AFC Wimbledon 2
Taylor 78, Akinfenwa 90
by Rick Cowdery
ALTHOUGH Argyle’s trip to Wembley may well have felt like a dream, it turned out we were simply starring in AFC Wimbledon’s.
The stories were pre-written: the phoenix club rising through the leagues, with little history but lots of emotion on their side, and the pantomime hero in his traditional cameo role.
Headlines go often to Adebayo Akinfenwa, and his penalty, scored after 100 minutes, sealed the Dons’ victory. Before that, Lyle Taylor’s goal gave Wimbledon a lead that Argyle never, in truth, looked like clawing back.
We must focus on the positives of this season – and there are many: another year of upward progression, a young and hungry management team, and gifted players aplenty. On this day, though, it was Wimbledon that did enough, and they will play in Sky Bet League 1.
Argyle will be in League 2 – and few will want to play us.
Pilgrims boss Derek Adams had stayed true to the starting 11 that had seen off Portsmouth in the epic Battle of the Ports semi-final thanks to Peter Hartley’s headed goal scored in injury time of the second leg.
Indeed, the Pilgrims showed just one change from the team that had taken the field on the campaign’s opening day nearly 300 days previously against the same opponents they faced at Wembley in the season’s final match, with Jamille Matt at the front of a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation in place of the still not 100% Reuben Reid.
Hartley lined up alongside skipper Curtis Nelson in the heart of the defence, ahead of goalkeeper Luke McCormick, with two-times previous Wembley winner Kelvin Mellor and Gary Sawyer on the defensive flanks.
Their shield was provided by another double Wembley victor Carl McHugh and young Crystal Palace loanee Hiram Boateng, which allowed Graham Carey to float around behind the front. Out wide, right and left, were Jake Jervis and Gregg Wylde.
Although the two sides were more than familiar with each other, having previously met three times in the regular season, the opening stages were cagey as both sides adjusted to unfamiliar surroundings, underfoot and in the stands.
A lofted Dons free-kick into the box from Callum Kennedy was headed back into the danger area by Mellor, giving Taylor a sniff of a chance, while, at the other end, Carey’s radar was askew, resulting in his long-range effort clearing Dons’ keeper’s Kelle Roos’ crossbar.
The pattern that emerged was not an unexpected one. Wimbledon owe more than their heritage to the Crazy Gang, and play a brand of football that was once exploited to the maximum by Fashanu, Jones, Wise and Co. – straight and direct towards two muscular front-men with special attention to set-piece deliveries.
Their game-plan was helped by Argyle conceding free-kicks within chippable range of Taylor and Tom Elliott, for them to force the ball further on, and Mellor was alert to block off one such knockdown that appeared to be falling nicely for the former.
As a result, Nelson and Hartley were seeing more of the ball than Carey or Matt, and the Green Army fell into a nervousness-induced comastose. It did not take much to rouse them, though, and when Jervis had a hopeful shot on the turn blocked for a corner following Wylde’s run, the collective roar shook the famous old stadium.
Wylde was soon off again, galloping down the left and taking time for a good look before crossing towards Matt, who was prevented from making capital by Paul Robinson’s fine headed interception.
The Dons responded with a full-blooded drive from Kennedy from 25 yards that was true and rising, but which McCormick had plenty of time to see and deal with. It was a rare highlight of a half of football that failed to match the expectations and anticipation of the second-highest crowd ever to witness a League 2 play-off final.
The second half saw Argyle start purposefully with Jervis winning a header against Roos from Sawyer’s cross, and then Wylde finding space for a delivery across the face of the goal that found no takers.
The bright beginning was not a harbinger of better things as Argyle the Pilgrims failed to get the grip on the game they desperately craved. They were, at times, their own worst enemy, with mistakes allowing Wimbledon to get within range. Better teams might have punished them.
Strange things started happening. Adams left his place on the touchline to sit with the Argyle substitutes; Carey developed the touch of a mere mortal; Wylde was booked for a hard-man tackle on Dons’ captain Barry Fuller.
Normality was soon resumed. Adams returned to his familiar post and Carey forced Roos to save a low curled left-footed free-kick, won by Jervis, down to the ’keeper’s left.
Suddenly, the Pilgrims looked the side more likely to. Sawyer’s free-kick from the left went all the way to the far post, from where Hartley was caught between heading for goal and heading across goal.
Adams then sent on Reading’s Craig Tanner, whose loan prior to his current temporary spell at Home Park had been with Wimbledon, for Jervis, keeping the same shape. Talking of shape, Wimbledon brought on Adebayo Akinfenwa for Elliott.
Momentum swung back to the Dons and, following a corner, Kennedy swung in a low cross which Mellor stooped to try to head away. Taylor nipped in front to turn the ball past McCormick with a deft touch.
Argyle immediately put on Reuben Reid for Wylde and threw everything forward, leaving themselves exposed to an alarming degree, and Fuller nearly made them pay, drawing a fine save from McCormick.
The Green Army’s agony was nothing compared to that of Hartley’s. The Argyle defender left Wembley on a stretcher after a crashing collision and fall with Akinfenwa, his treatment adding several minutes of injury-time.
Injury time was action packed, with McCormick making a sublime save from Akinfenwa’s header, as Argyle launched ball after ball into Dons territory.
Akinfenwa, though, the cult hero, wrote the final line of the Wimbledon fairy tale. After substitute Adebayo Azeez won a soft penalty after a challenge by Jordon Forster, his namesake Akinfenwa slotted home a penalty to confirm this as the Dons’ day.
We will have ours. Believe.
AFC Wimbledon (4-3-3): 29 Kelle Roos; 2 Barrie Fuller (capt), 6 Paul Robinson, 32 Darius Charles, 3 Callum Kennedy; 18 Connor Smith (12 Jon Meades 69), 8 Jake Reeves, 4 Dannie Bulman, 17 Andy Barcham; 9 Tom Elliott (10 Adebayo Akinfenwa 76), 33 Lyle Taylor (14 Adebayo Azeez 90). Substitutes (not used): 1 James Shea (gk),, 11 Sean Rigg, 20 Ryan Sweeney, 39 Rhys Murphy.
Booked: Charles 67, Taylor 78, Akinfenwa 90
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley (28 Jordon Forster 86), 3 Gary Sawyer; 20 Hiram Boateng, 4 Carl McHugh; 14 Jake Jervis (27 Craig Tanner 68), 10 Graham Carey, 11 Gregg Wylde (9 Reuben Reid 78); 19 Jamille Matt. Substitutes (not used): 15 Tyler Harvey, 16 Ben Purrington, 31 Vincent Dorel (gk), 32 Jordan Houghton.
Booked: Wylde 62.
Referee: Iain Williamson.