One of the things that had been near the top of my new year’s resolutions list for this season had been “go and see AFC Wimbledon play more often this season”. I started reasonably well, going to see their first home pre-season friendly against FC United but had, frankly, slacked since then. It has to be said that all has not exactly been going according to plan for them this season. Inconsistency in the league had seen them slump to mid-table (though a recent improvement has seen them jump to seventh place), whilst they were knocked out of the FA Cup the other week at Horsham (a match which my dad managed to get to but I didn’t, curiously enough).
So, in spite of having been laid low for much of this week with the double-whammy of a head cold and a chest infection, I was determined to get to a match this weekend. For once, Sussex was being unusually generous in this respect. Brighton were at home to Luton in League One, whilst Lewes were playing Sutton United in the Conference South and Worthing were at home to Walton & Hersham in the FA Trophy. I let my heart rule my head in the end, though, and decided to do the completely impractical thing and travel north to Norbiton for Wimbledon’s FA Trophy Second Qualifying Round match against Chelmsford City. It was a match of considerable interest. Jeff King, the mobile home king who took Canvey Island from the Essex County League to the Nationwide Conference before pulling the plug, has pitched up at Chelmsford with a sack of cash, and his team are top of the Ryman League Premier Division. Wimbledon, after their shaky start, are starting to come find some form.
A quick word, first, about the FA Trophy. Started in 1968 as the FA competition for semi-pro clubs, this is a competition that has been kind to me over the years. My first visit to Wembley was for an FA Trophy Final (Enfield vs Altrincham in 1982, in case you were wondering), and I’ve been back three times for Trophy finals since then. These days, though, its appeal is on the wane, somewhat. Its show-piece status has been undone by the Conference Play-Off final coming just after it, and the fact that, after Wembley was knocked down, it was played at Villa Park until the new Wembley stadium was built. Last season, it did regain some of it’s former sparkle. With the confirmation that Wembley was to be used for the final, crowds rose, and over 53,000 were there in May to see Stevenage Borough come from two goals behind before beating Kidderminster Harriers 3-2. AFC Wimbledon had an FA Trophy adventure of their own, beating Aldershot Town and Gravesend & Northfleet (both Conference clubs – two divisions above them – and away from home) before being kicked out over the Jermaine Darlington affair.
For once, I had planned ahead, and we left Brighton at 12.20 (eliminating my usual Wimbledon match day experience of turning up with a crimson face and out of breath at five past three). We watched the last twenty minutes of the Arsenal – Manchester United match in the bar, though the nearest that we could get to reasoned analysis was something along the lines of, “oh, I see – when Spurs get the ball two feet over the goal line in the last minute against Manchester United it’s not a goal, but when Arsenal do it…”. Little Edmund, who had been notably lacking in enthusiasm for either team, came to life over the tannoy announcement that Jeff Minton (a member of the 1996 vintage of his beloved Brighton & Hove Albion) would be captaining Chelmsford. “Jeff Bloody Minton“, he exhorted, with a vein that I had never noticed before throbbing on his temple.
Having not seen either team play competitively this season, I wasn’t expecting the match to be as one-sided as it was, and was more than happy to entertain myself with unjustifiably heckling Minton for no particularly good reason. Predictably, I was focusing on this when a goalkeeping error allowed the ball to squeeze over the line after four minutes (it came out something like, “Oi, Minton – you were shit in 1996 and you’re shi… YESSSSSSS!”. Both teams were two or three players short of being at full strength, but I was surprised at how little Chelmsford had to offer by way of retaliation. Wimbledon comfortably controlled the game in midfield, and doubled their lead just before the half hour mark, when Mark De Bolla put a thirty yard drive into the top corner of the net. I also contrived to miss the incident that resulted in the sending off of Chelmsford’s Jon Keeling just before half-time, but I did see that he got a straight red having already been booked, but more on that later. So – half-time, 2-0, and time for a couple of drinks and a chuckle at the expense of eternal soap opera that is Newcastle United FC. The second half was all about consolidation. Wimbledon rarely looked threatened, so we kept ourselves entertained with shouting more abuse at Minton (who might have been booked twice in the second half without being sent off – “Pulling A Poll”, I think the technical term for it might well be), until The Wombles doubled their lead with two brilliant (and near identical) goals with thirteen and nine minutes to go, from Jake Leberl and Anthony Finn.
There is a case for saying that this isn’t the match between these two sides which matters. When they meet again at Kingsmeadow on the 1st of December, Wimbledon have to win, in order to narrow the ten point gap between the two sides. However, they haven’t lost in the League since the 4th of September and, even if their opponents weren’t at full strength, the resounding manner of their win this afternoon would suggest that the gap between the two sides is slight, to say the least, and the psychological boost of yesterday’s win could prove to be invaluable. Ah, and if Jeff Minton is playing again, he might be best advised not to listen to advice that I have to offer him…