I always knew that it would come to this. Way back last summer, when the Blue Square South fixtures were released, AFC Wimbledon vs St Albans City on the last day of the Blue Square South season stood out like the thumb of a cartoon character that had been walloped with a mallet. Over the last couple of weeks, the path to Wimbledon’s accession to the Blue Square South championship has ranged from the bizarre to the ridiculous, yet they go into tomorrow’s match with only a mathematical chance of losing out on the title. A draw will be enough to put matters beyond doubt. Should they lose, second placed Hampton & Richmond Borough will need to make up an improbable thirteen goals in order to snatch what would be, should it by any chance come to pass, the most unlikely league championship win of all time.
Two weeks ago today, on Good Friday, we were at their home league match against Basingstoke Town. The tension crackled in the air as Wimbledon won by a single goal, but the fun and games were only just starting. On Easter Monday they travelled to Bromley for a local derby match. Win two minutes left to play Wimbledon were leading 2-1 when they were forced to put the ball out of play because of an injury to defender Jay Conroy. Bromley’s Ryan Hall probably meant to give the ball back, but instead lobbed the ball over Wimbledon goalkeeper James Pullen and into the top corner of the goal. A colossal argument followed (including, reportedly, the referee requesting that – in the interests of sportsmanship – Bromley allow Wimbledon walk the ball in to restore the lead. Bromley refused to do this, and celebrated at the end of the match as if they themselves had won the league championship.
What happened next was, well, a bit weird. For a couple of days, Bromley Football Club was silent. It was rumoured that their manager (sitting in the stand due to an injury) had said that, had he been on the bench, he would have instructed Bromley to allow Wimbledon to walk the ball in. When their manager finally did speak on the matter, he bizarrely claimed that they had decided to not to allow them walk the ball in because a Wimbledon player had thrown a water bottle at the Bromley dugout. “The incident itself could have been serious. I think it hit his chest but had it been an inch higher, it could have been very dangerous”, was the explanation offered, which was something of a stretch of credibility. The debate rumbled on until Saturday lunchtime, when it turned up on last Saturday’s “Football Focus”, with Lee Dixon and Mark Lawrenson both expressing their disappointment at Bromley’s lack of sportsmanship.
All of this was set against the background of the title decider – Hampton & Richmond Borough against AFC Wimbledon at Hampton’s Beveree stadium. Tickets had sold out very quickly and a sell-out crowd of over 3,000 packed in for a match that was just as controversial as the match that had preceded it. Hampton took the lead early in the second half. With three minutes left, however, all hell before loose again. With Wimbledon attacking down the left hand side, two Hampton players collided with each other. Wimbledon took a quick throw in and, from the resulting cross, John Main headed the goal that virtually ensured that the championship headed to south-west London.
After the match, Hampton supporters roundly condemned Wimbledon’s players of a lack of sportsmanship. They were, curiously, joined by other non-league supporters that had condemned Wimbledon supporters for complaining about the Bromley goal for much of the previous week. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The highlights of the Hampton game are available here, and it is pretty obvious that there is a clear difference between the two incidents. With three minutes to play and a goal down, there is no question that the attacking player on a losing side will take a quick throw in, with the assumption that the stricken defending players will get up. In addition to this, there is an obvious difference in the role of the referee in the two incidents. With the Bromley goal, the referee could only request that Bromley allowed Wimbledon to walk the ball in. With the Hampton goal, the referee would have been perfectly entitled to stop play but decided not to. To blame Wimbledon players over both incidents was, to be frank, somewhat perverse.
Of course, arguing over the technicalities of which goals should have stood and why is getting away from the truth of it all somewhat. It was all in the subtext. AFC Wimbledon aren’t particularly popular in non-league football, whether through sheer, outright jealousy (this is, after all, a progressive, successful club that is attracting crowds six or seven times the size of most clubs in the BSS) or because of a perception of the club and its supporters’ arrogance. Ultimately, though, both goals stood and we now find ourselves in a position in which Wimbledon not winning the BSS championship would be unthinkable. With the difference between Wimbledon and Hampton’s goal difference being thirteen goals, Wimbledon should still win the league if they lose at home to St Albans City tomorrow unless Hampton run up an unprecedentedly colossal win at Maidenhead United tomorrow. Even then, it might not be enough for Hampton. Their ground grading for the BSP has been delayed for some time now and, even today, no final decision appears to have been reached as to whether they would be able to go up should they somehow manufacture an amazing turnaround tomorrow or – more likely – win the BSS play-offs.
Tickets for the St Albans City match had sold out by earlier this week. A crowd of 4,700 will be there for a match which should really be a coronation. St Albans City have lost their last two matches and are without several key players through injury and suspension. A full report on the day will, of course, be on here at some time on Saturday night or Sunday. Almost twenty-seven years after I first attended a match at Clarence Park, it was somehow inevitable that City would draw Wimbledon on the last day of the season. City have nothing major to play for other than professional pride. They have a couple of great players in key positions – the veteran Paul Bastock in goal and striker Paul Hakim, to name two – but they are said to be struggling with numbers at the moment and an away win would be unlikely.
Which team, you may well ask, will I be supporting, then? Well, in truth, neither, really. It’s an end of season match and the truth of the matter is that, since the result is unlikely to be critical to either team, I’m going to enjoy the occasion. I’m not a Wimbledon “fan” (I’m not a “fan” of anyone or anything, really – it’s just not really my style), but I am certainly a “well-wisher”, or perhaps a “follower”. St Albans City, since I moved away from London three years ago, feel slightly like a piece of my past, though I still look for their results and have very good friends that go regularly.
It is, for me, a shame that relations between the clubs were soured by the comments that were made by the St Albans chairman John Gibson three years ago after the two sides played each other in the FA Trophy (after the match, based entirely on the fact that the advertised crowd – understandably so, considering that it was a cup rather than league match, which was played a week before Christmas and that season ticket holders are all counted for league matches but not for cup matches – was lower, he angrily and very publically stated that Wimbledon had deliberately under-reported the crowd). The comments were obviously and self-evidently completely wide of the mark (and were swiftly proved to be so), but Gibson has consistently demonstrated a flair for such ill-advised proclamations. Ask the average St Albans supporter about this and they will wearily shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of what he’s llike, isn’t it?”. These comments tarnished the reputation of the club, and the lack of an apology for them remains something of an embarrassment.
The comments of John Gibson, the honking laughter of Bromley supporters when, basically, their team had broken an unwritten law of the game and other irritants are amongst the reasons why many Wimbledon supporters will be pleased to see the back of the BSS, and this is perfectly understandable. In the wider football world they retain widespread support for their continued existence as a stand against franchising in football but in non-league football (at least below the BSP) they have become unwanted, and the feeling seems to be mutual. The pleasure of discovering the non-league game has been swept away by snide comments, lies and envy. Barring something miraculous, tomorrow will see the end of that on a week in week out basis. In the BSP, they may well have found their natural home for the time being but, this being Wimbledon, one cannot help but suspect that the extraordinary story hasn’t quite come to an end just yet.