As Chris Bush arrived at the far post to meet Lee Minshull's injury-time cross at Kingsmeadow yesterday a perfect symmetry beckoned: AFC Wimbledon's debut game in the Football League would, like Wimbledon's 34 years ago, finish 3-3.
However, even the game's most romantic club cannot write its own scripts. The substitute left-back blazed his shot into the skies and the new Wombles' last chance of a point had gone. For once, the taking part really was more important than the winning, but that did little to assuage AFC Wimbledon's disappointment. Trailing 2-1 at the break to a far more battle-hardened Bristol Rovers, the League's newest club hauled themselves back to 2-2 only to concede a needless penalty five minutes from time. Adam Virgo, once of Celtic, thumped it past Seb Brown and League Two's second-favourites were on their way.
Disappointment then, for Wimbledon, but not despair. "We looked very nervous and didn't play any football, but I've no doubts about my boys' ability. We will play much better than this," said Terry Brown, their manager.
Brown, who was 59 the day beforethe game, accurately pinpointed Wimbledon's problem. "We conceded three here, and three at Crawley [in a midweek Carling Cup play-off round]. All six goals were down to individual mistakes. We have to cut them out."
Rovers' 17th-minute opener came after Seb Brown, who is encouraged to throw the ball out, bowled it to Ricky Wellard in central midfield. Wellard's first touch was poor, Rovers' Matt Gill mugged him and released the veteran Scott McGleish who drilled a shot inside the far post. His somersault celebration belied the striker's 37 years.
So, too, did the way he sped clear two minutes later after intercepting Brett Johnson's wayward pass. Brown saved McGleish's shot but the Dons switched off and McGleish was able to find Matt Harrold, who headed in.
Before and after these goals Christian Jolley and Luke Moore both failed to beat Scott Bevan when clear. Finallythe captain Jamie Stuart, with a late run, glanced Sammy Hatton's free-kick past Bevan. For older Dons, there was an echo of Lawrie Sanchez heading home Dennis Wise's corner in the 1988 FA Cup final.
Midway through the second half Terry Brown brought on the summer signing Charles Ademeno from Grimsby – born in, of all places, Milton Keynes. That was swiftly forgiven by the Wimbledon faithful as, within a minute, he turned to convert Minshull's knock-down.
The Dons were buoyant, but Rovers carried greater threat. Brown denied Joe Osei-Kuffour and Mustapha Carayol but was helpless after Johnson flapped under pressure and handled Byron Anthony's header from a deep free-kick. "They had got back into it and were on top. Fortunately we got a break and I managed to take it," said Virgo about his spot-kick. The spoils therefore went to the pupil; Rovers' new manager Paul Buckle played under Terry Brown at Aldershot. He has transformed his squad to such an extent that of the 27 players Rovers used while being relegated from League One only one – Anthony – started yesterday. Three of the starting XI followed Buckle from Torquay, others, like Virgo, Gill, McGleish and Harrold, have a lot of experience. Their wage bill will dwarf that of Wimbledon.
In homage to history Wimbledon wore shirts that closely resembled the white ones worn against Halifax Town in their opening match in 1977. Their point then was one of three won in their first seven matches and recovery was slow. In January, with Wimbledon 21st, manager Allan Batsford resigned, to be replaced by a young Dario Gradi. As late as March the Dons were in the bottom four, but they pulled away to finish a respectable 13th.
Incidentally, the opening gate in 1977 was 4,616. After nearly a quarter-century, an FA Cup win, umpteen promotions and relegations, a move to Milton Keynes, the formation of a new club, and the establishment of a base in Kingston, Wimbledon appear to have gained 13 fans. They have in reality gained a lot more, including international admiration. Now the focus turns to gaining a first win.