A well-organised and disciplined team performance garnished with the clinical precision of the predatory Richard Butler gave Wimbledon all three points after a difficult away trip.
Anyone who may have been kidding themselves that Isthmian Premier League football would be a free-flowing feast of fancy football did not have to wake long for a rude awakening. As the fixture computer sent the Dons off on the first of many trips to Essex, it became rapidly apparent that on the Ryman road, grit, determination and tactical nous will be the order of the day. An industrious Maldon, like the Dons a newly promoted side, soon showed that space and time are likely to be elusive dimensions for the Dons? frontmen. Constant harrying from front to back and some lively work up front meant the hosts posed a rather tougher test for Wimbledon?s lofty aspirations than Folkestone had three days earlier.
Dave Anderson kept the 4-3-3 formation that did for the inaccurately named Invicta, but changed the personnel, with Wayne Finnie at right-back and Barry Moore starting in midfield alongside Micky Woolner and Matt Yorke.
It was Maldon who made the early running, and the home side were unlucky not to take an early lead from a trio of chances. Haffner curled wide from distance with challenges lacking, a low cross narrowly eluded the strikers? lunges and a freekick was headed over by an unchallenged frontman. (It?s probably wise to mention at this point that red numbers on a blue and white hooped background in the gloaming of an Essex sunset do not make for easy identification).
Parker then nearly deceived Little with a shot that skidded off the turf like a Shane Warne flipper, but the vigilant gloveman clung on safely. Kouman, Butler and Smeltz were being well marshaled by the home defence, and the first highlight for the traveling faithful was a wonderful defence-splitting diagonal pass from Micky Woolner, but Kouman?s attempts to set off on a run having collected the ball were halted by an entirely legal sandwich tackle.
Maldon then won three corners in quick succession, going closest to opening the scoring from the third, but in a crowded penalty area a stretching Ansell couldn?t keep his shot down. He blazed over the bar, which had to be seen as a let-off for the Dons defence. Shortly afterwards, only a superb covering tackle from Kouman denied the left-winger on the edge of the box. Wimbledon reshuffled into what appeared to be a more orthodox, and familiar, 3-5-2 formation, with Ammo Kouman dropping back to right wing-back.
And the visitors threatened next, but only in a physical sense, as Richard Butler was booked for a late challenge on goalkeeper McCartney. It was then a Dons? attack which nearly broke the deadlock, but in their own goal. Maldon sprinted away on a counterattack and broke clear on the right hand side. A certain goal would have resulted from the pullback, but for a sublime sliding block from Finnie. From the second cross, Mark Cooper headed away to complete the job.
In first-half injury time, Wimbledon won a corner, but it was cleared as a freekick was given for a push by Steve Butler. Later still, a Finnie free-kick pumped long fell for Richard Butler in the penalty area, but his shot from inside the six-yard box was tipped away by McCartney and hacked clear. The Dons trooped off for a halftime cuppa-cum-rollicking reasonably fortunate still to be level after several Maldon chances, yet ruing that late let-off at the other end.
At the start of the second half, there was no doubt that Anderson?s stall was well and truly laid out in a 3-5-2 setting. Right from the start Wimbledon found greater zip and purpose to their play, not to mention a far greater share of territory and possession than they had enjoyed into the corresponding spell of the first half. Steve Butler tested the strength of the stand behind the goal with a possibly ill-advised shot high and wide, before his namesake Richard went one better and tested McCartney?s reflexes with a low shot after a trademark barnstorming run.
It also seemed as though some had slipped the somnolent Smeltz some sort of sharpener during the interval, as he made a nuisance of himself dragging the Maldon defence out of position. He won a free-kick after a jinking run, which was hammered into the wall by York. The Kiwi then dropped off his marker and swiveled to send Woolner clear, but the midfielder?s low shot fizzed across the face of goal.
Maldon, for their part, were no less industrious than in the opening period and almost took the lead when a free-kick bounced perilously close to the far post under the watchful eye of Cooper. As the game flared into belated life, the Dons went closer still as their frontmen began to fire. Richard Butler performed a Moses impersonation to part the defence like the Red Sea, and let fly with a fierce low shot that had McCartney well beaten, but the ball cannoned clear off the upright.
Haffner found space on the break for Maldon, but his attempted chip sailed wide. It was his final action, as he was replaced by Cross just after the hour mark. Barry Moore slid in for the tackle of the match to halt the hosts as they threatened the Dons goal once more.
After so many well-worked moves, it was a deflection that finally broke the deadlock. A corner was cleared to Kouman on the edge of the penalty area. His shot hit a defender?s leg and looped into the air. To the delight of the away fans, but the agony of the home faithful, it dropped at the feet of Richard Butler about seven yards from goal. There can only be one outcome from such an event. 1-0 was the inevitable result as the striker beat McCartney at last.
Cooper?s involvement in the match was ended by a bad late tackle, and he was replaced by Antony Howard with 18 minutes remaining. The Dons? second substitution saw Matt Fowler swap places with Smeltz to partner Richard Butler for the closing minutes. Play became scrappy again as both sides knew a late slip could prove disastrous.
But it was a fine piece of counter-attacking play, rather than a mistake, which saw the Dons double their advantage. Richard Butler hared onto a low through-pass from midfield and raced clear of the last man, left McCartney flat on his back and steered the ball into the empty net from an acute angle for 2-0. Anyone still wondering how he?ll find the step up in levels?
Maldon kept pressing and looking for a lifeline, and nearly found one as the game neared injury-time. A whipped in cross eluded Little, but Kouman was able to head the ball away from just in front of the posts.
That was pretty much that, as Wimbledon gained a just reward for a hard-working display. The referee?s whistle drew 90 very satisfactory minutes to a close, with Dave Anderson and his players looking forward to boarding the coach for the long journey home with three well-earned points safely stowed away.