Long pen 90
UNITED began 2013 with an incredibly frustrating 3-2 defeat at home to AFC Wimbledon on a quagmire of a pitch at Plainmoor.
The visitors scored early with a neat header by Paul McCallum but skipper Lee Mansell had the scores level within four minutes, and the Gulls created numerous chances to grab the lead.
The opportunities sadly slipped away and Mat Mitchell-King pounced to give Wimbledon a half-time advantage. The game was then trundling to a painful loss but Rene Howe with another equaliser in the final minute.
Surely the Gulls would be favourites to pursue victory but the third injury-time goal conceded in three games arrived when the Dons won a last-gasp penalty, and Stacy Long walloped home the winner from 12 yards.
United boss Martin Ling made one enforced change from the Boxing Day draw with Plymouth, introducing Ashley Yeoman for his first professional start in place of the injured Billy Bodin.
Yeoman took up the role as support striker to main front-man, and new dad, Howe, with the spare place on the Yellow bench going to Niall Thompson, fit again after missing the Argyle trip with a hamstring problem.
Wimbledon manager Neal Ardley entered the game with a mini defensive crisis. The Dons slipped to the bottom of League 2 after a 3-0 home loss to Oxford on Saturday and the heart of their backline was ripped out by a suspension to Will Antwi and the completion of Yado Mambo’s loan spell from Charlton.
The ready-made replacements were Dutchman Pim Balkestein and Mitchell-King took up the captain’s armband on his return. On the visiting bench, Kieran Djilai came in for Christian Jolley.
After a Christmas blighted by torrential and consistent rain, the playing surface at Plainmoor was looking rather sorry for itself, especially in an area just outside the player’s tunnel, where a combination of sand and mud proved a passing poser for both teams.
The Gulls started the game defending the Family Stand, with the churned-up section placed firmly in the area of responsibility for right-back Joe Oastler, who set his stall out with a launched first-time clearance in the opening minute.
Sadly for United, Wimbledon were in front from their next attack, as a delicious cross from the right by Toby Ajala left McCallum with the simple task of nodding the ball past Michael Poke at the back post.
From a Yellow perspective, the whole process was far too simple. A routine throw found Ajala in space and his cross picked out the unmarked McCallum, job done.
United needed an instant response and who better to deliver than the skipper. The move started with a Kevin Nicholson free-kick cleared to Nathan Craig, who immediately returned the ball to the danger area.
Howe challenged for the initial cross and a Danny Stevens toe-poke was then palmed away by 42 year-old goalkeeper Neil Sullivan, but Mansell was in the right place to sweep home the equaliser from three yards.
Oastler was next to take up the mantle, storming forward from his mud patch to lash a low left-foot shot at Sullivan, who got down well to make the save.
The Gulls were suddenly playing with confidence and the physicality of Howe this time created space for Yeoman to twist in the box and steer another low strike narrowly past Sullivan’s far post.
Yeoman continued his sharp start to the match, picking up the ball in midfield to run at the Wimbledon defence and his final effort was deflected wide for a corner, which the visitors struggled to clear. The next United set-piece was a whipped free-kick from Nathan Craig that had Sullivan scrambling to tip over his own bar.
As the match ticked toward 30 minutes, the new Yellow strike-partnership continued to blossom, with Howe showing impressive strength and touch as the main battering ram, and Yeoman flitting around with sharpness in areas that were difficult for the Dons to pick up.
From nowhere, Wimbledon then regained the lead, as United failed to clear a Long free-kick and the ball was slipped to the towering Mitchell-King, who showed the poise of a forward by coaxing the ball beyond Poke and inside the far post.
There was no argument the Gulls were unfortunate to be behind but creating the most chances could not disguise the slack defending that led to both Wimbledon goals.
The pattern quickly returned to United dominating territory and possession, but the Dons were always a threat on the break, as proved by Jonathan Meades breaking into the left channel for a scooped shot that Poke did well to keep in his grasp.
United trudged off at half-time knowing their deficit was harsh but they would face a different forward challenge after the break, with McCallum and Jack Midson replaced by the fresh legs of Jason Prior and Luke Moore.
It was Ajala, however, who posed the first threat of the second period, surging into space down the left before sending a fierce drive searing past Poke’s top left-hand corner.
The Gulls gradually began to lift their tempo and the Dons responded by retreating further into their swamp-like defensive zone, but the crucial final pass remained frustratingly elusive for the boys in Yellow.
Given their lowly position, it was understandable for Wimbledon to protect their lead but it was a long time to hold on and Ling turned to his bench on the hour, introducing Thompson and Saul Halpin for Craig and Stevens.
Within seconds, Howe was a fraction away from nodding in the equaliser after yet another inviting Nicholson corner. Moments later, Yeoman surged forward and bundled the ball into space for Craig Easton, but the final shot was smothered by a grateful Sullivan.
A brief lull followed until Halpin danced magically down the left and angled over a driven cross that skirted across the surface and away to safety when only the faintest United touch would have been enough for a leveller.
The greater frustration for the Gulls was the confidence given to Wimbledon with every spurned opportunity and only a good save by Poke denied Long from extending the lead with a curler from distance.
Ling made his final change with 12 minutes left on the clock, withdrawing the tiring Easton for Damon Lathrope. The other change came in the form of tempo, as United switched from fast to frantic.
Ardley turned to his bench for the closing minutes, removing the impressive Ajala for Brendan Kiernan, as the visitors justifiably sought to drag out every set-piece for as much time as possible.
The next chance to salvage a point rest with the fearsome left-foot of Nicholson, who struck a 30-yard free-kick with immense power and Sullivan used all his experience to scuttle across his goal and hold on to the ball.
United would not be denied, however, as a corner won by the persistence of Howe moments later was floated beautifully to the far post, where the big striker was waiting to plant a firm downward header past the stranded Sullivan.
Unfortunately, the drama then switched to the other end, as a lunge from Aaron Downes felled Rashid Yussuff, who happily collapsed to the floor and Long smashed the winning penalty straight down the middle.
Gulls (4-4-1-1): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 16 Angus MacDonald, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 20 Nathan Craig (29 Niall Thompson 62), 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 18 Craig Easton (6 Damon Lathrope 78), 19 Danny Stevens (17 Saul Halpin 62); 23 Ashley Yeoman; 9 Rene Howe. Substitutes (not used): 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 21 Thomas Cruise, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Booked: MacDonald 82, Howe 89
Wimbledon (4-4-2): 35 Neil Sullivan; 2 Curtis Osano, 5 Pim Balkestein, 6 Mat Mitchell-King (capt), 3 Warren Cummings; 38 Toby Ajala (18 Brendan Kiernan 84), 31 Jonathan Meades, 7 Stacy Long, 23 Rashid Yussuff; 10 Jack Midson (19 Jason Prior H-T), 37 Paul McCallum (11 Luke Moore H-T). Substitutes (not used): 4 Louis Harris, 33 Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz, 34 Kieran Djilali, 36 Ryan Hervel.
Referee: Oliver Langford
Attendance: 2,618 (175 away).