The Dons reached the Third Round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy by overcoming a typically combative Stevenage side and their own inability to hang onto a lead with a matter of seconds left. The 19-year-old Jack Turner was the hero, saving two penalties in the shoot-out to send the Dons into Saturday’s televised draw.
To ensure that sides take this competition seriously, its rules stipulate that six of the players who started the previous Saturday’s game (or six of the 11 players who have made the most appearances in the current season) are required to start. Terry Brown made full use of his chance to rest five of his regular starters, with Jack Turner, Chris Bush, James Mulley, Ryan Jackson and Brett Johnson, continuing his rehabilitation from a nagging hamstring injury, coming into the starting line-up.
The game had barely got going before the visitors took the lead with the most fortunate of goals. Lawrie Wilson’s burst into the penalty area was halted by a sliding tackle by Johnson, but as the Dons defender tried to hook the ball away it cannoned off Wilson’s shins, wrong-footed Turner and bobbled into the unguarded net.
The Dons had found Graham Westley’s side physical, troublesome opponents in their previous two clashes at Kingsmeadow. With better delivery from the wings, Chris Beardsley could have put the game out of Wimbledon’s reach within the first half-hour, but on no less than four occasions the striker was left cursing the lack of quality supply as John Mousinho, Craig Reid and Wilson all failed to find him unmarked in the box.
As in last November’s FA Cup clash, Stevenage were proving to be a tough nut to crack. What possession the Dons did have they didn’t make the best use of, and Boro’s defensive duo of Jon Ashton and Mark Roberts were having a much easier time than they’d probably expected as Mulley and Jackson were making little impact, isolating the ever-willing Jack Midson.
Referee Whitestone penalised Callum McNaughton for fouling Beardsley, when it seemed that the Stevenage striker was backing into the young West Ham loanee. Beardsley, despite his poor goalscoring return, has long been a favourite of Westley’s, and when two chances did eventually come his way Turner made a pair of smart saves, first from a bullet header and then from a close-range snap-shot.
For all of Stevenage’s dominance, they failed to add to their lead before half-time. Three days before, Terry Brown addressed his troops at the break with them three goals to the good; this time he was faced with rallying them as they stared their second early cup exit of the season in the face.
Brown withdrew Sammy Moore and McNaughton, sending on Ricky Wellard and Max Porter and moving Lee Minshull into the back four, and this turned out to be something of a masterstroke: within 13 minutes of the restart AFC Wimbledon were ahead.
First, Ryan Jackson was brought down in the box by Darius Charles, making his first contribution to the game after coming on at the break for one-time Don Robin Shroot. Sam Hatton smashed the spot-kick low and hard, and Alan Julian did the decent thing by diving over it. Not only were the Dons level, but they had found the net for the first time in four games against Stevenage, and it was a former Stevenage player who had done it.
Five minutes later came the move of the game, involving Jackson, Midson and Rashid Yussuff, and with it the Dons turned the tie on its head. Jackson used his pace to great effect after turning Scott Laird, and after his pass picked out Midson, the former Oxford striker’s clip back into Yussuff’s path saw Wimbledon’s No.23 slip the ball under the advancing Julian to give the Dons the lead.
Within the next 15 minutes the home side had three fantastic opportunities to put the game beyond the visitors’ reach. First, sub Charles Ademeno, on for the rested Midson, intercepted a poor Ashton header but couldn’t keep his volley down. Then Chris Bush fed James Mulley down the left, but as Julian came haring out of his goal the midfielder, starting his first game of the season, slid his shot agonisingly wide of the far post. More great work by the confident Bush set up Mulley again, and after beating Ronnie Henry to the ball he found Yussuff in space in the box; Yussuff sidestepped Roberts with a lovely bit of skill, but his shot was hacked away by Julian when he seemed set to net.
Ademeno was offering the Dons something different to Midson, and Ashton and Roberts were looking decidedly uncomfortable – only some last-ditch defending by the giant pair twice denied the returning striker his first goal since the opening day of the season.
Despite not adding to their lead, the Dons were looking assured of the victory as they were limiting Westley’s men to long-range pot shots and desperate crosses into the box that Minshull and Johnson dealt with with calm assurance. However, just seconds after the fourth official held up his board to indicate four minutes of added time, Stevenage grabbed an equaliser. Josh Walker’s deep cross from the touchline was met by defender Roberts’ stunning first-time volley from the edge of the penalty area, giving Turner no chance.
On balance of play, the Dons could count themselves unlucky as they had dominated the second half, much as Stevenage had the first, but they’d had more of the ball, forced twice as many corners and in the second half alone had 12 attempts on goal to Stevenage’s four, three of which were decidedly off target.
With no extra time in the JPT, the game went straight to penalties. May’s Conference playoff decider may well have made Dons fans less apprehensive of shoot-outs, and Jack Turner’s save from Charles’ first kick, after Hatton had netted the Dons’ opener, was just the start they wanted. Wellard’s confident second was matched by Mousinho, but then Yussuff’s well-struck kick was superbly beaten away by Julian. Reid netted his penalty to make it 2–2 before Bush and Walker exchanged emphatic finishes to make it 3–3.
Lee Minshull struck home the Dons’ fifth penalty and the pressure was suddenly on Wilson, who 110 minutes earlier had netted somewhat fortuitously at the same end. He struck his shot well, but Turner palmed it away brilliantly and the Dons were in the Third Round. Seb Brown was one of the first Dons players to congratulate his fellow custodian as the teenager finally stepped out of Brown’s shadow to take centre stage. Quite what Soccer AM will attempt to do with the draw is anyone’s guess, but whatever wheeze they dream up in an attempt to make it “entertaining”, the Dons are in it.