The Hatters’ second visit to Wimbledon’s Cherry Red Records Stadium in a little over seven months saw them leave South West London with all three points, after coming from behind in scorching sunshine to defeat previously-unbeaten AFC Wimbledon.
Their inaugural victory of the season on the road – courtesy of goals from Louie Barry and Will Collar that wiped out the hosts’ first-half lead – lifted them three places up to 17th. It was also a first win for County at the Cherry Red Records Stadium, and only a second-ever in the London Borough of Merton, following a triumph back in 1980 against the now-defunct Wimbledon FC at the ‘old’ Plough Lane.
County took to the field on the UK’s hottest day of 2023 – at 32 degrees, rather more closely associated with mid-summer Grand Slam tennis along the road in SW19 – and showing a quintet of changes from the starting line-up at Edgeley Park against Crawley the previous Saturday.
Tanto Olaofe, Alfie Pond (making his first County start), Ethan Pye, Antoni Sarcevic and Macauley Southam-Hales were the five players brought in – replacing the injured Kyle Knoyle and Ryan Rydel; skipper Paddy Madden, who had not travelled due to family reasons; Ibou Toray, who was on international duty for The Gambia; and Akil Wright, who was named among the substitutes.
The Hatters’ bench also included midfielder Odin Bailey, following his arrival in SK3 on loan from Salford just over a week earlier. And Ryan Croasdale took the captain’s armband in Madden’s absence.
The hosts, for their part, included among their starters two former players from EP in Jimmy Ball and Ryan Johnson – but current Hatters, Connor Evans and Joe Lewis, could not turn out for the ‘Dons’, in accordance with the terms of their season-long loans at Plough Lane.
County earned a couple of corners in quick succession during the seventh minute – and, following the second of those, the contest witnessed its first chance of note, as the ball fell to Barry who fired over from the edge of the box.
The Hatters were awarded a third corner 10 minutes later, and that delivery – taken, like the earlier two, by Sarcevic on the right – found Nick Powell, who headed well wide of the near post.
At the other end, Harry Pell, whose goal had proved the difference between the two sides in the corresponding fixture for the previous campaign, sent a header over County’s crossbar after Ball had nodded on from the left.
Chances had otherwise, and understandably, been at something of a premium in the sweltering heat, prior to the afternoon’s first drinks break just after the half’s mid-point. But, duly rehydrated, the Hatters forced the pace with their next attack, as Croasdale picked out Southam-Hales, whose first-time cross from the right towards Olaofe was bundled around the near post by home captain, Alex Pearce.
It was, then, rather against the run of play when the Dons – who had drawn their two home league matches hitherto – went ahead shortly after the half-hour, as Josh Davison connected with James Tilley’s corner from the right to convert at close range.
A Wimbledon break five minutes later saw Davison and his team go close to doubling their tallies – but, having latched on to Josh Neufville’s through-ball, the striker fired straight at Ben Hinchliffe who dived to smother.
As half-time approached, the Hatters created one further opportunity – albeit in vain, as Collar flicked the ball forward for Barry, who met it on the bounce to head beyond the right post.
HALF-TIME: Wimbledon 1 (Davison, 32), County 0.
Upon the resumption, the hosts were quickly out of the traps at their ground on whose site Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium once stood – but Hinchliffe used his feet to block an angled effort from the right by Tilley, and Southam-Hales dispossessed Neufville when the winger was through on goal and poised to shoot.
The importance of those good defensive deeds was further emphasised five minutes later, when County got back on level terms – courtesy of a counter-attack, initiated on the halfway-line by Olaofe, and finished in style by Barry, who blasted past goalkeeper Alex Bass and into the bottom-right corner to net for a fourth successive league game.
Neufville, from the left, drilled narrowly past County’s far upright – before Barry crossed for Collar to send a header into the hands of Bass. But a second Barry delivery on the left to Collar, a dozen minutes following the equaliser, yielded more significant results, as the midfielder met it with his left foot to fire home and put the Hatters in front.
With quarter of an hour left on the clock, another Olaofe break saw him surge forward and weave from the left along the edge of the box – before squaring to Sarcevic, whose shot cleared the bar.
Sarcevic skewed a further effort past the left post, and hooked another over, during nine minutes of time added on – and, at the other end, Hinchliffe dived to gather up a long-range punt from Tilley, before Wright cleared substitute Aron Sasu’s dangerous delivery from the left, and Tilley fired into the right side-netting at the death.
FULL-TIME: Wimbledon 1 (Davison, 32), County 2 (Barry, 50; Collar, 62).
Team (4-1-2-1-2): Hinchliffe; Southam-Hales, Pond (Wright, 51), Horsfall, Pye; Croasdale (Capt.); Collar, Sarcevic; Powell; Olaofe (Richardson, 79), Barry (Bailey, 90 + 1).
[Debut for Odin Bailey, with a unique SCAN [Stockport County Appearance Number] of 1458.]
Unused Subs: Smith, Jones, Mee, C. Johnson.
Attendance: 7,607 (645 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.