AFC Wimbledon stood proudly in the tradition of great Wimbledon cup victories, with a sensational performance to defeat Conference South Sutton 1-0 in a nail-biting Semi Final. Antony Howard was the goalscoring hero, but by the end he was forced into service in goal himself as Paul Smith was taken off to hospital with a dislocated shoulder.
Already denied the services of Vines, Martin, Smeltz, Hamilton and Farr through eligibility rules, Dave Anderson?s match preparations were made even more complicated when Richard Butler and Mark Cooper were sidelined through injury and illness respectively.
The manager responded by reverting to a 3-5-2 formation, with Chris Gell joining Antony Howard and Steve Butler at the back, and Rob Ursell pushed up front as a makeshift striker alongside Leon McDowall.
Conference South Sutton were in no mood to take the stricken Dons lightly and took the game to their lower-ranked opposition from the off. Smith gratefully clutched the ball to his chest after an early goalmouth scramble.
Despite the makeshift nature of their side, Wimbledon created more in the opening 20 minutes than they had in the entire game against Walton. Gavin Bolger had a shot deflected behind for the first of four corners in that period. Leon McDowall twisted and turned in the box to win the third corner from a pull-back, which Sutton keeper Wilson flapped at to punch behind, but the home team won a free-kick for pushing from the fourth.
The higher-ranked side grew stronger as the half wore on and it took a good block from Gell to clear a goalbound shot. Brake then found Watkins with a great chipped cross, but the striker sent a free header wide. Watkins was then given a glorious chance to put his side in front as he raced clear of Howard, but Smith came out to save well for a corner. Akuamoah then shot over as Sutton threatened again.
On a Dons break, Gonsalves was penalised for handball after good work by Bolger, but Gray chipped the freekick straight into the arms of a grateful Wilson. Sutton then immediately took the ball up to the other end of the pitch, but after an offside flag Quinton was booked for a dive.
McDowall then did very well to win the Dons another corner, which was punched behind by Wilson. As Woolner failed to connect with a header from the next corner, Sutton were awarded a free-kick for pushing in the area again.
Woolner sent a shot wide as half-time approached and Butler looped a header at Wilson from a free-kick, but on balance the hard-working Dons deserved to go in at the interval level. They did so only thanks to an excellent Paul Smith save ? diving low to his left to palm away a Quinton header.
At the start of the second half, McDowall had the first chance, denied by a combination of Wilson and the post from his header. But the Dons kept the pressure up and won a free-kick. Ursell curled it into the area and Howard rose like a salmon in a phoenixesque kind of way to loop a header past Wilson for one-nil.
Suddenly it was all yellow and blue and Wimbledon were immensely unlucky not to double their advantage almost immediately. Gray stormed into the area and unleashed a cannonball shot which had Wilson beaten all ends up, but rebounded off the far post. With the keeper still down, Bolger sent the rebound goalwards, but it was hacked off the line.
Sutton were roused by their let-off and went very close to getting back on terms. Smith was beaten by a curling freekick, but Micky Woolner acrobatically cleared off the line. Wimbledon stormed away on the break and won a throw-on through Ursell, but referee Stephen Cook ran over to the Wimbledon bench to send Warren Kelly to the stands.
Dave Anderson walked away and kicked a water bottle in disgust, which then resulted in Cook sending the manager to join his coach on the sidelines.
As the furore off the pitch died down, matters on the pitch turned ugly as Woolner was booked for a foul as Sutton threatened once more and Bates was also shown a yellow card seemingly at random after the pushing and shoving that followed. Bolger then smashed a shot narrowly wide of the Sutton goal from the edge of the area and was then inches away from connecting with an excellent McDowall cross.
Perhaps it?s just the paranoia of being in front and bemoaning how close the team went to being 2-0 up, but from then on Sutton looked like they would score with every attack.
Fortunately the Dons defence, blessed with greater moral fortitude than this reporter, were doing everything they could to stand equal to the task. Gibson headed behind when danger threatened at the far post and Steve Butler marshalled the back five as though their lives depended on the outcome of the game. Smith was nearly undone as a chipped ball held up in the wind, but blocked well and superb defensive hassling won the Dons a goal-kick when worse looked likely.
More superb work from McDowall won Wimbledon another corner on a breakaway, but the low near-post cross went behind as the crowd behind the goal screamed in vain for handball.
Sutton continued to press as time ran out, but Wimbledon clung on as the game drew towards the end of the scheduled 90 minutes. Smith punched clear well from a cross, but was injured in the process. The delay was lengthy, so the 90 minutes drew to a close, but Wimbledon entered at least six minutes of injury time without their goalkeeper.
Gareth Graham ran on in midfield, and Antony Howard donned the gloves in goal, as the few remaining nerves left in the away crowd were shredded.
Howard came out for the first cross confidently enough, but spilled it and was relieved when a Sutton player blazed the ball over the bar.
Five minutes of injury time came and went as Ursell, Graham and Bolger clung on to the ball by the corner flag, wasting more than two further minutes as Wimbledon tried to cling on. The seven minute mark was passed as McDowall raced clear on a break, but was denied by Wilson racing out of his goal.
The NINE minute mark came as Sutton hurled a long throw into the box. Howard dropped it again, but the ball was knocked behind for a corner, which was cleared. McDowall then fired wide at the other end, as stoppage time reached double figures.
And that was that. What a game. What a result! What a team.h