AFC Wimbledon 3 - 2 Merstham
The next time you hear someone tell you that their team suffered "a nightmare start", tell them what happened here and I can guarantee they'll say something like: "Fair enough, ours was nothing. THAT was a nightmare start." I can even describe it in real time. Joe Sheerin and Wade Falana kick off and pass it back to Seb Favata, who lays it off to Danny Oakins. His loose pass out to Lee Sidwell is intercepted by Merstham's Andy Crutcher who sends the ball down the wing for Steve Fitzgerald to chase. Fitzgerald skips past Steve Gibson and his cross is blocked for a corner that he takes himself. He swings the ball over, Tony Smith catches it under no pressure from any Merstham player and the ball ends up in the back of the net. 27 seconds after kicking off, AFC Wimbledon are mysteriously 0-1 down. I saw it all happen but I have no idea HOW it happened. Smith had the ball in his hands. Then he didn't.
As we filed out of Feltham's "Arena" on Saturday the conversation was dominated by the performances of Steve Gibson and Matt Everard, the latter's fine finish, Wade Falana's trio of incredible misses and Tony Smith's wayward kicking. At least, we agreed, his handling was OK. Half a minute into our first home game of the season Dons fans were praying that Ray Merry's flu was actually just a heavy cold and he'd be fine for Saturday...
The Dons responded in typical style. All out attack with Gibson and Sidwell picking and choosing whenever either of them felt like outstripped Crutcher and getting a cross in, with Andy Sullivan and Daly doing likewise on the right, but time after time the final ball was either over-hit or cleared by the first defender with Merstham's Steve Druce attempting to break the world record for most volleyed clearances in a game. The visitor's keeper Colin Harris (coached by my brother-in-law, it must be pointed out, as was last season's custodian Luke Burton) was in fine form, looking head and shoulders above any other visiting keeper we've seen at Kingsmeadow in the last year, and he repelled efforts from Falana and Sidwell with admirable ease and caught two corners with Seaman-like leaps. Holding his sides as if they were splitting when Smith dropped his incredible clanger hardly endeared him to the home faithful, but that was quickly forgotten as he turned in a performance worthy of a higher level of football. Only a Sheerin header that hit the top of the bar from a Daly corner on 15 minutes looked like getting the better of him. The same could not be said for 18 year old Smith at the other end though, and another mistake lead to Merstham's second goal from their second attack.
Smith's weak clearance was intercepted by Oakins but the defender spent too long on the ball and was tackled on the halfway line by Scott Sullivan, son of Merstham's manager, Mick. He fed Imms who raced past Daly, pulled the ball back and although Everard got his foot to it first the ball bounced off Chris Watts and past the wrong-footed Smith. Merstham had now scored two goals from one half-chance, quite some strike rate. Before the Dons could rally it should have been three, Watts scooping over after some good work by the stooping Fitzgerald.
When the home side did rally, very little came of it. Falana was working hard without any reward, his flick-ons either finding wide open spaces or landing at the feet of Aldred or Druce in the Merstham defence, and when Crutcher clearly handled a Favata through ball on the edge of the six yard box, the linesman nearest the play was struck down with temporary blindness. Gibson and Sidwell were still getting the better of Crutcher but their propensity to over-hit every cross was now beginning to anger the home supporters, not to mention the increasingly irate Neil Robson, with Terry Eames sitting in the main stand for the first half, which ended with the away side sitting on an undeserved and totally unexpected two goal lead. The AFC Dons fan who had reportedly bet £1000 on the Dons to remain unbeaten all season could have been forgiven for being a little surprised at facing the prospect of losing his money only four days into the new campaign.
Eames re-acted swiftly and made two changes for the second half. The industrious Falana never looked likely to score and he was replaced by Kevin Cooper, who despite much criticism last season always looks likely to score, and Simon Bassey was replaced somewhat surprisingly by defender Jamie Angell, making his Dons debut after joining from Midhurst & Easebourne in the summer. An odd decision, considering there were three midfield players still sitting on the bench, but Angell's extra height and might was certainly going to add something to the midfield, in which Seb Favata, excellent for his hour against Feltham, was looking a tad overworked. An early goal was required ... but it didn't materialise. Cooper was looking back to fitness and with his back to goal was creating all sorts of problems for the Merstham defence, but nothing came of any of his endeavour. Just as in the first half, Sidwell and Sullivan's crosses weren't accurate enough and they were all either cleared or caught by Harris. The Dons could easily have thrown the towel in and decided that tonight was going to be one of those nights, and after Favata's header and Cooper's shot had hit the same post it was beginning to look like that might have been the case, but half-way through the half they got the breakthrough they deserved. Cooper retrieved a cross on the left hand side of the penalty area, chipped it into the box and Sheerin's head got just enough of a touch on the ball to float it past Harris. "If we get one we'll get six" said a rather hopeful Dons fan ... at that moment we'd have settled for two, but the woodworked intervened for a fourth time, this time denying Sheerin and a repeat of last season's first home defeat of the season was looking on the cards.
Sheerin must have been thinking that it wasn't his night in particular ... in addition to being denied a hat-trick, he was then booked for winning the ball with a perfectly timed tackle from the side. Merstham continued to mount regular counterattacks - every 10 minutes they would venture into the Dons half and look odds-on to score, but Oakins and Everard were tidying up in typical fashion at every opportunity. Oakins coming forward was looking like the most likely way that the Dons would get back into the game and a great piece of skill with 12 minutes to go handed Everard a chance that he would normally take but he spooned his effort from 12 yards at least that same distance over the bar. All was not lost though and men of the match Gibson and Sheerin combined with 10 minutes to go to equalise. Gibson's chipped cross into the box was headed over Harris by the rampant Dons skipper from 15 yards to set up a thrilling last few minutes. And Sheerin it was who won the game for the Dons in the 88th minute, swivelling and firing in from 20 yards after holding off two attempts to free him from the constraints of his shirt by Malik.
Merstham still had time to miss a glorious chance to tie it up at 3-3 when Watts shot over from 15 yards with Smith having widened the angle for him, and then in the last 30 seconds of injury time (added on after a nasty looking leg injury to the unfortunate Traynor) Oakins brilliant tackle denied Watts when he was clean through, much to the chagrin of Merstham's highly-strung manager Sullivan who had responded to some light-hearted comments from the Dons fans with a number of ill-conceived gestures and responses. So incensed at the referee's refusal to award a free-kick and send off Oakins for that tackle (which would have been a nonsense as he clearly won the ball) that on the final whistle, which was greeted with ecstasy by the worryingly small crowd, both he and hirsute assistant Mark Norman raced on to the pitch to remonstrate with Mr Kasey, both appearing to manhandle the official. They had just escaped being absolutely hammered 3-2 ... perhaps they were just wanting to get away quickly. Please don't do this to us again, lads. Third on goal difference after two games in which we've won easily after not playing all that well, and scraped a win with a last minute wonder-strike after playing well for 89 minutes and 33 seconds. It was never this good at Selhurst Park...
MAN OF THE MATCH: Can't separate the 90 minutes of tirelessly hammering up and down the wing by Steve Gibson, who is looking like a very good signing indeed, and the hat-trick hero, Mr J Sheerin. Already scored a third of the goals he scored in 34 games last season, his admission that he's fitter now than he has been for years is music to our ears...