George Francomb1
George Francomb .. superb 25-yard strike gave the Dons late hope

Cup defeats are never celebrated but Neal Ardley has taken some succour from Wimbledon getting brushed from the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy to the top-ranked team left in the draw.

Forty league placings separated the Dons from League One high-flyers Bristol City, but it took two late goals to get Steve Cotterill’s Robins home and even then it was all hands to the pump to keep Wimbledon out after a signature free-kick from George Francomb set up a storming finish to the Cup tie at Ashton Gate.

It’s hard not to agree with Ardley’s post-match summation: “To have a team top of League One hanging on for dear life at the end shows how well we played.”

Wimbledon faced a difficult assignment against a team beaten just once at home (in the League Cup against Oxford United) this season and unbeaten in 16 games in the league above. The Dons would have quietly fancied their chances against the other League 1 teams left in the Southern Section of the JPT — Crawley Town, Gillingham, Leyton Orient and Coventry City.

But for large tracts of this Cup tie, the Dons were implementing Ardley’s strategy perfectly and taking the game to Bristol City, playing with two forwards and trying to nullify the home side’s strong midfield.

“I didn’t think throughout most of the game you were seeing top of League One against 17th in League Two,” Ardley said. “We had a game plan, we were brave, we played two forwards, we had a go at it and we were more than a match for them.”

Just when the Dons were getting to the stage of thinking they might get something out of the tie, and penalties looming for in-form goalkeeper James Shea, Bristol City scored twice in four minutes through Aaron Wilbraham. The Robins looked to be easing down, job done, in the final 13 minutes, but Wimbledon had other ideas.

Adebayo Akinfenwa, brought on with 20 minutes left, nodded down nicely for Francomb, who struck a rasping 25-yarder that left Bristol goalkeeper Frank Fielding flapping.

The Dons had six minutes left plus stoppage time it to equalise as they pinned the home side back in their own half. Francomb almost struck again with a superb free-kick that Fielding tipped over.

Cotterill, a former teammate of Ardley back in the old First Division days at Wimbledon, was relieved for Bristol City to get through to the southern area semi-finals and a chance of a Wembley final.

Steve Cotterill … ‘Wimbledon were organised, they gave it a real go and gave us a good game.’

“There was potential for all kinds of problems with this game and I knew it would be tricky. I mean no disrespect to Gillingham (who City beat 2-1 in the FA Cup on Saturday), but I always felt this would be the more difficult of the two cup games,” Cotterill said.

“I didn’t think we were at our best in the first half, but we were much better in the second half. But you have to give credit to Wimbledon – they were organised, they gave it a real go and gave us a good game.”

To take Bristol City down to the wire on their own ground ranks as one of the Dons best performances this season and only underlines the team’s frustrating inconsistency and its potential to do far better than its current standing of 17th in League Two.

“Our boys did us proud as a club and certainly gave the fans (326 travelling) something to sing about and I’d like to think they gave Bristol as hard a game as they’ve had here,” Ardley said.

“I think we’ve got a good team, we’re searching for a little bit of consistency, but today against a very good team we played really well.”

While Ardley was managing the workload of Sean Rigg, Dannie Bulman, Matt Tubbs, George Francomb and Adebayo Akinfenwa just three days after an FA Cup tie at York City, he gave opportunities to Jake Nicholson, Sammy Moore, Ade Azeez and Alan Bennett.

“We’ve got four games in 11-12 days, the pitch was very heavy against York City, we haven’t got a big squad, so ultimately I was hoping we would get through without injuries,” the gaffer said.

“I was always going to give Riggy, Dannie and Tubbsy an hour tops,trying to manage the players through the week and the other players have come on and done extra well.

“We’ve got a few niggles, (some) players are playing on painkillers at the moment, but what can you do when you’ve got four games in 11 days, it’s really hard to get any rest and recovery.”

As the January transfer window edges closer Ardley  says the club will do all it can to keep Matt Tubbs at Kingsmeadow, amid fans concerns he may be pinched by a rival club well before the expiry of his intended season-long loan from AFC Bournemouth.

Matt Tubbs arms outstretched
Matt Tubbs – ‘We will do everything thing we possibly can to try and keep him at the club’ – Ardley

“There is a clause in there for Bournemouth to call him back in January if they want him, but he’s ours until the end of the season,” Ardley said in his post-match media interview in Bristol.

“And absolutely who wouldn’t want to keep Matt Tubbs? There is always a risk when he’s not your player.

“We will do everything thing we possibly can to try and keep him at the club. keep him happy, keep him here, he’s as good a goalscorer at our level that I’ve seen.

“Even though he’s had a little spell lately where he hasn’t scored, he still looks as if he’s going to score and I’m sure that will turn around and he’ll be a 20-goal a season striker, That’s why we worked so hard to get him.”

Tubbs, who made way for Akinfenwa after 70 minutes in the JPT, has now not scored for six games after eight goals in his first 10 games for the Dons.

After two Cup ties in quick succession it’s back to the league grind and a home encounter with 21st-placed Dagenham & Redbridge where the Dons’ consistency will again be put to the test against a team below them on the table.

Read more views on the WDSA forum match thread