For all that supporters across the board may have breathed a sigh of relief, the suspicion remains that the media were less than thrilled by Stevenage’s penalty shoot-out win on Tuesday night. With the winning penalty kick went the story of the Second Round – the grudge match that had been talked of as if it was already a certainty. As it stands, the winners of tonight’s match (oddly scheduled to a Thursday night) will entertain Stevenage the weekend after next. Few, at least from Wimbledon, will be particularly disappointed by this. They must have felt a weight lifting from their collective shoulder and this evening’s trip from south-west London to Kent must have felt a good deal more comfortable than it might otherwise have done.
Wimbledon and Ebbsfleet United offer two different perspectives on the notion of supporter ownership. Wimbledon’s success as a club owned by their supporters has been well documented. They sit top of the Blue Square Premier and, by this time next year, they could be a Football League club. Ebbsfleet United have had a more difficult time of it. The My Football Club experiment is still there, but whether it would be generous to describe it as having been a success. True enough, they won the FA Trophy during the first season of ownership. Their financial problems as the membership drained away, however, have been substantial and relegation into the Blue Square South came at the end of last season. They need the money that increased involvement in the FA Cup would bring.
Stonebridge Road is one of an increasingly rare number of untouched traditional non-league grounds. It feels as if it hasn’t been touched for decades, but the repair job on the cover of the terrace behind one of the goals would seem to suggest otherwise. Within twenty minutes, we have had more excitement than many matches offer in a full ninety. Ebbsfleet tear from the traps, assaulting the visiting goal from the very start, but let themselves down with some poor defending when a cross from the right is headed towards goal by Rashid Yussuff and turned in by Mark Nwokeji with the Ebbsfleet central defence nowhere to be seen. If this early goal was supposed to settle Wimbledon nerves, it doesn’t last very long. Within three minutes, Andre Blackman concedes a soft penalty for an unnecessary challenge upon Tom Phipp, and Ashley Carew brings Ebbsfleet level from the spot.
Things go from bad to worse for Wimbledon seven minutes later as Ebbsfleet take the lead, but they can at least perhaps take some tiny consolation from the fact that there probably hasn’t been a better goal scored in the entire round of the competition. Carew, confidence buoyed by his penalty kick a few minutes earlier, seems to be chasing down a blind alley in the left hand channel of the penalty area, but manages to turn inside and curl a sumptuous shot around the Wimbledon goalkeeper Seb Brown and just inside Brown’s left-hand post.
After this flurry, the match finally seems to settle into a rhythm, of sorts. Wimbledon are tidy but look somewhat lightweight. Ebbsfleet, by contrast, are a little more rustic with their football, but are whole-hearted and hard-working. Wimbledon are limited to half-chances for the remainder of the half, their best chance coming deep into stoppage time when Ebbsfleet fail to clear a corner, allowing a first shot to be blocked on the line and the rebound to be deflected away from the goal. The referee doesn’t spot the deflection and half-time follows immediately afterwards. It has been a knockabout first forty-five minutes and Ebbsfleet are reasonably good value for their lead. Wimbledon, however, finished the half strongly. They have reason to be cheerful for the second half.
The cheer comes, but it comes very, very late. For most of the second half, they are frustrated. Wimbledon are dislocated and distant, a facsimile representation of the team at the top of the Blue Square Premier. Ebbsfleet’s football is, as in the first half, far from sophisticated but it doesn’t need to be. Danny Kedwell, one of the finest players in the whole of the non-league game, is reduced to a shadow as Ebbsfleet hassle, harry and hustle. They defend deeply and try the occasional break to pull themselves further clear, but they are taking no chances with their slender lead. Three minutes into stoppage time, however, the pressure comes to a head and Ebbsfleet crack. Luke Moore finds a little space on the left-hand side. Sammy Moore drops his shoulder and sweeps the ball into the bottom corner of the net to send the match into extra time.
The additional thirty minutes is played out at a surprising pace. It’s mostly pinball stuff, but both sides have a decent chance each in the first period of extra time, with the ball flashing narrowly wide of the post at each end of the pitch. With the clock ticking over one hundred and twenty minutes, however, Wimbledon’s moment arrives. It is a highly contentious goal. Everyone is trotting out of the Ebbsfleet penalty area when it is lifted back in. Sammy Moore reacts the quickest and strokes the ball into the corner of the goal. There’s a moment’s pause while everybody waits for the linesman’s flag to up, but it doesn’t and with that Wimbledon are through to play Stevenage in the Second Round of the FA Cup.
It may not be quite the tie that the television companies were hoping for, but Wimbledon’s appearance in the Second Round of the FA Cup is another chance to push the agenda of the success of the supporters’ ownership of football clubs where possible. Moreover (and perhaps even more relevantly), the Third Round of the competition, with all of the attention that may be lavished upon them (not to mention a large amount of money), is potentially just ninety minutes away. Stevenage, however, are a strong team and will provide an extremely tough test and Wimbledon will have to improve considerably on tonight’s performance if they are to stand a chance of getting past them. Ebbsfleet United, meanwhile, can feel a little hard-done by on the evening but the cheque that they will receive from their run this far will at least go part of the way towards securing their future. It’s a start for them.
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