Imagine, if you will, that you’ve been watching the same team for years and years. Suddenly, and out of the blue, your team is taken over by a “business consortium”, which decides that the part of the country that your club and you are from isn’t profitable enough, and uproot it 60 miles away to a town which has never even had a Football League club, and then change its colours and its name. It’s not really your team any more, is it? I am, of course, referring to AFC Wimbledon , the second (but, on the pitch at least, most successful) “break-away” club to be formed at the turn of the century. AFCW have risen up through the non-league ranks to the Ryman League Premier Division, two divisions below the Nationwide Conference, and the opportunity see them play at Worthing, just up the road from here, wasn’t one that I was going to pass up.
This season, AFCW have stumbled. They were beaten in the Ryman League play-offs last season and, although the Ryman League table is tight at the moment, they are currently sitting in mid-table, frustratingly unable to show any real consistency in the league. They’ve shown their potential in the cup competitions – they’ve knocked out two Conference clubs away from home in the FA Trophy (that’s the non-league equivalent of the FA Cup) so far, and gave Exeter City a nasty fright in the FA Cup. Their average crowds of 2,500 are something like five to ten times the average for the league, so you may be wondering why they’re struggling slightly. The answer is a simple one. Having been shafted by the game themselves, the people that run AFCW are determined not to let their club sink into debt. When they formed, they purchased the Kingsmeadow stadium from fellow non-league club Kingstonian (Kingston still play there, by the way, paying a nominal rent each season), and the lion’s share of their revenue comes from paying off the loans required to buy their ground. Their wage budget is little different to that of anyone else in their league. It’s a commendable approach to take, and one that other non-league clubs should pay more attention to.
Last night, coming off the back of an outstanding win at Gravesend on Saturday, AFCW should have won handsomely. Worthing are still struggling, in fourth bottom place in the league, although they were lifted by the arrival of the 57* year-old striker Steve Claridge at Woodside Road. Claridge is showing his age. Never the quickest player in the Premiership, he now plays most of the match at walking pace, though his first touch betrays the quality of his heritage. He also played last night without shin pads, which I had assumed to be against the laws of the game, though the referee didn’t complain about it. In the opening exchanges, they matched the visitors ball for ball, and Claridge even hit the crossbar with a header, but as AFCW started to assert themselves, the difference between the two teams became more and more apparent. Worthing demonstrated how they found themselves near the bottom of the table five minutes from half-time, when their entire defence fell asleep from a long ball by Sweeney to Stephen Goddard, who thumped the ball past Rikki Banks with such power that one was momentarily concerned that the entire goal might collapse.
In the second half, AFCW continued to push for a second goal to kill the game off, but looked blunt up front. In the dying seconds, Worthing levelled things up with the sort of comedy goal which makes non-league football great. Davis crossed from the right for a low shot from Andrews which hit the base of the post. The rebound hit an AFCW defender which bounced back towards the goal to be clawed away by the goalkeeper Little, who pushed the ball out but into the path of Mark Knee, who celebrated his 400th game for Worthing by finally putting the ball in. Should you be interested in seeing all of this for yourself, the highlights are available here (31mb download).
It must be enormously frustrating to be an AFC Wimbledon supporter at present, but their fans are showing enormous fortitude by continuing to turn out for a team that doesn’t really look good enough for promotion at present. There were 1,100 people at Woodside Road last night, and a good 800 of them had travelled down from Surrey on a cold, wet Tuesday night in January only to see their team let them down in the dying seconds. Having said that, though, after emerging from years of enforced lodging at Selhurst Park to have their team ripped away from them by the predatory Peter Winkelman, they have at least got their club back. They well feel enormously frustrated at present, but when they do (as they surely will, in the fullness of time) win back their place in the Football League, they might even look back on these days in the English game’s basement with some affection.
*Approximately – carbon-dating may be required to accurately date his birth