At least, for the supporters of AFC Wimbledon, the task ahead was clear. The way that the fixture calendar fell elsewhere meant that, even though they went into Saturday’s final round of matches in League Two in one of the division’s relegation places, a win at home against mid-table Fleetwood Town would ensure their survival at the end of a season which has proved to be a struggle for the club that took just nine years to proceed from the Combined Counties Football League to the Football League. There was still, however, a sense that the club should not, perhaps, have found itself in this position in the first place. By the end of March, the club had been on a little run, running four matches of five, which seemed to ensue that their Football League status had been preserved, but subsequent to that the club slid back towards the relegation places, with two points from their previous five matches.
Still, though, the feeling persisted that the club will be okay, if only it can get to the end of this season. Manager Neal Ardley is a clear link with the past, a memory of the Crazy Gang implanted at the heart of the club that took its place, and he is a popular figure, one still learning his trade but also a man who is likely to have learned some lessons over the last few traumatic months that will keep him in good stead for the rest of his managerial career. For Ardley, this might even come to be a defining feature of the start of his career. If he kept the club up, he would have achieved the minimum target expected of him in an unforgivingly tight division. If he failed, question marks would start to appear over his appointment, the short-term might start to appear over the wisdom of choosing a manager with no previous experience.
Perhaps it was the advantage of not having to have ears pressed to transistor radios that ultimately was enough to tip the balance in their favour. Both Dagenham & Redbridge and York City – whose match against each other meant that Wimbledon knew exactly what they had to do without distractions from elsewhere – as well as Torquay United and Barnet would also be involved in that peculiar atmosphere of the last day of the season, when rumour and counter-rumour from elsewhere can spread around a crowd like wildfire before eventually ending up on the pitch, with players suddenly unsure of whether to run down the clock or go hell for leather in the quest for another goal. The last day of the season is often about these calculated gambles, and Wimbledon were spared these considerable distractions.
Throughout the first half of the match, though, it seemed as if there might be a less than benevolent force preventing the ball from entering into the Fleetwood goal. Half-time came and went with the score goalless and the sense growing that whatever drama that the afternoon had to offer remained around the corner. After an hour, though, the deadline was finally broken when Gary Alexander headed in, but if there was a feeling in the air that half an hour might be too long for them to hold out on such a tense in the afternoon, these were justified less than three minutes later when Andy Mangan levelled for Fleetwood. Back to square one, then. For all the talk of the chaos of the last day of the season, Wimbledon’s task in hand was now a remarkably lucid one. They had twenty-six minutes – plus stoppage time – to score one goal and not concede any in order to save their place in the Football League, and with just under twenty minutes of the match left to play Fleetwood’s Rob Atkinson tripped, unnecessarily but quite definitely, Wimbledon’s Curtis Osano inside his own penalty area. One kick, from twelve yards out, might come t determine Wimbledon’s season.
Penalty kicks have appeared at critical junctures in the club’s history before, of course. In 1975, their goalkeeper Dickie Guy saved a Peter Lorimer penalty kick at Elland Road in a Fourth Round FA Cup match which helped the club – then still members of the Southern League – to a goalless draw against a Leeds United team which had ended the previous season as the champions of England, and thirteen years later a sprawling Dave Beasant had saved from John Aldridge to preserve their lead in the FA Cup final against Liverpool. This time, however, the boot was on the other foot and it was to the enormous credit of Jack Midson, that the kick itself looked like any other penalty kick as he scored the goal that would end up keeping them up. Even a scarcely credible six minutes of stoppage-time at the end of the match wasn’t enough to cause any significant flutters of the heart, and at the full-time whistle the crowd poured onto the Kingsmeadow pitch, that much-cherished place in the Football League secured for another season.
There may have been celebrations in south-west London, of course, but elsewhere there was heartbreak. Aldershot Town had been all but mathematically relegated before a ball was kicked and required an unlikely permutation of results to avoid the cut. Their comfortable defeat at Rotherham United was enough to send them down, whilst York City’s single goal win at Dagenham & Redbridge was enough to keep them up, as well, and both Plymouth Argyle and Torquay United also scrambled their way to safety. In the end it was Barnet, beaten by two goals to nil at Northampton Town, who slipped down a division. Both relegated clubs have a sense of uncertainty hanging over them. Aldershot Town are understood to be in a position of financial difficulty which may make returning to the Football League at the first attempt a tall order.
Barnet, on the other hand, have a young team which may be difficult to break up, but the club is moving, not just from Underhill, but from the borough of Barnet altogether, to neighbouring Harrow. How a club that has struggled to attract many more than a couple of thousand people playing a short walk from the centre of the place that bears its name will manage playing several miles away will be affected by such a move is not known at present, but they may also find that attracting people to make that journey for fifth division football rather than fourth division football is something of a challenge and, as countless previous seasons have demonstrated, the Blue Square Bet Premier can be a considerably more difficult ground to get out of in an upwardly direction than it is a slip into.
None of this, however, will be much concerning all associated with AFC Wimbledon this morning. Of course, it might well be argued that any club that finds itself going into its final match of the season with more than fifty points but still fearing relegation is unlucky to a certain degree, but this phenomenon has been one of the most pronounced of this season in the entire Football League and, ultimately, somebody has to be relegated at the end of each season. Those that have met him tend to speak glowingly of Neal Ardley, and his next challenge will go some way towards defining him as a manager. Having rescued the club – just- from relegation back into non-league football, he now has to rebuild over the course of the summer, in order to ensure that there is no such repetition of this last day drama at the end of next season. And therein lays the greatest challenge that anyone in football ever has to face – once its over it starts again almost immediately, and AFC Wimbledon cannot afford to cut it as fine against next season as they did this time around.
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