AFC Wimbledon 0
Blackburn Rovers 3
Dack 30, 69 Bennett 64
By Anthony Scales at the Cherry Red Records Stadium
“I just expect Wimbledon teams to have a right go,” said Dons manager Neal Ardley after Tuesday night’s defeat to league leaders Blackburn.
The Wimbledon boss seemed puzzled by his team’s lack of desire to get into the faces of Tony Mowbray’s resurgent Rovers on “a cold, freezing Tuesday night”, in the manner of the Crazy Gang of old.
While it was true the visitors’ classy second-half finishing put Ardley’s men in the shade though, Wimbledon had looked able to hold their own against the leaders in a first half which, though it featured few clear-cut chances – and Bradley Dack’s opener was anything but – was a good advert for League One.
And if the Dons lack the roughhouse nature of the legendary team Ardley featured in, it is because the manager has cultivated a more sophisticated approach that, in the opening 45 minutes at least, saw his men go toe to toe with a Blackburn side featuring Champions League and Premier League knowhow.
To emphasise the point, centre-back Deji Oshilaja picked up the ball deep in his half, shook an opponent with a cute drag-back and embarked upon a slaloming run into Rovers territory in the 28th minute. How often did Vinnie Jones do that?
‘Taking the positives’ is the most cliched fall-back for managers and fans alike after chastening defeats but the impressive form of Oshilaja was among the reasons to be cheerful for a Wimbledon team who didn’t look a side who should be looking over their shoulders.
If Oshilaja’s composure suggests Ardley might deploy him as a sweeper – the Bermondsey-born 25-year-old providing the lay-off for his side’s best chance on Tuesday – goalkeeper George Long also caught the eye.
In an age when goalkeepers need to demonstrate their ability with their feet as much as their gloves, the Sheffield United loanee had plenty to do outside his area as Rovers looked to play in livewire winger Adam Armstrong.
When Long was beaten, on the half hour, it came with a sprinkling of controversy as Jack Payne hung in a cross from the right and danger man Bradley Dack snuck in beyond the far post and sent a header looping over the Dons keeper. Oshilaja was in place to hack clear but the referee’s assistant flagged the ball had crossed the line.
Ardley said his analyst disagreed with the call but was more concerned about the marking that allowed Dack in. With Darius Charles again ruled out by a hip injury and right-back Barry Fuller limping off at full-time, he may need to contemplate more improvised back lines for now.
If that goal came as a sucker punch, it served to underline Ardley does have issues to address if the Dons are to retain their League One status over the next 11 matches.
And fatigue may be one of them. The manager refused to let the players use tiredness as an excuse but was critical of his side’s energy levels in that media post-mortem. Front man Lyle Taylor, in particular, looked leggy and unable to tackle back sufficiently, even when pulled to the right wing after being replaced as target man by Joe Pigott.
If maintaining a high tempo is the players’ responsibility, Ardley has to correct the imbalance in midfield by using Harry Forrester on the right or through the middle. The on-loan Rangers man has looked too good for League One at times this season but Tuesday night exposed just how one-footed he is as he continually had to cut inside, making Rovers right-back Ryan Nyambe’s task considerably simpler.
Forrester went closest to scoring for the hosts, in the 63rd minute, but there was no surprise to see Oshilaja providing the lay-off or that the former Brentford midfielder had let fly with his favoured foot.
Within seconds, Elliott Bennett showed how it was done at the other end and that man Dack put the icing on the cake for the visitors in a victory which illustrated how accomplished Mowbray’s men are but which, on reflection, maybe shouldn’t give the Dons too many sleepless nights.
AFC Wimbledon (4-1-4-1): Long 7, Fuller 6, Robinson 6, Oshilaja 7, Meades 7, Abdou 6, Francomb 7, Trotter 6 (Soares 78), Forrester 6, Barcham 7 (Pigott 46, 5), Taylor 6 (Parrett 78). Not used: McDonnell, McDonald, Kaja, Kennedy.