The smash and grab victory looked unlikely as Wimbledon applied all of the pressure throughout a contest that was mostly one-way traffic in favour of the hosts at QPR’s Loftus Road.
It appeared as if the clash was heading for a stalemate and a point Town would have taken given the abundance of chances afforded to Wimbledon before veteran striker Clarke pounced to become the late hero on just his second Shrewsbury start.
Former Wolves and Sheffield United hitman Clarke turned home from close-range at the back post after a Josh Vela corner from the left was flicked on by a Dons head, one of only two efforts at goal from the visitors.
AFC Wimbledon, who are still without a home win in the league, were the brighter side and had Ricketts’ men defending for large parts in West London.
Deyan Iliev was busy in goal on his Town debut. The goalkeeper, picked ahead of Harry Burgoyne, made an impressive save in each half, while the home side lacked composure in their final touch to convert numerous chances carved through neat approach-play.
But Shrewsbury cared little at half-time after Clarke’s poacher’s effort in the first minute of added time earned Ricketts and Town a welcome first victory of the league season.
It was one day over 38 years since Shrewsbury last played at Loftus Road. They lost 4-0 to the Second Division champions-in-waiting that day on the artificial pitch.
You had to go back 57 years to 1963 for Town’s last win at the stadium, a 4-3 success on the day Harold McMillan was Prime Minister and John F. Kennedy was President.
Iliev, the recent loan signing from Arsenal to cover for the injured Matija Sarkic, was given the nod over Burgoyne for his debut in goal.
It was a tough call on Burgoyne, who had largely done well in place of Sarkic against Plymouth and Gillingham.
Iliev, a north Macedonia youth international, is Shrewsbury’s third goalkeeper to taste action this season.
Ro-Shaun Williams was a surprising inclusion at right-back. Back from a period of self-isolation, Williams was named over full-back trio Marlon Fossey, Matt Millar and Donald Love, who were not named in the squad.
Brentford loan midfielder Jan Zamburek made his league debut after impressing in the EFL Trophy last time out against Bolton.
Shaun Whalley had not recovered from a calf problem that forced him out of the last league game against the Gills, so Ryan Barnett was rewarded for catching the eye recently with a second league start.
Glyn Hodges’ hosts were unchanged at Loftus Road - which has recently had a name change to the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium. The Dons won at Swindon last time out, a second impressive win on the road this season.
But they had taken just one point from a possible six at their temporary home heading into Ricketts’ side’s visit.
The contest is Wimbledon’s penultimate at the home of their Championship hosts before moving into the new 9,200-capacity Plough Lane stadium on November 3.
Town, refreshed from their 11-day break owing to the international break, started brightly, with Barnett lively on the left flank and Leon Clarke and Jason Cummings - again operating from the right - combining well.
Cummings was sharp in the opening exchanges, a willing runner that stretched the Dons’ back three.
Visiting midfield pair Zamburek and skipper Ollie Norburn were busy. The latter caught the eye finding space between the line and combining with clever passes.
Iliev, making his debut in English football after loans in Poland and Slovakia, was largely untroubled after an early slice into the stands after venturing out of goal.
The contest was 15 minutes old when its first opportunity arrived. Powerful Wimbledon frontman Joe Pigott climbed well to meet Steve Seddon’s cross from the left but Iliev held the header comfortably.
Dons were knitting together neat move and lively forward Ryan Longman, on loan from Brighton, was a willing runner on the shoulder of Shrews’ defence.
Defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell was booked by referee Joshua Smith after following up a loose touch with a dangerous lunge on Pigott.
Moments later his central defensive partner Pierre was also cautioned for a cynical pull back.
The home side caught the eye with some dangerous breaks. Their lively breaks and counter-attacks, with impressive highly-rated Brighton loan man Ryan Longman leading the line, were stretching Town.
Shrewsbury midfielder Zamburek received an earful from Ricketts on his league debut after being caught wanting too much time on the ball. Dons won it and fed Longman, who danced into the box before dragging wide across goal.
An Iliev pass from a goal kick slipped under the foot of Williams for a throw-in after half hour and the visitors struggled to recover at sixes and sevens.
Ebanks-Landell was caught napping on the ball and almost punished as a low cross from the left was met by right wing-back Shane McLoughlin, whose fierce drive was blocked.
Wimbledon were in control and forced another presentable chance five minutes before the break.
Longman’s clever run met Ethan Chislett’s header and the striker’s cross found Seddon all alone at the far post, and his low strike on the bounce drew a fine save from Iliev’s outstretched left leg.
Ricketts used the opportunity for an early team talk as Chislett received treatment. The Town boss will have been looking for more from his side as an attacking force.
Town created a better chance after 30 seconds of the restart than they had mustered in the first period.
After Clarke’s clever lay off, Barnett delivered a fine cross from the left which reached Cummings, who swivelled and let fly, only for his goalbound strike cannoning a defender and flying behind.
The Shrews boss will have been pleased with more of what he saw in the opening minutes of the second period but was shown a yellow card by the referee after one too many complaints to the officials.
Wimbledon found their footing as the second period progressed. Pigott was central to a couple of forrays forward.
The big forward’s powerful drive from the edge of Town’s box was flying on target until it poleaxed team-mate Chislett.
Ricketts sent Brad Walker on for Zamburek on the hour and Shrews worked a real chance soon after. Clarke turned well in the box and fed Williams, who had advanced well down the right.
The defender’s low cross looked good for Cummings to pounce but a blue home shirt stood firm to crowd out the Scot and the bouncing ball just wouldn’t drop for the visitors.
Back Wimbledon came. The hosts looked a threat on almost every occasion they ventured forward. Town were uncharacteristically ropey in defence on several occasions.
Pigott tested Iliev’s concentration and reactions with a thumping 25-yard drive that was whistling high into the net only for the debut keeper’s flying save.
Big defender Terell Thomas met the resulting corner, with his header looping goalwards only to be cleared by a mass of bodies as Salop were living dangerously.
In a bid to gain some momentum, Ricketts sent Daniel Udoh on for Cummings but Dons continued to come out on top for the 50-50s and pose a threat as Chislett shot over from distance.
Then, as the game entered its final 10 minutes, loan Birmingham City left wing-back Seddon should have done better when the ball found him 10 yards out.
Nothing pointed to the visitors pouncing late to snatch all three points as Scott High came on at right wing-back, with Shrews attempting to shore up for the point.
But Salop worked a corner down their left, delivered expertly by Vela before an unintentional Dons flick was met by Clarke to finish, leading to mammoth celebration and relief for those of a blue and amber persuasion.
AFC Wimbledon (3-5-2):
Trueman; Thomas, Csoka, O’Neill; McLoughlin, Oksanen, Chislett, Woodyard, Seddon; Longman (Roscrow, 83), Pigott.
Subs not used: Tzanev (gk), Alexander, Rudoni, Guinness-Walker, Kalambayi, Reilly.
Shrewsbury Town (4-3-3):
Iliev; Williams, Ebanks-Landell, Pierre, Golbourne; Norburn, Vela, Zamburek (Walker, 61); Cummings (Udoh, 75), Clarke, Barnett (High, 83).
Subs not used: Burgoyne (gk), Daniels, Tracey, Caton.
Referee: Joshua Smith