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The Dons regained top spot from Crawley with two late headers by Sam Hatton and Danny Kedwell in a pulsating and highly charged encounter at Kingsmeadow.

There was something vaguely cup tie-ish about the pre-match build-up: TV cameras, including one mounted on a gallows-like structure at the Kingston Road End; long queues to get in; BBC reporters interviewing Dons fans; the game being played on an odd day of the week; almost 500 away fans, with a sterile area between the dugouts; celebrities everywhere you looked - if you were looking at Marcus Mumford and Laura Marling; and an expensively assembled opposition arriving full of confidence.

What it was, in fact, was a routine, early-season league game against a side two places higher in the table with nothing more than the regulation three points at stake.

However, with the defence shorn of three of its four first-choice starters after Ismail Yakubu failed a late fitness test, and leaving a back five with an average age of less than 20, Terry Brown, Stuart Cash and Simon Bassey would have had their work cut out convincing their young and inexperienced charges that this was anything other than a big game.

Full debutant Fraser Franks filled in for Yakubu at the heart of the defence, and Chris Bush, signed on work experience terms from Franks’s former side Brentford, stepped into suspended Andre Blackman’s left-back boots.

The new boys were up against half a million pounds’ worth of attackers in Richard Brodie, Matt Tubbs, Scott Nielsen and Sergio Torres. Never was “thrown into the deep end” a more apt phrase.

Wimbledon, as they have in all but one game so far this season, started the brighter, and with only four minutes gone Ed Harris should have given them the lead as he met a right-wing corner with a bullet header from six yards but couldn’t keep his effort down, and the ball ended up in someone’s garden in Kingston Road. Crawley, and in particular their manager Steve Evans, looked rattled as the Dons worked tirelessly to make their early advantage count for something.

The highly rated Steve Masterton was coming off second best to Steven Gregory, and the combative ex-Rotherham skipper Pablo Mills was being troubled by the waspish Sammy Moore, who was here, there and everywhere.

Crawley did look dangerous coming forward – and so they should, Tubbs and Brodie having scored more than 60 between them last season – but Franks and Harris, with less than six hours of Conference football between them, marshalled the prolific pair like seasoned professionals. In reducing the Reds to one long-range potshot from Masterton in the first 20 minutes, Brown’s rearguard did their jobs to perfection, with Sam Hatton and Chris Bush looking assured and confident.

All the Dons needed to maximise their fine start was a goal, but when Danny Kedwell’s 12-yard piledriver smacked into keeper Nick Jordan’s chest and ballooned away to safety, it seemed that the Dons’ luck might have deserted them. Perhaps it hadn’t though, as with their best move of the game Crawley nearly took the lead. The industrious Torres found Brodie behind and between Franks and Harris for the first time, and although he lifted his shot over Seb Brown he didn’t get enough power into it, and a combination of the impressive Bush and Franks cleared the danger.

The Dons pressed again as the game now started to ebb and flow – Harris again came close with a scrambled effort from another corner, and then Jon Main narrowly failed to get on the end of Ricky Wellard’s slightly overhit through-ball.

Gregory’s long-range passing was spreading the play magnificently, bringing Ryan Jackson’s electrifying pace into the game at every opportunity, though it was a Hatton through-ball that set Jackson away as half-time approached – but Nick Jordan raced out of the Crawley goal to clear the danger as the Dons looked to deservedly take the lead.

Two minutes before the end of the half, it was Crawley who broke the deadlock. As Harris and Brodie jostled for possession on the byline, the Dons defender slipped on the wet turf, presenting the former York striker with a clear run on goal. The Dons gave him too much time and space to pick out Tubbs, and with a neat side-footed finish his seventh goal of the season gave the visitors the lead.

And a minute into stoppage time they nearly doubled it: Brodie should have done better when presented with a shooting opportunity from eight yards, but he dragged his effort wide.

As the rain continued to fall, the second half took on a distinctly different feel. Presumably Steve Evans wasn’t entirely happy with his side’s showing in the first half, despite taking the lead, as Torres and Nielsen began the second period as if they’d been torn off a strip or two. Both sets of supporters were now questioning referee Barratt’s decision-making, and a four-minute wait for Hatton to take a free-kick while the official dealt with both sets of players jostling for position in the Crawley area didn’t help his cause – though to be fair to the visitors, they didn’t make as much of his meek showing as others might have done.

The game was still in the balance, and the quality of the play seemed to get even higher as the half progressed. Although Nielsen and Jackson’s jaw-dropping pace came to the fore, the central defensive partnerships of both sides were getting the upper hand. The clearest chance fell to Brodie after Wellard’s pass was blocked by Mills, but Brown rushed out and blocked his effort.

An astonishing decision then denied the Dons a chance to equalise. Ryan Jackson bamboozled Dean Howells and got his low cross in with ease, but before Kedwell could pounce on the ball, Kyle McFadzean nipped in and got his foot to it, sending it flying over the bar for a corner. Jordan was impressed with the defending and slapped his team-mate on the back in appreciation, only for Barratt to award a goal-kick.

With time running out, and Crawley looking hungry and able enough to score again, Terry Brown replaced Main and Wellard with Rashid Yussuff and Mark Nwokeji.

With 13 minutes remaining, more jet-heeled work by Jackson forced former Don loanee Glenn Wilson into conceding a corner, and from Yussuff’s inswinger the indefatigable Hatton’s downward header gathered pace off the sodden pitch and arrowed into the top corner of the net to send the home crowd wild and Evans into a rage at his side’s inability to defend a set piece. Two minutes later, he almost exploded when another set piece proved to be his side’s undoing.

Mills gave away a needless free-kick 40 yards from goal, Gregory found Moore with a cute pass, and from his inswinging cross from the left Kedwell rose highest and planted a looping 15-yard header over Jordan and into the far corner of the net.

Kingsmeadow erupted into a sea of jumping bodies as Kedwell celebrated by slowly kissing his beloved Dons’ badge. What Evans may have taken as a lack of ambition in staying with the Dons, Wimbledon fans saw as an act of uncommon loyalty. If anyone deserves to kiss a badge, it was Kedwell as his ninth goal of the season ensured all three points.

Crawley rallied, but to no avail, and the Dons hung on to take their place at the summit of non-League football once again. To win a football match of this intensity you need courage, passion, determination, belief and ability. AFC Wimbledon had all those things.

Attendance: 4,018

Wimbledon: S Brown, Hatton, Bush, Gregory, Franks, Harris, Wellard (Yussuff 65), Moore, Kedwell, Main (Nwokeji 74), Jackson. Subs not used: Turner, Jones, J Brown.

Booked: Franks 76, Jackson 88.

Report courtesy of AFC Wimbledon

September 24, 2010