There was something strangely poetic about AFC Wimbledon keeping a clean sheet at home for the first time this season against a team managed by a man called Knill, but there was also something very satisfying about the manner of their performance against a side from League 1.
Even the early loss of Kieran Djilali to a recurrence of his hamstring injury couldn’t distract the returning Terry Brown’s side from the job in hand, and the combination of some fine goalkeeping, dogged defending, energetic midfield play and tireless front running earned the Dons a trip to Glanford Park in ten days’ time and stretched their unbeaten run to four games (or their winless streak to eight, depending on how you see your glass).
With Brown back in the dugout there was a welcome air of familiarity about proceedings, despite the Dons taking on opposition who sat 20 places above them in the league ladder. This was the first time Scunthorpe had faced a Wimbledon side since Dean Holdsworth’s hat-trick saw them off in a 3–0 FA Cup Third Round tie in 1994. The gap, such as it was, was quite evident in the opening exchanges.
Wimbledon were reduced to the role of spectators as the Iron’s midfield of Sam Togwell, Michael O’Connor and Mark Duffy bossed the game with a series of neat passing moves and incisive balls into the feet of their front three, Chris Dagnall, Bobby Grant and the impressive Manchester United academy graduate Nicky Ajose.
The Dons’ backline could only watch as United probed and prodded their way into enemy territory, but with Sam Hatton back to his best and Jamie Stuart and Brett Johnson alert and sharp, Alan Knill’s men couldn’t find a way through. When they did, it was a well-weighted through-ball by Ajose that allowed Dagnall to nip between Stuart and Johnson and round Seb Brown, but thanks to Johnson’s positioning, Dagnall’s cross-cum-shot came to nothing.
Grant then had a great chance to give his side the lead when he darted onto Dagnall’s cross, but he could only slip the ball past Brown’s far post, albeit from an offside position.
The Dons were making little headway and their attacking force wasn’t helped when, after just ten minutes, Djilali pulled up as he was chasing a huge Chris Bush throw, and his game was over. Ryan Jackson was now handed the chance to show Terry Brown just what good his month in the Blue Square Bet Premier with Fleetwood Town had done him.
It wasn’t Jackson who provided the Dons with their best chance of the half, though, but Christian Jolley, who found Rashid Yussuff with a deft pass after beating three players with a neat turn and sway just inside the United half. But Yussuff rushed his shot, and Sam Slocombe in the Iron goal produced a far more comfortable save than he should have been allowed to.
The Dons came close to taking the lead when Sam Hatton’s floated free-kick sailed half a yard wide of Slocombe’s goal with the keeper beaten. A Jackson cross caused havoc in the Scunthorpe box shortly afterwards, but the ball somehow evaded all nine outfield players in the box, and although Jolley scampered after it and slung in a dangerous cross, Slocombe gathered at the second attempt.
With Djilali back in the dressing room so early, Wimbledon could have certainly done without Sammy Moore getting a crack on the shins from Dagnall’s late lunge, and it seemed for a minute or two as if the Dons’ midfield dynamo would soon be joining his disappointed team-mate in the bath. But the former Brentford and Ipswich man successfully managed to run the knock off and reported back for duty.
Seb Brown was now by far the busier keeper, but largely in terms of taking goal kicks as Dagnall (twice), Grant, O’Connor and Ajose all shot wide. Both defences had the upper hand in the first half, with Hatton outstanding for the Dons and Michael Nelson in suitably commanding form for the Iron. Scunthorpe had been the better side, but the teams were level at the break.
If the opening 15 minutes of the second half were anything to go by, another of Terry Brown’s clearly rousing team talks seemed to have had a positive effect. It looked as though the Dons boss had told his troops they had nothing to lose and to go for it, because after a first half in which they rarely threatened to penetrate Knill’s defence, they started the second on something of a mission.
Jolley and Bush, often strangers in the opening 45 minutes, now looked a more solid pairing, and Jolley’s quick feet and thinking were causing right-back Andy Wright some problems for the first time. Jack Midson was inches away from benefitting on two occasions, Niall Canavan clearing from the edge of the six-yard box as League 2’s joint leading scorer threatened to pounce.
Having gone up a gear in terms of intensity, the Dons then almost took the lead. Jackson had the beating of Eddie Nolan down the right after a long through-ball by Yussuff released him, and from his low cross Sammy Moore’s effort was deflected by Nelson into the path of Max Porter. Porter’s shot on the turn was dribbling wide but rolled into the path of Jolley, who only had to connect with it to score – but he somehow completely missed the ball, and Wimbledon’s best effort of this absorbing cup tie came to nothing.
The Dons were now clearly on top and had United rattled, but the visitors sensed that the home side’s pressure was relenting and suddenly upped a gear themselves. Duffy forced Brown into two good low saves before Grant’s header was parried away athletically by the Dons’ stopper, who then did superbly to get both hands to O’Connor’s free-kick and block Ajose’s effort from the ensuing scramble.
With less than a quarter of an hour left, Jack Midson was withdrawn to make way for Charles Ademeno, but the substitution paid dividends almost immediate when the stocky striker’s diving header from Jolley’s hammered cross narrowly flew wide of Slocombe’s far post.
Another fine Brown stop, this time from a close-range effort by Grant, was the last of a fine sequence of saves that had kept the Dons’ FA Cup dreams alive for another ten days at least. In truth, both sides had weathered each other’s storms reasonably comfortably.
Both teams went into Sunday’s televised draw reasonably pleased with their Saturday afternoon’s work. Wimbledon’s defence, having conceded 12 goals in three games, had now let in just two in their last four.