“Not in the wider interests of football”. We mentioned this astonishing statement, made on the subject of a new club starting in SW19 at the time that Wimbledon FC was being franchised to Milton Keynes, during our report of the first leg of this evening’s Blue Square Premier Play-Off between AFC Wimbledon and Fleetwood Town, but it is a statement that cannot and should not be repeated enough when mentioning tonight’s home team. Nine years on, the hollow ring that were always likely to reverberate around those words could scarcely sound more empty. That a club – any club – could make it from the depths of the Combined Counties League to the cusp of a place in the Football League would be astonishing enough. That it could be done at a club that has been owned and run by its supporters, on a sustainable basis and on a bed of principles the represent something firmly positive about our game is one of the great achievements in British football over the last ten years or so.
One might reasonably wonder where those that turned out at Sandhurst Town for the nascent club’s first match less than a decade ago might have believed that they might be by now. The size of their crowds was always likely to give them degree of competitive edge. The constitutional requirement to be sustainable and the costs of purchasing Kingsmeadow may have blunted that edge somewhat. Tonight, however, they are where they are – a second place finish in the Blue Square Premier this season behind the financial steroids of Crawley Town and comfortable 2-0 winners of the first leg of this play-off semi-final at the end of last week. Kingsmeadow is, perhaps predictably, full to capacity this evening, but warning shots were fired last night when Luton Town found that, even with a comfortable lead from the first leg, an early goal can make what should be a routine evening’s work a little less comfortable than might originally have been anticipated.
An early goal does come as dusk begins to descend over Norbiton, but it is Wimbledon that celebrate a fatal blow to Fleetwood’s chances of turning this match around. Sean Gregan has the ball from his toe by Kaid Mohammed, who rolls the ball with perfunctory ease past the Fleetwood goalkeeper Hurst. It has taken just twenty-seven seconds for Fleetwood’ bubble to burst. Ironically, though, the visitors play a full part in first half and they have a chance when Gareth Seddon breaks clear of the Wimbledon defence, but Wimbledon’s goalkeeper Seb Brown blocks his shot excellently. It still feels as if they can get back into this game at the very least and Magno Vieira has a shot blocked by Brett Johnson, but after twenty-seven minutes, any remaining doubts that this is to be Wimbledon’s night fully evaporate when Sam Hatton’s through-ball finds the talismanic Danny Kedwell, who slides the ball past Hurst to double their lead. Still, though, Fleetwood press and George Donnelly’s shot is well saved by Brown. With ten minutes of the half left to play, though, Luke Moore breaks what is left of the Fleetwood offside trap and rolls the ball to Kaid Mohamed to shoot into the empty goal. Half-time comes with Wimbledon three goals up on the night and five goals up on the night. In the distance somewhere, the proverbial fat lady can be heard practicing her scales.
Or is she? Less than two minutes into the second half, Fleetwood have aa consolation. Seb Brown’s performance in the first half was outstanding, but he cannot hold on to Sean Clancy’s shot and Gareth Seddon puts the rebound in from close range. It’s a little more than a chink of light, a mere glimmer of what may have been had their evening not started so disastrously, but it’s difficult not to admire Fleetwood’s tenacity in starting the second half with a goal. They are chasing, it feels, a hopelessly lost cause but they are resistant to giving it up completely. Their encouraging start to the second half, however, is blown from the water with two goals in four minutes, both of which carry an element of disaster about them from the perspective of the Fleetwood defence. Rashid Yussuff’s shot is blocked by Hurst, Steven Gregory’s rebound bounces out off the post and Mohammed taps the ball over the line for his hat-trick. Fleetwood have barely recovered from this when a comprehensive win starts to turn into a rout. Christian Jolley has been on the pitch for less than a quarter of an hour, but he saunters through the Fleetwood defence, has a shot blocked by Hurst and, after Junior Brown makes a hash of clearing the loose ball, lobs it into the goal.
Somewhere between the fourth and fifth goals, Fleetwood’s fight gives out completely. Their shape as a team all but vanishes and the players now look as if they just want this torment to be over. It isn’t yet, though, and with ten minutes left to play James Mulley scores from close range to remove any further traces of doubt – as if there could be any left by this point in proceedings – to wrap things up very tidly indeed for Terry Brown’s team. This is a result that will certainly give the Luton Town manager food for thought this evening. Luton were terrific at Wrexham last week, but showed signs of rustiness during the first half at Kenilworth Road in the second leg last night. Is it better preparation for a team to be made to sweat slightly in the semi-finals of such a competition, or is it more beneficial to finish at a canter? There are arguments for and against both, and we may find out a little more at The City of Manchester Stadium a week on Saturday.
With a club such as AFC Wimbledon, however, it is almost impossible not to take a result such as this in a wider context. Could it only be three years since they were sweating their way through a play-off final in the Ryman League against Staines Town? Is it really only two years since they were finishing off their Blue Square South championship winning season with a win against St Albans City? Tonight, Terry Brown’s team scaled a new peak with an absolute demolition of a decent Fleetwood Town side, but the final against Luton Town – a repeat of the 1988 FA Cup semi-final, a fact that puts into perspective just how much the game has changed over the last twenty-five years or so – still, even after all of this, feels too close to call. Defeated by the FA, dropped to the bottom and reborn as a template for a different type of football club, Wimbledon’s renaissance is, in some sense, a win for all amongst us that share their ideas for a different future for football. This evening’s success, though, was not even really about the politics. It was, as their supporters wanted all along, about a Wimbledon football team winning on the pitch. “Not in the wider interests of football”? Not on your nelly.
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