AFC Wimbledon 2, City 1
In the world of theatre it’s seen as a good thing to have a faulty dress rehearsal.
Make a couple of rickets in the warm-up and it doesn’t matter. Get them out the system before the major curtain call.
That’s what City will be hoping after suffering the most head-scratching defeat of their season against the side currently propping up the entire Football League.
Hardly the ideal preparation for the biggest game in the club’s modern history six days from now.
So perhaps it’s for the best that City leaked two soft goals this week rather than next. Better to be beaten three minutes into stoppage time at Kingsmeadow than Wembley.
But that shouldn’t mask the fact that this was three points criminally tossed away. As one deflated fan remarked later, Wimbledon might as well have carried a swag bag over their shoulder.
For the second season running, City left Kingston-upon-Thames – which is nowhere near as leafy as it may sound – with a seething sense of injustice at the referee.
Last time it was Darren Deadman and the two phantom penalties. On Saturday, the visitors were berating the officious Steve Bratt for giving a corner that should have been a goal-kick.
Bratt even apologised afterwards – as, those with long memories will recall, he did to Steve Schumacher for an errant red card during City’s relegation to the bottom flight. Just like then, it meant nothing.
The damage had already been inflicted by on-loan Crawley striker Gary Alexander, who took advantage of defensive discontent to leap highest and hardest with a firm flick-header into the far corner of Matt Duke’s net.
So the team that had not won at home since October had pick-pocketed victory from the team that are in the last two of the Capital One Cup. Football, at least, is never predictable.
There are those who would have seen it coming. Typical City, they will say, after the most professional of midweek away wins at form side Wycombe is followed by late surrender to the division’s wooden spoonists.
But the performance should have been good enough to clinch the win double that would have sent them down Wembley Way with a spring in the collective step. For 83 minutes, that looked the case with a first league double seemingly secure.
Those doubting their mentality with Swansea so tantalisingly close should have been silenced.
While the Swans finished their preparations at Anfield yesterday, a trip to the home of Wimbledon and Kingstonian could not have been more of an extreme to City’s next port of call.
The Wembley car park is probably bigger than a ground with a capacity of 4,720. Wembley’s last fixture saw England take on Brazil – Kingsmeadow’s was a visit from Concord Rangers!
Throw in a pitch with more sand than Southport and a home side fighting for their league lives and all the ingredients were there for a banker defeat.
It’s just nobody would have predicted the manner in which it unfolded. “We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” sighed a disbelieving Duke as he boarded the team bus.
Meanwhile, the din drifting from the open window of the Wimbledon dressing room illustrated what the smash-and-grab three points – their first win in six – had meant to them. The battle for survival could not be tighter.
At the other end of the table, City’s hopes of closing right in on the pack fell by the wayside; that great result in Wycombe wasted in the final act.
Phil Parkinson had kept the same team as he looked for a similar outcome. That should have been the reward.
Nahki Wells and James Hanson were again left to recharge batteries on the sidelines, while Andrew Davies had another opportunity to establish his match fitness at centre half.
The big defender did seem to be limping in the closing stages after suffering what turned out to be a spasm in his calf. On a couple of occasions he reassured the bench that all was well and stayed on for the duration.
It was a call that had some questioning the manager for not forcing a change but Parkinson insisted Davies was, and will, be fine.
A travelling army of 621 was a great turn-out, given the expected costs of cup final weekend. Even if City’s numbers are regular boosted by a healthy number of southern-based fans, there was still a significant amount who had trekked down the M1 a week early.
They were not rewarded with the greatest of spectacles. The first half, in fact, was pretty dire.
Bratt’s whistle took centre stage, stopping any flow of a game that was already hampered by the bobbly, uneven pitch.
City were never in any danger. But neither, if truth be told, were Wimbledon as any shots of such were hopeful efforts from long distance that did not force a save at either end.
Nearly an hour had passed when Dons winger Toby Ajala, whose lack of end product nullified an impressive acceleration, finally forced a regulation stop from Duke.
That sparked an immediate – and decisive – reply from City. Kyel Reid flicked a through-ball towards the box, defender Alan Bennett got nowhere near enough on his back-header and Garry Thompson latched on to it with the crispest of volleys past 42-year-old keeper Neil Sullivan.
It was a cracking finish and another powerful statement for a player who must have a great chance of starting on Sunday, though probably back in a wide midfield role.
Thompson could have nailed the game from City’s next attack. With Wimbledon wobbling, he stole a march on Bennett again but the ball kicked at the crucial moment and his shot skewed wide.
Reid then fired across goal as the visiting momentum continued to build – but a second goal did not materialise. Not for the first time, City paid dear for being unable to complete the kill.
By this point, Neal Ardley had used all three substitutes and the changes made a difference. Top scorer Jack Midson, mystifyingly left out of the first 11, gave Alexander the support he needed up front. French winger Kevin Sainte-Luce’s arrival injected more pace.
Sainte-Luce was picked up after being bombed by Cardiff over an assault charge. He still can’t play away games because he is on a curfew to be back in Wales by 8pm.
Ryan Dickson certainly knew he was there – though Sainte-Luce had no impact in the 83rd-minute equaliser which was credited to the unfortunate left back.
City were slow to pick up from a quick throw-in and Pim Balkestein’s cross seemed to catch everyone unawares before ending in the net. Midson milked it – and was still claiming the goal afterwards – but the last touch was off Dickson.
Suddenly three points had become one – and even that disappeared in the last of the three added minutes.
City had just cleared out Wimbledon’s first corner of the game when Midson over-ran the ball as he tried to beat Stephen Darby.
Both sides turned to trot upfield for the goal-kick but Bratt, on the advice of an assistant, changed his mind and gave the corner. Alexander’s head did the rest.