headed out from under the crossbar by defender Gary Richards. George Moncur was instrumental in creating another opportunity for the former Carshalton Athletic striker, but his hooked volley of a cross just evaded Harrison’s lunge, and Richards cleared once again.
With neither side creating any clear-cut chances, the prospect of a six-goal second half looked particularly unlikely. Wimbledon’s neat passing game – largely orchestrated by Knott, despite picking up an early ankle injury courtesy of a late Kedwell tackle that referee Malone missed – looked pretty at times but was largely confined to the back four knocking it about with increasing confidence in their own half. What was missing was a cuter final ball – exactly what Euell had been brought in to provide, but with Dons legend sitting on the bench in civilian clothes the killer pass was never quite killer enough.
While the deficit remained at one goal the Dons were always in with a chance, as Gillingham didn’t look particularly dangerous. But nine minutes into the second half they delivered what could well have been a real body blow. Tomlin did brilliantly to beat Gwillim to a loose ball near the halfway line, and the Gills’ former Dagger lifted it neatly over the Dons’ former Dagger and half-volleyed a perfectly weighted, defence-splitting pass for Kuffour to latch onto. With Callum McNaughton left in his wake, the ex-Bristol Rovers striker coolly slotted the ball past the advancing Brown to give the home side what could well have been an unassailable lead.
However, the Dons were two goals down for just five minutes. Sam Hatton and Moncur combined well on the right, and from Moncur’s pass in behind the Gills defence, Luke Moore drew Flitney from his goal before firing under the keeper and into the far corner of the net from 12 yards.
Wimbledon were back in the game, and less than a minute later they should have been on level terms. Knott and Sammy Moore combined down the left, but Jack Midson was off-balance when Moore’s cross came to him, and his attempt at a volley bobbled off his shin and out tamely out for a goal-kick.
That miss seemed certain to prove costly as two minutes later the Dons gifted Gillingham their third. Kuffour managed to nip between McNaughton and Gwillim and saw Tomlin profit from his hopeful, lobbed cross into the six-yard box by beating both Brown and Mitchel-King to the ball and head into the far corner for his second of the game. Some debut for Tomlin – two attempts on target, two goals, both of which were largely preventable.
Gills boss Andy Hessenthaler clearly thought it was game over as he took Kuffour off and threw on a midfield player. But Brown’s new batch of players have brought with them a thread of much needed Wimbledon steel. The classy Knott won a corner with 14 minutes to go, and from Hatton and Moore’s short routine Richards could only watch in horror as he deflected the ball into his own net – Richards being one of three Gills players with their back to the play as the Dons took the corner.
In weeks gone by, maybe the Dons would have thought that a 3–2 defeat against a side in the playoff zone was only to be expected. But this new, zestier Wimbledon detected the Gills’ overconfidence and set about garnering the point that on balance they deserved.
With ten minutes to go, Sammy Moore’s long ball from just inside the Gills half was latched onto by the typically hard-working Midson, and as he and Matt Lawrence jostled for possession on the edge of the penalty area, the former Millwall and Crystal Palace defender tugged at Midson in full view of the assistant referee, who had no hesitation in flagging for a penalty. Mr Malone pointed to the spot and Midson did the rest, despatching the spot-kick coolly past Flitney, who dived the right way but couldn’t get a hand to the effort and prevent the Dons from miraculously equalising.
A draw would have been just reward for a decent performance. But if the travelling army of supporters were happy with a point, they were positively delirious in the 89th minute. Subs Rashid Yussuff and Brendan Kiernan worked the ball beautifully down the left, and from Kiernan’s cute pass into the box, Gareth Gwillim timed his run to perfection and clipped a first-time cross to the back post, where a combination of Midson and Gillingham defender Joe Martin bundled the ball over the line to give the Dons an unlikely but ultimately thrilling win.
The scenes of unbridled joy as the Dons players celebrated with the fans at the end were more like what you’d expect to see after a Cup giant-killing or a promotion-winning game. But coming back from 3–1 down against a side as strong as Gillingham clearly meant the world to Wimbledon, and showed that the club really does belong in League 2 after all. The Dons could now go into two home games against teams below them on the back of two fine away wins – and also their first two doubles of the season.