It is getting to the point of the season at which time starts to run out. The luxury of believing that our teams can afford to drop points starts to fade from view as we reach the home straight, and there are few other places in the whole of English football in which nerves are already in the air than at the bottom of League Two. Just four points separate the bottom seven clubs in the division, with variations in the patchiness of form of these clubs meaning that trying to predict which two may eventually slip through the trapdoor and into non-league football lays somewhere between being a tricky business and a fool’s errand. This also means that there a rather a lot of “six-pointers” between the clubs at the foot of the table, all of which means that there was plenty of good reason to be at Kingsmeadow yesterday afternoon for the match between Wimbledon and York City. These two clubs have both recently escaped the Blue Square Bet Premier through the play-offs, Wimbledon two years ago and York City last season. They arrived in that division from opposing directions, though, Wimbledon after their nine year rise from the Combined Counties League, whilst York dropped out of the Football League after an attempt at asset-stripping at the start of the last decade which nearly killed their club.
It says a lot about the way in which both of these club have been stabilised that today is all about the football. Everybody involved at Wimbledon has worked very hard to win back that Football League status, but this is a club that has changed with this promotion. The shallow and unsatisfactory Kingston Road terrace has gone from Kingsmeadow, replaced by the North Stand, a small, almost perfunctory seated area built to bring the ground up to Football League standards. Unspectacular it may be, but it offers a good, unrestricted view, and this afternoon there aren’t too many free seats in it by the time that the match kicks off. Still, though, there is sense of nervous excitement in the air. Defeat this afternoon wouldn’t be fatal to either side’s chances of staying in the Football League, but victory and defeat take on a sharper resonance at this time of year than they have in previous weeks and months. As we head from the Premier League towards the lower divisions, it starts to feel as if professional footballers become much of a muchness. All twenty-two of the players which start this match are good, solid professionals. They are have their limitations and abilities, they are neither world-beaters or incompetents. They keep themselves fit and work hard, and there isn’t much, in terms of ability, between them This means that the small differences – matters of confidence, psychology and man-management – are critical at this time of this year.
Both clubs have, as has become fashionable in recent times, already replaced the managers that took the into the Football League over the last couple of years. Terry Brown, the former Wimbledon manager, took his leave at the club in the middle of September and was replaced by their former midfielder Neal Ardley. This is Ardley’s first full managerial position, having spent the previous five years at Cardiff City, where he was employed as the manager of the club’s youth academy. Progress since he took over has been erratic, but the has been picking up enough points to stay in touch with those above them, although they went into yesterday’s match looking up at everybody else from the unenviable position of bottom place in the Football League. In contrast to Ardley’s relative inexperience as a manager, his opposite number at York City has a wealth of experience. Gary Mills recently left the club, and his replacement is a name with both Premier League and international experience as a manager. Today, though, is Nigel Worthington’s debut and his first job is to arrest a decline which has seen York go thirteen games without a win, a dismal run which has lasted since New Year’s Day. Over that three month period, York have slid towards the relegation places themselves and the club now finds itself locked into its own attritional battle to hold onto a place that it lost nine years ago and won back less than a year ago. Meanwhile, fingers will fiddle nervously with mobile phones in an attempt to find out what is happening to the five other sides – Barnet, Aldershot Town, Torquay United, Accrington Stanley and Plymouth Argyle – that are also involved in this unseemly mess.
In view of all of this and bearing in mind that its use by two clubs makes the Kingsmeadow pitch one of the bumpier in the division, it’s hardly surprising to see that the defining characteristic of the first fifteen minutes or so is carelessness. Even through this, however, we can that Wimbledon are the stronger of the two teams, although their shortcomings are laid bare by the lack of clear chances that they create from all this possession, though the theory that this lack of opportunity is their biggest problem evaporates when Mat Mitchel-King’s half volley from the edge of the penalty area flies past the York goalkeeper and into the corner of the goal to give them the lead. For about five minutes, it feels as if Wimbledon should now grab this game by the scrap of the neck and go on to win it comfortably, but old insecurities manifest themselves just eight minutes later when they give ball away in their own half and Ashley Chambers crosses from the left for Chris Smith to head an equaliser for York. Still, though, they continue to push and just before half-time a glancing header from Gary Alexander comes agonisingly close to giving them the lead, but bounces down via the fingertips of the York goalkeeper Ingham, the underside of the crossbar and the left-hand post before being scrambled away to safety. Half-time arrives with honours even but the feeling that York have ridden their luck a little to still be in a position of parity with their opponents.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half see Wimbledon building on the pressure of the last minutes of the second half, and they take the lead again on the hour when Brennan Dickenson – a nineteen year old on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion who seems, on the basis of this performance, to be headed for better things than the dogfight to avoid relegation from League Two – springs a barely loaded York offside trap, runs the ball around Ingham and taps it into the empty goal. Perhaps, we are lulled into thinking, this will settle the nerves and ease them to a comfortable win, but twelve minutes later York are level again when John McGrath’s free-kick is bundled over the line from close range by Smith. It has been a familiar trope this season for Wimbledon’s defence to buckle under the weight of a set piece, and again a match that they should have comfortably sewn up by this time is thrown into the balance, only for Wimbledon to finally find a decisive breakthrough with eleven minutes to play when Harry Pell shoots from the edge of the penalty area and sees this shot bounce of the inside of the post before trickling over the line.
This, it turns out, is a step too far for York City to bounce back from. There are four nervy minutes of stoppage time at the end of the match – this has become “The Wimbledon Way” this season, according to those with more first-hand knowledge of them this season – but they hold on to claim a precious three points, while York City slip a little further into trouble at the bottom of the table. The final big cheer of the afternoon comes in the bar after the match, when the television screen confirms that Wimbledon are back out of the relegation places, having risen from twenty-fourth place in the table, while York are now just a point above them. Plymouth Argyle, unsurprisingly beaten at promotion-chasing Gillingham, now prop up the table with Accrington Stanley – who have won win in their ten matches since New Year’s Day – and Torquay United – who have won just one of their last sixteen matches in the league – above them. With so many clubs clustered together near the bottom of the table, though, there will be plenty more mathematical gymnastics that supporters will have to perform before the end of this season.
All supporters, of course, want their teams to win and they want them to in with style. At this stage of the season, however, aesthetic considerations have to take a place on the back burner. All that matters at this time of year is the points, and Wimbledon have, in spite of having lifted their supporters’ blood pressure to the point at which it starts to resemble Tizer, done enough to merit winning them this afternoon. There is a sense around Kingsmeadow that the club will turn a corner if it can just get to the end of this season whilst preserving their position in the Football League. They’ve come a long way in a very short period of time, though. York City, meanwhile, are a work in progress but, with time running out, the question of whether they can hold onto their place in the Football League may yet come down to whether they or the clubs below them can turn around the wretched form that has seen them plummet from the relative comfort of mid-table into this battle to stay up. There will be plenty more shredded nerves and ruined fingernails to come before the end of this season in League Two, though.
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