Blue Square Bet Premier Final
AFC Wimbledon 0 (0) Luton Town 0 (0) aet, AFC Wimbledon won 4-3 on penalties.
BRAVE Hatters lost out to AFC Wimbledon in the cruellest of fashions as their hopes of a return to the Football League were dashed in a penalty shoot-out at Eastlands in the Blue Square Bet Premier Final this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.
Jason Walker had come within inches of giving Luton victory when his header rebounded off a post in the final minutes of normal time, but there was nothing separate these sides over the course of 120 minutes.
In fact there had been little between both sides during the whole season and only penalties could part them at the death as leading scorer and captain Danny Kedwell rammed home the decisive spot-kick for Dons to win the shoot-out 4-3.
Town named an unchanged side from the team that beat Wrexham 5-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals. The only change came on the bench where fit-again striker Danny Crow came in for the unfortunate Lloyd Owusu.
AFC, meanwhile, named the same side that had seen off Fleetwood 8-1 over the two legs in the semi-finals.
Hatters sported a new retro kit, similar to that worn in the early 80s with a white stripe down one side as both sides were greeted by flame machines on their entrance to the pitch.
With Eastlands dominated by a vast swathe of orange the Hatters almost made an ideal start when a Robbie Willmott corner was headed back across goal by an AFC defender and giant Czech Zdenek Kroca could only direct his header just wide.
Wimbledon threatened from some early corners of their own, Jamie Stuart flashing a header just wide, before having a goal chalked off on eight minutes.
Ricky Wellard burst through the middle and fed Kaid Mohamed, who cut inside before curling in an effort that Mark Tyler couldn’t hold and Kedwell was lurking at the far post to squeeze his effort past the covering defender on the line, only to have it thankfully ruled out by the linesman’s flag.
With so much at stake both sides and sets of supporters were on edge but some neat footwork won Jake Howells a couple of yards in the box and his right-footed drive was gathered by Seb Brown at the second attempt.
A cynical challenge on Jason Walker earned Luton a free-kick in a good position, but Willmott curled wastefully over.
A venomous Kedwell cross caused all sorts of problems at the other end with Town looking tentative at the back.
The Hatters also looked dangerous going forward with Claude Gnakpa beautifully turning Stuart midway through the half before forcing a flying stop out of Brown.
Some suicidal AFC defending almost let Town in on 28 minutes. George Pilkington’s effort from the edge of the area was spooned goalwards by Kroca and Brown was just about able to beat the ball away under pressure from Walker.
And Luton had a great chance to take the lead with 11 minutes of the half left when Willmott’s free-kick picked out the onrushing Gnakpa in the box and he powered his header just over from seven yards.
Dons had plenty of possession in the closing moments of the half as Town struggled to win the ball back, but still created little of note.
Willmott whistled one well over just before the break but there was little to choose between the two sides as they went in goalless at the interval.
Some tasty tackles began to fly in as the game developed a bit of an edge, but it was the Dons who were winning more of the physical battles.
Struggling to make an impression, Town boss brought on top scorer Matthew Barnes-Homer for Willmott as the Hatters changed to a more traditional 4-4-2 formation.
Dan Gleeson blasted well wide of the mark with an overly-ambitious effort while an Ed Asafu-Adjaye strike took a slight nick on it way behind.
Substitute James Mulley’s curler looked to be heading wide but was pushed round the post by the scrambling Tyler.
Town were being bullied out of it by the bigger and stronger Dons and Kedwell round the stranded Tyler on 76 minutes only to run the ball behind.
With the game stretched Luton needed their quiet midfield to come to the fore with Lawless having one effort well blocked as they tried to battle their way back into the game.
Having just been booked Luke Moore was lucky to escape a second yellow card after catching Keane with a stray arm.
AFC began to turn the screw in the closing stages with Ismail Yakubu and Brett Johnson forcing a corner wide and Gregory drilling off taregt.
But the Hatters almost snatched victory with three minutes left when they were denied a clear penalty. Gnakpa’s canny through played Walker in and as he nipped the ball past Brown the keeper clearly caught him. Referee James Adcock waved play on as Barnes-Homer seemed destined to score at the far post but he was denied by a throng of bodies as the chance vanished.
And with a minute of normal time left Luton were inches away from grabbing promotion.
Another clever Gnakpa pass released Howells on the left and his centre found the soaring Walker whose header back across goal struck the foot of the post and bounced into the grateful arms of Brown.
An end-to-end finish of normal time ensued but the sides couldn’t be parted as the contest went into extra-time.
Stuart was unlucky not to be sent off for a second bookable offence when he fouled Gnakpa early in the second half, while a Gleeson howitzer fizzed just wide as the Town’s full-back was inches away from a famous first Luton goal.
Added time was largely a cagey affair until Lawless powered through the middle and swerved an effort wide in the 104th-minute as the game edged closer to penalties.
Dons though had a great opportunity to break the deadlock in the 107th-minute when Rashid Yussuff’s pass found the unmarked Mulley at the far post but he could only blast straight at Tyler who held on well.
Walker flashed a header wide before the woodwork came to Town’s rescue with 10 minutes to play. Luke Moore’s forceful run saw him bundle his way past Kroca before pulling the ball back to Mohamed whose mishit shot hit the near post and went behind.
Town continued to spurn shooting opportunities while a mix-up between Kroca and Tyler almost let Dons in at the other end.
A brilliant block by Gleeson prevented Moore from side-footing home a winner from just a few yards out while some haphazard defending piled the pressure on the Hatters in the closing stages as the Dons went close more than once with Yakubu putting a header wide in the very last minute as the game went to penalties.
After discussions on the halfway line it was decided the penalties would be taken in front of the AFC fans.
Lawless was first up but saw his low effort to Brown’s right was batted away by the Dons stopper while Sam Hatton rammed confidently home past Tyler’s despairing dive.
Skipper Pilkington kept his cool to fire into the top right-hand corner with Moore following suit with a confident penalty into the same spot.
Substitute Adam Newton showed his experience to chip home and Tyler then dived low to his left to keep out Mohamed’s tame effort and level things up only for Brown to deny Walker with a superb one-handed save.
Yakubu sent Tyler the wrong way with his two-step run up and Howells kept Luton in it with a well-struck effort to the right.
Captain Kedwell, though, kept his cool to ram home an unstoppable effort to propel the Dons into the Football League and leave Luton’s fans in a state of shock.
Dons (4-4-2): Seb Brown, Sam Hatton, Gareth Gwillim (Ismail Yakubu 62), Steven Gregory (Lee Minshull 95), Jamie Stuart, Brett Johnson, Ricky Wellard (James Mulley 67), Rashid Yussuf, Danny Kedwell (C), Kaid Mohamed, Luke Moore. Substitutes not used: Christian Jolley, Jack Turner.
Hatters (4-3-3): Mark Tyler, Dan Gleeson, Keith Keane, George Pilkington (C), Robbie Willmott (Matthew Barnes-Homer 61), Zdenek Kroca, Alex Lawless, Jake Howells, Ed Asafu-Adjaye, Claude Gnakpa (Adam Newton 96), Jason Walker. Substitutes not used: Luke Graham, Danny Crow, Kevin Pilkington.
Booking: Johnson 33; Keane 45+2; Lawless 55; Moore 80; Minshull 108.
Referee: James Adcock.
Assistant Referees: Michael Webb and Dean Treleaven.
Fourth Official: Steve Smith.
Star Hatter: Jake Howells. Energetic runner throughout, produced some lovely touches and show maturity beyond his years to score his penalty.