AFC Wimbledon 1
by RICK COWDERY
WITH all the teams at the bottom of League 2 showing play-off, if not promotion, form, Argyle needed – minimum – not to lose on their visit to one of their fellow strugglers.
Only later in the season will we know the value of this hard-earned and deserved point.
The Pilgrims briefly led through Jason Banton, who then limped off shortly after his 26th-minute strike.
By the time Banton departed, the Dons were already back on terms, having levelled during that period after scoring when a team is clichédly most vulnerable.
Argyle manager John Sheridan had selected all five of his loan signings in the starting 11 for the first time, with Ronan Murray, of Ipswich, and Reading’s Gozie Ugwu promoted from the bench following the previous Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Northampton.
Murray took Paris Cowan-Hall’s place on the right side of a midfield four of which only captain Conor Hourihane has a permanent contract at Home Park.
Veteran Paul Wotton was tactically squeezed out of the picture from the five-man unit at Sixfields, with Swindon’s Lee Cox and Banton, of Crystal Palace, completing the engine-room.
Ugwu started up front alongside Reuben Reid, playing the final match of his temporary engagement from Yeovil. Nick Chadwick, available again after a six-match, seven-week, suspension, started on the bench at a ground which has proved profitable for him in his career and where he was the match-winner 12 months previously.
The resurgent Dons made one, enforced, change from the side that had won 1-0 at Dagenham & Redbridge three days earlier, with right-back Jonathan Meades giving best to an ankle problem. Mat Mitchel-King came in, as skipper.
Kingsmeadow is where Argyle scored their fastest ever away goal, and, although they could not match that perfect opening from last season, they again began brightly and nearly capped the promising start with a goal from the gifted feet of Banton.
The 20-year-old winger tricksed his way in from the left before unleashing a shot from close to the byeline that, although the angle was against him, was on target and obliged veteran goalkeeper Neil Sullivan to palm the ball over the bar.
Wimbledon retorted with some pacy attacks of their own, with Guy Branston having to head out an interesting cross by Gary Alexander, and Lee Cox hooking the ball away from the Pilgrims’ goal-line following a melee from the resulting corner.
Alexander continued to ask questions of the Argyle back four with some searching crosses, and the Pilgrims had good reason to be grateful for right-back Max Blanchard’s central defensive experience.
Banton had been hobbling for several minutes before he delivered the opening goal, the third Pilgrims’ strike in succession scored by their thrilling number 19.
Reid’s pluperfect ball split the men on either side of Banton who, even on one leg, had enough about him to tease the slightest of openings and utilise the slight space he bought himself to fire the ball low across Sullivan.
The lead lasted little more than two minutes, about half of which were taken up with the Pilgrims’ goal celebrations, as a swift Wimbledon counter caused panic in the Argyle penalty area which ended with Pell belting the ball home.
Banton, left thigh now strapped, soldiered on for a few more minutes before he was taken off in eyebrow-raising favour of Jamie Richards, the youngest member of the Pilgrims’ squad whose only previous first-team experience was a home Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie against Aldershot earlier this season.
With Richards lining up at left-back, it allowed Argyle to remain forward thinking by pushing Onismor Bhasera into the left-wing hole vacated by Banton.
That momentum saw Murray come close to regaining the lead for the Pilgrims when he poked the ball wide following another telling pass, from the right, by Reid.
The parity remained until half-time, when Wimbledon brought on their on-loan Cardiff striker Jesse Darko for their on-loan Brighton midfielder Brennan Dickenson.
The match continued to be an enthralling see-saw of an encounter with Argyle’s back four providing excellent protection for goalkeeper Cole and giving a solid platform from which to launch raids on the Dons’ goal.
One such break, prompted by central defender Anthony Charles, ended with Reid trying his luck with a shot that, although on target, lacked the power to trouble Sullivan.
Charles, like his central defensive cohort Branston, was right in the thick of the action and kept the scores level when he nodded Pell’s near-post header from a corner off the goal-line.
Chadwick came on midway through the second half for his first taste of action since being sent off at Port Vale two days before Sheridan was appointed, but he could not turn an increasingly persistent blue tide.
Cole had not seen much in the way of meaningful action but did well enough when called into play to turn away a dipping volley from the edge of the penalty area by Sammy Moore.
A break by Bhasera down the left found Chadwick, back to goal, and the striker turned and shot, calling on Sullivan to go low to collect the ball.
There were hearts in mouths when Cole dropped an inswung free-kick into his own net under pressure, but referee Tim Robinson immediately ruled that the pressure had been illegal.
The near-thing inspired the home side to further probe the Argyle defence and it was all hands to the pumps for the final few minutes.
There was a brief Argyle surge in injury-time but no real sign of a breakthrough that would have meant so much to Sheridan, his men, and the ever-faithful Green Army.
AFC Wimbledon (4-4-2):
35 Neil Sullivan; 6 Mat Mitchel-King (capt), 39 Alan Bennett, 5 Pim Balkestein, 44 Chris Hussey; 8 Sammy Moore, 12 Harry Pell, 11 Luke Moore (16 Kevin Sainte-Luce 70), 9 Brennan Dickenson (14 Jesse Darko half-time); 10 Jack Midson, 28 Gary Alexander. Substitutes (not used):
3 Warren Cummings, 7 Stacy Long, 18 Brendan Kiernan, 21 Charlie Strutton, 33 Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz (gk).
S Moore 90.
1 Jake Cole; 4 Maxime Blanchard, 5 Guy Branston, 26 Anthony Charles, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 28 Ronan Murray, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 10 Lee Cox, 19 Jason Banton (23 Jamie Richards 33); 24 Reuben Reid, 18 Gozie Ugwu (9 Nick Chadwick 65). Substitutes (not used):
7 Paris Cowan-Hall, 8 Luke Young, 13 Ollie Chenoweth (gk), 15 Paul Wotton, 27 Andres Gurrieri, 28 Ronan Murray.
Richards 85, Cowan-Hall 90.
4,480 (829 away).