Wimbledon 2 v Plymouth 0
Wimbledon will play League One football next season after beating Plymouth Argyle 2-0 at Wembley in the play-off final on bank holiday Monday (30 May).
The Dons won courtesy of a Lyle Taylor goal and a late Bayo Akinfenwa penalty as Neal Ardley’s men capped an amazing second-half of the season.
These two sides had met on the opening day of the season when Plymouth won 2-0 at Kingsmeadow. The Pilgrims went on to become runaway leaders of the division, while at the halfway point of the season the Dons languished in midtable.
But the two clubs’ form turned after the new year as Plymouth slumped into the play-off places while Ardley’s side surged up the table and capped an impressive turnaround with this victory at Wembley.
‘No one can tell me that we were not the better team in the majority of our games in the first half of the season,’ reflected Ardley as he basked in this Wembley triumph, ‘but we were just letting ourselves down with set-pieces and various things in games.
‘We worked harder in the second half of the season and stopped doing silly things which were causing us to lose games.
‘It’s never about me or one individual player. Everyone worked hard for each other on and off the pitch. We have no superstars, no blame culture, and everyone fought hard for each other. That has now come to fruition.’
The arrival of on-loan central defender Darius Charles in March certainly helped the Wimbledon cause and in this match he again formed a solid partnership with Paul Robinson as Plymouth rarely got a sniff of the Wimbledon goal.
It was a cagey encounter as both teams strove to achieve the upper hand but the Dons who settled first in front of a near-58,000 crowd, exploiting Tom Elliott’s aerial presence with Taylor scampering on to the flick-ons.
The Dons fashioned their first chance in the sixth minute when Callum Kennedy’s free-kick from deep was headed back across goal by Plymouth defender Curtis Nelson under pressure from Robinson, but Taylor couldn’t contort himself enough to get a clean contact on the ball and Luke McCormick in the Argyle goal was able to gather.
Soon afterwards Taylor ran behind his marker to latch on to an Elliott flick only to see his attempted cross-cum-shot from a narrow angle deflected behind for a corner, from which Jake Reeves volleyed wide of the target.
Midway through the first period the same Elliott–Taylor combination again saw the latter through, but as he was given a gentle shirt tug by Peter Hartley the chance went begging as the striker slid to the ground and the ball ran through to McCormick.
And the Dons went closer still when another Elliott header, this time towards Robinson, was intercepted by Plymouth defender Kelvin Mellor who was relieved as his bundled clearance was only inches wide of his own goal.
With Dannie Bulman doing a brilliant tracking job on Plymouth dangerman Graham Carey, it wasn’t until after the half hour that the Pilgrims fashioned their first half chance. Gregg Wylde seized on a loose Smith pass and surged forwards, but Charles was on hand to get an essential head to his cross and prevent it from reaching Jamille Matt at the far post.
Despite having the upper hand, it wasn’t until a little more than five minutes before the break that the Dons had their first effort on target, as Taylor played the ball back to Kennedy midway in the Plymouth half and the left-back unleashed a long-range effort that McCormick was forced to smother.
Soon after the break, the Dons got an early corner when Carl McHugh played a loose backpass that ballooned up and only narrowly wide of his own goal with McCormick scrambling.
Andy Barcham then enjoyed two threatening runs, one resulting in a cross that was only narrowly over Elliott’s head and then another blocked at the expense of a corner, as the winger made his presence felt.
Barcham then fed a Taylor run into the channels where the striker worked hard to fashion the opportunity for a cross towards Elliott that the Plymouth defence was grateful to see go over as Wimbledon started the second half with renewed vigour.
At the other end, with just over an hour gone Kelle Roos was called into serious action for the first time, diving low to his left to palm away a dipping Carey free-kick that had evaded the defensive wall and was threatening to sneak inside the post.
And moments later Roos was in action again as Plymouth enjoyed their first period of protracted pressure, diving forward to smother a downward Hartley header after the defender managed to find space at the far post from a Plymouth attacking free-kick.
With quarter of an hour remaining, the Dons brought on Akinfenwa to replace Elliott, and minutes later the Dons were ahead following a corner won by Taylor from Akinfenwa’s flick. Kennedy’s initial corner was poor but it was cleared back to him and he played it in low towards the near post where Taylor timed his run perfectly to get ahead of a defender and swipe the ball into the back of the net and make it 1-0 to the Dons.
Now as Plymouth pushed forwards the Dons were able to make inroads on the counterattack. First Reeves charged down the right flank before playing the ball in to a rampaging Barry Fuller who shot straight at McCormick.
Later it was substitute Jon Meades who released Fuller, whose ball into the box found Akinfenwa all alone with Nelson but the Plymouth man did exceedingly well to use his strength to fend off the big striker’s opportunity and allow McCormick to gather.
And with a minute remaining of normal time it was Bulman who surged through midfield before releasing Taylor, his cross to Akinfenwa provoking a top-class save from McCormick to palm the ball over from just underneath his bar.
Even with seven minutes of added time signalled to allow for a lengthy delay after Hartley fell awkwardly in a challenge with Akinfenwa, still it was the Dons who created the better chances as Plymouth’s attacks floundered, with a Taylor cross from the right seeming destined for Akinfenwa’s head and another goal before Kelvin Mellor’s intervention.
In the 95th minute Taylor had an excellent opportunity to wrap it up for the Dons as he was released from the halfway line by Akinfenwa’s flick but the striker, hampered by the calf tightness that has blighted his final weeks of the season, was only able to produce a tame effort straight into McCormick’s grateful arms.
That prompted Taylor’s withdrawal to be replaced by the pace of substitute Ade Azeez and in the 99th minute the ever-tenacious Bulman won the ball in midfield and released Azeez on another counterattack that ended with the striker falling over Jordon Forster’s outstretched leg to win a penalty.
After a brief unsavoury on-pitch argument between Akinfenwa and Kennedy over who would get to take the kick, it was Akinfenwa who stepped up to send McCormick the wrong way and make it 2-0 and clinch Wimbledon’s League One place.
Moments later the full-time whistle went to prompt frenzied celebrations both on the pitch and in the seats before captain Barry Fuller led his team mates up the famous Wembley steps to collect the trophy in the royal box. The promotion means that in just 16 years Wimbledon will have played at every level of English senior football.
And Ardley wasted no time shaping his squad for League One football, confirming within 24 hours of the Wembley success the departure of Akinfenwa, Kennedy and Sean Rigg. Bulman, Fuller and George Francomb have signed new contracts while Charles has agreed to sign once his Burton Albion deal expires.
The 2016–17 League One season is scheduled to start on 6 August, with the fixtures released on 22 June.
Wimbledon: Roos, Fuller, Robinson, Charles, Kennedy, Smith (Meades 69), Bulman, Reeves, Barcham, Taylor (Azeez 90+7), Elliott (Akinfenwa 77). Subs not used: Shea, Rigg, Sweeney, Murphy.
Goalscorers: Taylor 78, Akinfenwa 90+11 (pen).
Booked: Charles 67, Taylor 78, Akinfenwa 90+11.
Plymouth: McCormick, Mellor, Nelson, Hartley (Forster 86), Sawyer, McHugh, Boateng, Jervis (Tanner 68), Carey, Wylde (Reid 82), Matt. Subs not used: Harvey, Purrington, Dorel, Houghton.
Booked: Wylde 62, Sawyer 76.