DAVID CONNOLLY’s first goal for Wimbledon in almost 13 years clinched an exhilarating 3-2 win over promotion hopefuls Luton Town at Kingsmeadow to continue a late-season revival and sustain hopes of a play-offs push with 15 games left.
The 37-year-old Irishman popped up in the third minute of stoppage time — four minutes after coming on as a substitute — to round the Hatters keeper Elliot Justham and prod home the winner amid joyous scenes.
Connolly’s slick finishing earned the Dons all three points after their 2-0 lead on 42 minutes was pegged back by the fourth-placed Luton Town.
It was Connolly’s first goal since scoring for the old Wimbledon against Bradford at Selhurst Park in Division One on April 6, 2002 before the FA Commission hijack.
“I love having David around the place and the lads have got so much respect for him. He rolled back the years and it’s great to have an option like that,” beamed Neal Ardley, who played alongside him at Wimbledon in the 2001-02 season.
Nearly threw it all away in the second half but who better to finish that late winner than the class and experience of David Connolly! #COYD
— Ray Armfield (@KentWomble) February 21, 2015
“We had wanted to stretch the game so we put Ade Azeez on to utilise his pace near the end and that worked. Then David did what he does best. He reads those types of moments and I’m delighted for him. He has had a tough year in his football career and hopefully he will really enjoy this.”
It sealed a double over the Hatters this season following a 1-0 win at Kenilworth Road in the second game last August. The Dons have now beaten five teams in the top eight this season — Burton Albion, Luton (twice), Southend United, Bury and Newport County — as well as dumping Wycombe Wanderers out of the FA Cup on their own ground.
Results-wise, Wimbledon have the form to push for a play-off place if they can maintain their recent consistency.
There has not been any of the nervous chatter about relegation these past weeks. Instead, more are looking upwards than sneaking a peek below. The Dons have six more points than this stage last season and their goal threat is greater with an extra 11 goals.
The Dons hit the ground running and were full value for their two goals. It could have been more with two shots coming off the woodwork.
Another of Ardley’s transfer window recruits Alfie Potter had a scintillating half, involved in most things and scored the opener on 28 minutes. Craig Tanner and Adebayo Akinfenwa played a superb one-two, before Bayo’s shot was turned away by Justham and Potter stroked home for his first Dons goal since his switch from Oxford United.
Three minutes before half-time a corner was fisted away by Justham, but Dannie Bulman, on the half volley, unleashed a swerving drive which zeroed into the roof of the net.
It was Wimbledon at their irresistible best, probably their best half of football of the season, but Luton struck back in the final minute of the first half. A quick throw-in created space down the right and though Luke Guttridge diverted a subsequent cross onto a post, Jayden Stockley was there to stab home.
Luton emerged a stronger combination after the interval and were aggrieved to not have a penalty after Stockley was brought down by Dave Winfield inside the area, only for referee Fred Graham to rule the Luton man had dived and furnished him with a yellow card.
Some fans described hearing an audible gasp when the referee did not point to the spot. Definitely, a bullet dodged there on watching replays.
Luton drew level in the 67th minute after an attempted clearance from Bulman struck Deji Oshilaja and Guttridge put a ball through for Luton substitute Elliot Lee, who beat Shea.
The Hatters had the momentum and looked the likely winners, but Ardley made some crucial substitutions. Tom Beere for Sean Rigg, Ade Azeez for Tanner and the rabbit-out-of-the-hat, Connolly for Potter.
“We are delighted with the team. We showed good character in the second half,” Ardley said.
“People may moan about it and say that we did not do this or that in the second half, but it was hard. They are good at what they do and we struggled to handle it.
“With 20 minutes to go we made a few substitutions and that brought us back into it. Alfie Potter was really good in the first half, but he was tiring near the end because he hasn’t played much lately. We decided to be brave and change to a 4-3-3.”
Ardley’s intent to go after the three points and not settle for a point was rewarded with Connolly’s winner at the death. The manager now appears to have improved options to go to on his bench after shifting on some fringe players during the transfer window.
“Credit to Neal Ardley for taking off a midfielder and putting Connolly on late on in the game, a clear move to try to win the game rather than settle for a point,” Singapore Don said.
“Boy oh boy did it pay off! All round, a great team performance, we looked strong and confident and full of ability. The Dons never gave up and worked their way back in to the game in the last 15 minutes.”
Seven points out of 12 against four promotion chasers in 14 days is very encouraging, but Ardley believes the next two away games against Cambridge United (16th) and bottom team Hartlepool United loom as big obstacles.
“The big games now take care of themselves and I think the games away to Cambridge and Hartlepool they’re the really tough ones,” the gaffer said.
Not only did Connolly score our last minute winner but he also stopped the traffic for us so we won't miss our bus. What a guy #afcwimbledon
— Disco_Infiltrator (@Disco_Infiltrat) February 21, 2015
“Cambridge will be looking to bounce back from (2-6) defeat against Portsmouth (Matt Tubbs hattrick) and Hartlepool are scrapping for their lives and they’re the ones you worry about and the ones that are really difficult.
“So at home we feel confident we can beat anyone, but we’ve got to get ready for two tough ones.”
— Robert Smith (@OnyaDon) February 19, 2015
Get something out of these two over the next seven days and Wimbledon fans may start believing a play-off push is really on.
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