With a couple of minutes left to play in Milton Keynes yesterday afternoon, a gaping hole suddenly and unexpected in the middle of the home defence, leaving Steven Gregory to bear down on the home goal. His shot dragged inches wide of the post, and a couple of minutes later a shot into the ground from Zeli Ismail was flicked in from six yards out by Jon Otsemobor. Life, we might ponder, isn’t fair. The players of AFC Wimbledon had done their supporters proud on the pitch, making a mockery of the forty-three league positions between the two teams, but in football the margins between defeat and victory can be mighty thin and in that one moment, the only possible way in which this match could have ended cruelly for AFC Wimbledon managed to find a way of manifesting itself.
Yet the overwhelming feeling to come from that travelling support as the full-time whistle blew yesterday was one of absolute pride. We had discussed previously how this was a match that very few Wimbledon supporters wanted – and certainly not while the two teams remain disparate in terms of the resources available to their respective managers – but the club and its support acquitted itself as well as it possibly could under the circumstances. When Jack Midson levelled the scores just before the hour mark with a flying diving header, there were some that were quick to their keyboards in order to claim outrage at a mini pitch invasion that had not a trace of violence about it, and the extent to which the home support was out-sung for the entirety of the match by those that had made that journey to Buckinghamshire was clearly audible throughout.
Yesterday was about AFC Wimbledon turning the day into a celebration of what they have achieved over the last ten years and of reminding the outer world of the special place that they hold in English footballs conscience. And they never have to do this for the first time again, either. It is not for outsiders to say how supporters of the club should treat the existence of the thing that stole their Football League place, but if a few boils were lanced yesterday afternoon then perhaps that will be a good thing for those relieved of that discomfort. Perhaps yesterday represented the end of one era and the beginning of another, just as their penalty shoot-out win against Luton Town at The City of Manchester Stadium in May 2011 marked the end of the clubs rise from the foot of the non-league game to reclaiming its Football League place. Perhaps the new era in the history of this club will end, as all of its supporters do, with the club getting a new ground back in its home borough.
Upward trajectories, however, are not guaranteed in football and it is worth noting that Wimbledon failed to win a league match after the draw for the Second Round of this years FA Cup was made. The team is in a rut in the league, and that hard-earned Football League place is far from secure, with the team in fourth from bottom place in League Two and just a solitary point keeping them above the relegation places. As such, perhaps this weekends match, which seems them travel to bottom of the table Barnet, might just end up being considerably more important than yesterdays circus in Buckinghamshire. Manager Neal Ardley has his work cut out in his first managerial position if he is keep his clubs head above water this season, and perhaps the most significant aspect of yesterdays events will turn out to be the considerable amount of money that the club will have made from it all and how this can spent in order to strengthen his team over the next couple of months or so. It is an investment that would have obvious benefits, should they manage to pull clear of the relegation zone on League Two.
For all of the romance of the AFC Wimbledon story, these are the hard realities that the club is up against. Failure, however, needn’t be an inevitability and if Ardley can take one significant positive from his teams performance on the pitch yesterday afternoon, it should be that even the squad that he has at his disposal now is capable of much better than they have demonstrated in the league so far this season. If they could play like they did yesterday afternoon for the remainder of the season, the worry of dropping back into the Blue Square Bet Premier would soon become a fading memory. And it may be that surviving this seasons difficulties on the pitch might just turn out to be the next turning point towards continuing progress. With the circus over and done with, normal service can now return to AFC Wimbledons season, but all concerned with the club can look back on their first trip to Milton Keynes with considerable pride at a point well made and a job well done.
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