AFC WIMBLEDON 2 NEWPORT COUNTY 2
THE long-awaited return of Aaron O’Connor was marred by Newport County AFC throwing away two points at AFC Wimbledon.
O’Connor came on for the last 25 minutes after the Exiles had taken control of this mid-table clash with a first half stunner from Chris Zebroski and a Mike Flynn penalty just after the break.
But the Dons battled their way to a point with Kwesi Appiah grabbing a goal back just three minutes after the penalty and George Francomb earning his side a point with a long-distance piledriver.
The draw leaves Justin Edinburgh’s men still seven points above the relegation zone and now with only three games remaining.
They’ll hope to finally secure their safety, mathematically speaking, at home to promotion hopefuls Burton Albion on Monday.
County took the lead after 15 minutes thanks to an unstoppable half volley into the top corner from top scorer Zebroski.
The 20-yard screamer was the striker’s 13th of an injury-hit campaign and Exiles fans must be wondering how many he would have scored had he not missed three months with knee ligament damage.
The 27-year-old, who also netted against Wycombe Wanderers last Saturday, seems to be hitting a rich vein of form as the season reaches its conclusion.
And Edinburgh must be keen to tie the much-travelled striker down to a new deal as soon as possible.
Rene Howe has his merits but the prospect of Zebroski forming a front three with Christian Jolley and O’Connor next season is one to savour.
After finally ending his 32-game goal drought last week, Jolley had almost opened the scoring against his former club after just five minutes but Ross Worner saved well for the hosts.
And once the goal went in Edinburgh’s men took control of the game against a somewhat lacklustre home team.
Jolley looked like the confidence was starting to return to his game and linked up effectively with Zebroski and Howe up front.
Along with his other former Dons teammates Lee Minshull, Max Porter and Ryan Jackson, Jolley enjoyed a warm reception from the near-capacity Good Friday crowd.
That was more than could be said for Exiles goalkeeper Ian McLoughlin, however.
The Irish stopper, on loan from MK Dons, was the target for pantomime boos throughout.
The pain of the original Wimbledon ‘franchise’ moving to Milton Keynes evidently still hurts more than a decade on.
And the home fans were suffering even more when half-time substitute Chris Arthur hauled down Jolley in the box just 41 seconds into the second period.
Captain Flynn sent Worner the wrong way from the penalty spot and it seemed that County were on their way to a comfortable victory.
But that’s not the County way, of course. They don’t tend to do things the easy way and just two minutes later the hosts were back in it.
The back four failed to deal with a Francomb free-kick into the box and Appiah, on loan from Crystal Palace, bundled home at the far post.
Edinburgh tried to lift his troops with the introduction of O’Connor from the bench in place of Howe 20 minutes after the break.
The 30-year-old striker, County’s top scorer as they won promotion from the Conference last season, has missed all of their maiden campaign in League Two with a persistent groin injury.
O’Connor’s last competitive match was the play-off final at Wembley last May when his goal sealed a 2-0 victory over Welsh rivals Wrexham.
But his much-heralded return failed to spark the Exiles and the hosts were level on 70 minutes thanks to a rocket from Francomb.
McLoughlin had no chance and the home fans sensed blood but County kept the Wombles at bay to earn a deserved point.
There was nearly a fairytale ending as O’Connor found himself in space in the box and his snatched effort rippled the net, but the wrong side of the post for County’s returning hero.
Wimbledon: Worner, Fuller, Fenlon (Arthur, 46), S.Moore, Framton, Jones, Morris, Nicholson (Hylton, 46), Appiah, Midson, Francomb (L.Moore, 90)
Subs not used: Brown, Pell, Sweeney, Antwi
County: McLoughlin, Sandell, Jackson, Feely, Blake, Porter, Minshull, Flynn (Chapman, 78), Howe (O’Connor, 65), Zebroski, Jolley (Willmott, 78)
Booked: Minshull, Feely, Sandell
Subs not used: Pidgeley, Hughes, Jeffers, Holloway
Referee: Andy Woolmer
Attendance: 4,398 (412 County)
Argus star man: Zebroski