While last night’s FA Cup match between Woking and Brighton & Hove Albion had its fair share of drama, the real excitement of the evening came in Buckinghamshire at something called Stadium:MK, where Stevenage FC snatched a dramatic late equaliser and then won a penalty shoout-out to book a place in the Second Round of the competition and spared the rest of us the possibility of the “spectacle” of a match between AFC Wimbledon and the club that assumed a league place in 2004. The home side had taken the lead early in the second half before an equaliser deep into injury time brought the sides level. Extra-time could seperate them and it looked for a while as if a penalty shoot-out wouldn’t either, before Stevenage eventually grabbed it by a 7-6 scoreline.
Over the last week and a half or so, Wimbledon supporters have been coming to terms with a tie that they may have found emotionally difficult, even if the rest of the media was willing it to happen. There came a marked recognition that they would have to play if both sides won their replays and this led to protracted discussion of how they, if they had to, should mark the occasion. Stevenage’s penalties last night, however, made all of this an irrelevance and they will now travel to Ebbsfleet United for their replay tomorrow night without any of the conflicting feelings that they may have felt had football’s franchise won their tie last night. Last night may have felt, for some Wimbledon supporters, like the lifting of a a heavy weight from their shoulders.
What was notable about last night was the feeble turnout from the home support for the match. Peter Winkelman had made great (and, as it turned out, somewhat pre-emptive) about what magnificent occasion, as if this may become just a local rivalry like any other, all of which would suit him down to the ground. The people of Milton Keynes, however, apparently did not agree. Even with ticket prices reduced to just £12, the crowd was still just 3,977, including 852 people that had made the trip up from Hertfordshire for the match. It’s a figure that doesn’t say very much about state of the club at present. They remain, after all this time, pariahs of modern football, hated by most but rivals to no-one, outcasts playing in a still uncompleted stadium for the benefit of a dwindling support. Crowds there are down twenty-five per cent so far this season.
Meanwhile, we are spared a match that would not have brought anything positive to this year’s FA Cup. The fact remains that Wimbledon supporters either already have or will have to reconcile themselves to an eventual meeting between the two teams. Playing in them at this time in the FA Cup, however, was not the right time for this match. Milton Keynes continues to benefit from its Football League status. This match would not have been a meeting of equals. Perhaps, in a few years’ time, Wimbledon will be able to match the wages that Milton Keynes are paying their players. At that time, the boil can be lanced and the ghosts exorcised. The end of this month, however, would not have seen that happen. An away win would have been treated by their apologists as vindication of their existence. Confirmation, in some way and for some reason, that they merit their position within our game’s landscape. It almost goes without saying that these would have been straw man arguments, canards to legitimise the illegitimate.
Stevenage will not know who they have to play in the next round until tomorrow night. Terry Brown’s team still have to travel to Ebbsfleet United for their First Round replay after a sub-par performance in the first match a week and a half ago, but they could be forgiven for travelling with something of a spring in their step tomorrow evening. The prize remains a considerable one. A home match against Stevenage would be a very difficult one, but it’s not completely insurmountable and the prize of a place in the Third Round, when the clubs of the Premier League and the Championship enter into play and the full gaze of the media shines upon the lower division sides left in the competition, could turn out to be a very valuable one indeed.
Even that, however, is getting a little bit ahead of ourselves. With the match against Stevenage to be shown live on the television, the prize just for winning tomorrow night is a reasonably big one in itself and Ebbsfleet have had their share of financial problems as well over the last few months. They will be more than aware of the rewards of getting to the Second Round of the competition and proved to be every inch the match for Wimbledon in the first match a week and a half ago. There will be everything to play for at Stonebridge Road tomorrow night. Stevenage will fancy their chances no matter who they play. Perhaps that is their reward for beating the franchise.
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