One of the more cunning ideas to have come about in recent years within non-league football has been the introduction of matches on the August Bank Holiday Monday. With the Premier League and Football Leagues not playing, it’s a day for bumper crowds right at the start of the season, although the effect of going to a non-league match when there is no other football on can be a little unsettling. Upon arrival at Kingsmeadow tis afternoon, we are treated to twenty minutes of Rugby League, with Bradford Bulls playing against Hull Kingston Rovers. It’s a strange fifteen minutes, sipping on a pint whilst trying to make sense of a game that I just don’t understand. “Fifth tackle? What does that mean? Why don’t they tackle, like normal rugbists do?”. In some respects, Rugby League, with its shoulder pads, summer season and teams with daft, marketing-fed nicknames, is like a warning for us. This is what our game could become if we’re not very, very careful. If I’d grown up in Yorkshire watching it, I don’t know what I’d have done.
AFC Wimbledon’s start to life in the Blue Square south has been charmed, to say the least. They completely over-ran Newport County on the opening day of the season, but have ridden their luck somewhat since then. Against Thurrock, they needed two goals in the last five minutes to secure a win against a team that seems likely to struggle this season. They were similarly laboured against Bognor Regis Town (two goals in the last three minutes to win 3-1) and required an own goal to beat Basingstoke Town last Saturday. They finally went clear at the top of the table last weekend, but this afternoon’s match isn’t going to be easy. There is some bad blood between them and today’s opposition, Bromley, who knocked them out of the Ryman play-offs two seasons ago. There is also the feeling that the tension may be rising at Kingsmeadow. People that perhaps had spent the summer anticipating a season of mid-table consolidation are starting to believe that a second successive promotion might just be possible. It doesn’t take long for expectations to rise.
Wimbledon start brightly, but it soon becomes apparent that they are going to have difficulty breaking down a stubborn Bromley defence. There is much huffing and puffing without very much end product apart from a run on goal from John Main which ends with a shot blocked by the legs of the goalkeeper Gareth Williams. For Bromley, Nic McDonell, an AFC Wimbledon player until the end of last season, shoots well over when he should have done better, and Luke Garrard is fortunate, when sliding along the turf and allowing the ball to strike his arm, not to concede a penalty. The game livens up in the couple of minutes before the end of a first half that is elongated somewhat by an ankle injury to defender Michael Haswell. Bromley’s defensive solidity is suddenly and expensively broached by defender Steve Clark, who allowed himself to be dispossessed by Elliott Godfrey inside his own penalty area. Godfrey rolls the ball back to Anthony Finn, who curls the ball across the goal and in off the far post. There’s still time for Anthony Joseph to hit the crossbar for Bromley but, at half-time, it seems more likely that Wimbledon will extend their lead in the second half than anything else.
At Kingsmeadow, however, sticking to the script doesn’t always appear to be the order of the day. Wimbledon start the second half sluggishly and goalkeeper Andy Little is forced to make an excellent save from Bromley’s increasingly impressive Warren McBean. The equalising goal comes just after the hour, and is proof of the old adage that you have to take your chances when you get them. At one end of the pitch, Williams saves brilliantly from Sam Hatton – in the blink of an eye, McBean has broken away at the other end and pulled the ball back for Danny Hockton to score. There’s still a third of the game left to play, and suddenly the home side are on the back foot, though the visitors struggle to create many clear cut chances with the score tied at 1-1. With time running out, one is starting to suspect that Wimbledon can’t pull a late, late rabbit from the hat yet again, but somehow they manage it. With two minutes left to play, Williams brings down Main inside the penalty area – he’s lucky to stay on the pitch, but Main picks himself up to send him the wrong way from the spot to give the home side the lead. A couple of minutes later, Sam Hatton cuts in from the right and pulls the ball back for Main, who rolls the ball in to guarantee five wins out of five and at least another five days at the top of the Conference South table. There is one moment of concern, with Main limping off the pitch having damaged his ankle after having scored the third goal, but he is likely to be fit again for next week’s match. With six goals in his first five matches of the season, his contribution to their cause is invaluable.
In spite of the close shave element of this particular match, there were many positives that Wimbledon supporters can take from this afternoon’s performance. Firstly, there was the attendance – 3,149 is the highest league crowd at Kingsmeadow for quite some time, and is surely an indication that interest in the club is not, as some had suggested last season, starting to wane. Secondly, there was the overall perfomance itself. Bromley created chances, but Wimbledon comfortably deserved the win. They look more polished than they have over the previous couple of seasons. Tom Davis, who, having spent the last few seasons at St Albans City and Lewes, seems to be following me around, is an outstanding addition to their midfield and put in an elegantly understated performance whilst, in John Main, they have arguably the best striker anywhere below the Conference. It is probably still too early to talk seriously of a second successive promotion, but it has been a very encouraging start indeed.