Wimbledon 2-1 Town
By Liz Owen
A dramatic final day of the season saw AFC Wimbledon clinch their place in League Two at Fleetwood Town’s expense.
Gary Alexander’s third goal of the season on the hour mark sent the Cherry Red Record Stadium into raptures but stunned silence followed just two minutes later as Andy Mangan scored his second goal in two games.
But the Dons secured their Football League status with a Jack Midson penalty with less than 20 minutes to go, after Rob Atkinson brought down Curtis Osano in the box.
The 157 members of the travelling Cod Army, some in fancy dress, knew they could potentially relegate the side that inflicted so much hurt just two years ago.
In truth, though,Town were to play a mere supporting role as all eyes focused on the hosts and their quest for survival.
And it would be wrong to suggest that Fleetwood had nothing to play for. The defeat – their fourth in a row – meant they were unable to secure a top-half finish and dropped into 13th after Rochdale beat Plymouth.
Graham Alexander made three alterations to the starting line-up after last weekend’s 3-1 defeat at home to Chesterfield, with the inclusion of Mangan in place of David Ball the most significant.
After scoring 18 minutes after his introduction against the Spireites, the striker was handed his first start since September 22nd, marking the end of a long and hard recovery from a serious knee injury.
Elsewhere, there was a defensive re-shuffle as Atkinson and Nathan Pond were re-instated in favour of Ryan Edwards and Gareth Evans, with Junior Brown, who started at left-back last week, moving back into midfield.
There were two changes to the Wimbledon side which drew 2-2 away at Gillingham, as manager Neal Ardley started Osano and Alexander in place of Mat Mitchell-King and Jason Prior.
After a goalless but edgy first half, the real action began instantly after the interval and Wimbledon’s pressure paid off after Alexander headed home from a Sammy Moore free-kick after Shaun Beeley had brought down the goalscorer to-be just outside the area.
The visitors, however, levelled almost instantly. A scrappy goal by all accounts, Alan Goodall’s cross appeared to be knocked past Dons ‘keeper John Sullivan by Mangan, although there was uncertainty as to whether the ball had, in fact, been bundled over the line by a blue shirt.
But it wasn’t to last. The stage was set for Wimbledon and after frenzied pressure for the majority of the game, they finally found what was to be the winning goal on the 72nd minute.
Atkinson’s clumsy challenge on Osano prompted referee James Lingington to point to the spot, greeted by a deafening cheer from the Dons faithful.
And it was leading goalscorer Midson who shrugged off intense pressure to fire into the bottom right-hand corner, claiming his 15th goal of the season and sealing a fairy-tale ending for the hosts.
A nervy ending ensued as the home support screamed at their side to hold on to their lead, their hearts in their mouths when late substitute Evans rolled a low shot narrowly wide with just one minute left.
The second half had been ferocious, and Wimbledon were unlucky not to take the lead four minutes in.
A Pond mistake on the byline allowed Luke Moore to carry the ball into the middle of the area where he found Midson.
After the striker had curled a shot wide just two minutes earlier, he then crashed Moore’s set-up against the crossbar while Harry Pell lashed the rebound at goal, Scott Davies producing a spectacular save to deny him.
The double chance was met with disbelief amongst the Wimbledon faithful, who must have believed it simply was not their day.
Despite the occasion, Fleetwood were on the offensive straight from kick-off as Mangan turned cleverly to unleash the game’s first shot on target after only 30 seconds, following it up with a thumping shot to ripple the side netting on the ninth minute.
However Wimbledon, encouraged by a noisy but anxious atmosphere, soon began to press.
The Dons, knowing they were fighting for their lives, stepped up their efforts and almost took the lead on the 15th minute when Alexander bundled the ball over the crossbar from close-range after a goalmouth scramble, following a spell of possession for the home side.
Davies was on the bench for Town’s disastrous last visit to Wimbledon, watching on in horror as his team-mates – of which only Brown and Jamie McGuire survive – lost 6-1 in the second leg of the 2011 Conference play-off semi-final.
The ‘keeper, marking the final game of the season with the captain’s armband, may well have had that particular game on his mind today as he was influential in preventing a frantic Wimbledon from breaking the deadlock before the interval.
As well as cutting a dominant figure between the sticks and confidently claiming the ball on numerous occasions, Davies tipped over a dangerous Beeley back-header on the 21st minute and stretched to his full capability to deny Midson five minutes later, palming his header away from goal.
Fleetwood’s best chance of the opening half occurred on the half-hour mark. Mangan, behind the majority of Town’s attacking presence, found Crowther down the left who hit a powerful low cross-cum-shot across the goalline, which Jamille Matt was inches away from poking home.
But, apart from a Crowther strike on the counter-attack which went high and wide, Fleetwood barely got a sniff during the second half as a desperate Dons side searched for survival.
Charlie Strutton, who replaced Sammy Moore on the 68th minute, looked lively and almost created a potential third for his side with 10 minutes to go after successfully charging down an attempted Davies clearance.
Fortunately for Town, Beeley came to his team-mate’s rescue but it was to be one of his final actions as he made way for Evans, while Jean Michel-Fontaine made his 13th appearance of the season on the 66th minute in place of Crowther and Ball entered the fray late on for Matt.
But it was Wimbledon's day, and a pitch invasion marked the final whistle which confirmed they had stayed up at the expense of Aldershot Town and Barnet.
Town had done their utmost to frustrate and deny their opponents but in the end, the Dons stole the spotlight on a hugely exciting final day of their second season in the Football League, and a rather disappointing end to Fleetwood's first.
It's certainly worth considering, however, that five years ago, Town had ended their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Frickley in the Uni-Bond Premier.
While it wasn't quite the season finale we had all hoped for, a comfortable mid-table finish to top off our first taste of the Football League is definitely not something to be scorned at.
Fleetwood: Davies (c); Beeley (Evans, 85), Pond, Atkinson, Goodall; Brown, McGuire, McKenna, Crowther (Fontaine, 66); Matt (Ball, 83), Mangan. Subs not used: Lucas, Nicholson, McLaughlin, Edwards.
Wimbledon: Sullivan; Osano, Bennett (c), Balkestein, Hussey; Midson, S Moore (Strutton, 68), Pell, L Moore (Antwi, 84); Meades, Alexander (Prior, 90). Subs not used: Jaimez-Ruiz, Sainte-Luce, Yussuff, Long.