AFC Wimbledon 1
A nine-point week has lifted AFC Wimbledon off the bottom of the League One table – and the survival scrap is so tight that even 12th-placed Plymouth Argyle are still firmly in the fight.
Just three points separates the Devon outfit from Walsall, who occupy the final drop spot.
And upwardly mobile Wimbledon, who climbed above Bradford City and Rochdale at the weekend, have safety firmly in their sights.
The old adage is that you don’t change a winning side and Wally Downes clearly felt the same as he named an unchanged starting 11 for the match at Roots Hall. There was just one switch on the bench with youngster Jack Rudoni replacing the unwell James Hanson.
Wimbledon came into the game with three clean sheets and two wins on the spin – confidence was high. With Southend having not won in nine matches and Wimbledon near the top of the form table then there was a degree of expectation.
Downes had played those thoughts down during the week by talking about hard decisions over team selections and expectations – a bluff perhaps, but wise words and the team showed it from the off by being organised, supportive of each other and focused.
When the visitors’ defence was breached, on-loan Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale made three key saves – one in the opening 45 minutes and two in the second half.
The first-half chance came from a corner and Southend centre-back Michael Turner was left with ample time and space to put in a powerful header in the 35th minute. Ramsdale was equal to it and palmed it over the bar.
Wimbledon’s Joe Pigott found himself free and in the penalty box with just keeper Mark Oxley to beat soon afterwards, but his tame attempt was collected easily.
It was interesting to note that apart from the above chance from the corner, Southend were restricted to long-range efforts, and this is down to the organisation that Downes has instilled in the team. The 3-5-2 formation is working well, and was put to the test in the second half when Will Nightingale was replaced by Tennai Watson following an injury.
Toby Sibbick moved into central defence and Watson, who took on a wide-right midfield berth, did not put a foot wrong. Under the previous regime, the Reading man never looked sure of what was being asked of him.
Southend’s two best chances came either side of Wimbledon’s goal. Stephen McLaughlin appeared to have the ball glued to his foot as he slipped into the box, but there was Sibbick to time his block to perfection, Terell Thomas mopping up the loose ball bouncing towards goal.
Then Anthony Hartigan played a ball over the top, which Turner failed to deal with – whether due to the wind or perhaps feeling that Oxley would come to mop up the danger. Pigott nipped in between defender and keeper and stepped around the challenge from the latter to slot into an empty net.
Wimbledon had a 67th-minute lead. Pigott kept a lid on his emotions after netting against his former club. The 748 travelling fans made no such attempts, going wild.
The former Charlton striker is top scorer with 13 goals in 40 matches and has hit a rich vein of form in recent weeks – not only hitting the mark but also added a couple of assists. He is a vital cog in the team.
Southend had one more shot from Charlie Kelman, which was easily dealt with by Ramsdale and that was it from the home team.
Downes then withdrew Michael Folivi and brought on live-wire Dylan Connolly.
The Irishman had two half-chances. One was fashioned from his own efforts and the other from a neat flick by Pigott, which saw his shot whistle past the post.
It must be a nightmare for a defender to have such a fast player add pace to an attack in the last moments of a game, especially when they want the ball at the other end of the ground.
On Saturday Barry Fuller and Gillingham come visiting – another team near the bottom. It is up to Wimbledon to impose their style on the game as the season heads towards the business end.
AFC Wimbledon (3-5-2): Ramsdale 8, Kalambayi 7, Nightingale 7 (Watson 46, 7), Thomas 7, Sibbick 8, Seddon 7, Wordsworth 8, Hartigan 7, Wagstaff 7, Pigott 8 (Pinnock 87), Folivi 7 (Connolly 70, 7). Not used: McDonnell, Barcham, McLoughlin, Rudoni.