Coventry City 1
AFC Wimbledon 1
By Dave Hunt-Jackson at the Ricoh Arena
Luke Thomas’s deflected equaliser denied Wally Downes’ AFC Wimbledon all three points in a very hard-fought encounter on Saturday.
Injuries and Ben Purrington’s switch to Charlton forced three changes to the Dons side that knocked Fleetwood out of the FA Cup with Tyler Garratt coming in at left-back, Jake Jervis taking Kwesi Appiah’s lone frontman role and captain Deji Oshilaja replacing Tyrell Thomas.
Despite having no recognised striker in the side – Joe Pigott was only fit enough for the bench – the Dons took an unexpected lead after just 72 seconds. Jervis pounced after Lee Burge in the Coventry goal had parried Paul Kalambayi’s header from an Anthony Hartigan corner.
Kalambayi, 19, had been overlooked by previous boss Neal Ardley but has grabbed this chance under Downes. He first came to notice as part of the FA Youth Cup side alongside the likes of Hartigan and Alfie Egan.
Then Kalambayi was a lanky but agile youngster. Now he is “a big unit”, as Oshilaja noted in a post-match interview.
He has power and strength and won everything in the air against older more experienced opposition with ease.
While acknowledging he still has things to work on, Downes was quick to praise the youngster and also Aaron Ramsdale, who looked composed and authoritative in the Dons’ goal.
The AFC Bournemouth loanee seems certain to ensure the Dons’ fans, 667 of whom made the trip to the Midlands, will not miss Tom King following his return to Millwall.
Downes will no doubt rue the recall clause for his first choice left-back though and will miss the reliable Purrington. It remains to be seen if Garratt can make the position his own.
A changed defence help firm albeit aided by some profligate finishing from their hosts.
While Coventry deserved their point the equaliser was cruel on Wimbledon who had held firm for an hour before Thomas’ tame effort deflected horribly past Ramsdale.
This was a hard-earned point that may yet prove crucial in the battle to survive. To his enormous credit Downes has not once moaned about the limited numbers available to him. The lack of strikers in particular following the summer’s recruitment has tied his hands severely.
Even with only a makeshift striker to start his Dons side are more purposeful, more dangerous, score more freely and with Will Nightingale in front of the back four defend more solidly than under the previous regime.
Jervis filled a role he is unsuited to but grabbed a goal and led the line ably.
Two months ago the Dons would have lost this encounter against the Sky Blues side, but this is both a new Dons and an old Wimbledon. There is fight, there is passion, there is spirit and a deal of tactical nous too.
It might just be that the jack-the-lad barrow boy who invented the Crazy Gang could mastermind the great escape.
If he doesn’t one thing is for sure – they will go down fighting.
AFC Wimbledon (4-5-1): Ramsdale 8, Oshilaja 7 Garratt 6 (Pigott 69, 6), Nightingale 7, Watson 7, Kalambayi 8, Barcham 7, Jervis 7 (Connolly 69, 7), Wordsworth 8, Hartigan 8, Pinnock 7. Not used: McDonnell, Trotter Sibbick, Wood, Egan.
Photos by Sean Gosling