Accrington 2 v Wimbledon 2 (Wimbledon win with a 3-2 aggregate score)
Lyle Taylor struck a dramatic extra-time goal to send Wimbledon through to the League Two play-off final at Wembley as the Dons came from 2-0 down on the night (18 May) to draw 2-2 and win through on aggregate.
The Dons held a slender 1-0 advantage from the previous weekend’s home leg and that looked like it might not be enough on the night as they fell behind to a Josh Windass penalty and a Piero Mingoia wonder strike.
But substitute Bayo Akinfenwa’s goal midway through the second period was enough to send the tie into extra time, before Taylor struck to send over 1,000 travelling Wimbledon fans into raptures.
‘It was a performance that was full of character and grit,’ boss Neal Ardley reflected on the club’s website afterwards. ‘I give huge credit to Accrington. They got the first goal and the second one was fantastic. At that point we felt we needed to change something because they had so much momentum.
‘We went with three up front to be brave and got Bayo’s goal after wonderful work from Barry Fuller. I just felt with our energy that if we kept on driving forward we could go on and achieve what we wanted to achieve.’
And goalscoring hero Taylor commented: ‘We will do everything we can to finish on the right note. We have not yet achieved what we want to achieve.
‘This is a family. We fight, we argue, we bicker and then we hug, kiss and make up. To a man, the staff, fans and players, including those not playing, were phenomenal.
‘The atmosphere in the team hotel was unbelievable. It was so positive and it was brilliant to be a part of it.’
The Dons certainly started the second leg of this semi-final positively, pushing forward and fashioning a number of early chances as they sought to double their overall advantage.
Taylor had already seen one early effort saved by Accrington keeper Ross Etheridge before he forced a seventh-minute save by the stopper from an angled drive across goal. And Andy Barcham also had a shot blocked as the Dons made the early running.
The home side had a gilt-edged opportunity in the 12th minute when Séamus Conneely’s ball in from the inside-right channel evaded the Dons defence and fell for the lunging Tom Davies, but his effort was straight into the arms of a grateful Kelle Roos.
Although the Dons’ initial push faded slightly, it was still against the overall run of play when the home side took the lead six minutes before half-time. Barry Fuller did well to repel an attack down the right at the expense of a throw, but Sean Rigg was caught napping by Scott Brown’s surge into the box and bundled over the midfielder to concede a penalty. Windass made no mistake from the spot to level up the tie on aggregate.
Rigg could have redeemed himself with an almost-instant equaliser but he volleyed wide after latching on to Taylor’s flick, and with Tom Elliott struggling to make much of an impression at half-time the Dons brought on Akinfenwa and switched to their ‘Plan B’ 4-3-3 formation.
But the night was to get worse for the Dons before it got better, as Barcham conceded the ball cheaply to Mingoia and the midfielder strode forward before unleashing a vicious curling effort from 25-yards that was destined to beat Roos the moment it left his boot.
Fewer than 10 minutes later, the Dons pulled a vital goal back through Akinfenwa. Stanley struggled to clear their own area and the ball fell to Fuller who surged past Adam Buxton before wrapping his foot around the ball to deliver a perfect ball in to Akinfenwa who headed home powerfully from close range. Accrington now led 2-1 on the night but it was all-square on aggregate.
With Ade Azeez off the bench to add to the Dons’ potency up front, it was Wimbledon who again started enjoying the better of proceedings. Azeez himself headed wide before Barcham came close to a goal when he slipped through to get on the end of Akinfenwa’s flick, only for Etheridge to save.
But at the other end Roos still had to be alert to deny Billy Kee as the by now nerve-wracking tie headed to extra time with away goals not counting.
Still it was Wimbledon who created the better chances, none more so than when Akinfenwa headed Callum Kennedy’s cross back across goal and Azeez’s overhead kick was cleared off the line by Davies.
On the stroke of half-time in extra time the Dons finally made the breakthrough, and it owed much to the industrious work of midfielder Jake Reeves.
The former Swindon man seized on a loose ball midway in the Accrington half, surged forward as he hurdled a sliding tackle and then nutmegged the last man before blasting in a shot that Etheridge did well to parry. But the Dons’ despair turned to joy as the rebound fell perfectly for Taylor and the hitman made no mistake to score his 22nd goal of the season.
There was still drama to come, with Azeez going close to making it safe for the Dons and then a partial floodlight failure bringing proceedings to a halt for 10 minutes. Although the lighting eventually flickered back into life, the home side’s dreams failed to do the same and fittingly it was as the Dons won a corner that the final whistle went, sending Wimbledon through to Wembley.
‘It is a dream come true for a lot of people to have that occasion,’ Ardley said. ‘Now we are there we have to get our heads right because we want to try and win a game of football to achieve promotion.
‘I dreamed as a kid of leading a team out at Wembley – I always wanted to be a manager and it is one on my bucket list to do this.’
The Dons sold more than 10,000 Wembley tickets for the final within 24-hours of them going on sale and, with Plymouth tickets also selling well, there is sure to be a great atmosphere inside the ground. Tickets can be bought online as they are now on general sale. The match, which kicks off on Bank Holiday Monday, 30 May at 3pm, will also be shown live on Sky Sports.
Accrington Stanley: Etheridge, Pearson (Halliday 99), Davies, Hughes, Buxton, Mingoia (Gornell 105), Conneely, Brown, McCartan (Boco 90), Windass, Kee. Subs not used: Winnard, Little, Fosu-Henry, Mooney.
Goalscorers: Windass 39 (pen), Mingoia 59.
Booked: Windass 103, Davies 119.
Wimbledon: Roos, Fuller, Robinson, Charles, Kennedy, Reeves, Rigg (Azeez 65), Bulman, Barcham (Beere 99), Elliott (Akinfenwa 45), Taylor. Subs not used: Shea, Fitzpatrick, Sweeney, Murphy.
Goalscorers: Akinfenwa 68, Taylor 104.
Booked: Charles 90, Fuller 92, Akinfenwa 105.