The stutter, then, is becoming a full-blown wobble. A couple of weeks ago, it looked as if the championship race in the Blue Square South was all but over, but AFC Wimbledon have now drawn their last three matches, scoring just one goal in that time, and have away matches against second placed Hampton & Richmond and fourth placed Eastleigh yet to look forward to. They are still six points clear at the top of the table but their closest rivals have a game in hand. This year’s Blue Square South seems likely, therefore, to go to the wire. More concerning still for Wimbledon supporters was the nature of their performance last night. Frequently outplayed in midfield, they created practically nothing in front of goal and were often outplayed by a home team whose form this season has been patchy to say the least.
Clarence Park is a notoriously difficult ground to create anything like an atmosphere in at the best of times. With the terracing behind both goals open to the elements and slightly removed from the pitch, there is a tendency for any noise from the terraces to catch the wind and drift harmlessly away. Last night, the silence was occasionally deafening. With a crowd of just over 1,100 present, the large travelling support seemed tense, and they weren’t helped by the early exchanges between the two teams. City may be secure in mid-table, just too far away from either relegation or the play-offs to have very much left to play for, but they came into the match in reasonable form, unbeaten in three matches having kept three successive clean sheets. There was some succour for Wimbledon in the absence of City’s outstanding veteran goalkeeper Paul Bastock, who suffered a fractured eye socket last Saturday and was hastily replaced with Lee Butcher, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur. The flip side to this, however, was the return of striker Paul Hakim from suspension. Hakim’s sixteen goals this season leave him near the top of the BSS top goalscorers list and he was lively throughout.
The two best chances to win the game both fell in the first half, and they both fell to the home team. First, midfielder James Fisher’s shot was well saved by Wimbledon goalkeeper Pullen. Then, Hassan Sulaiman came the closest of all, beating Pullen only to see the ball come back off the post. If the spriteliness of the St Albans team was surprising, the non-existence of the Wimbledon midfield was shocking. Having the best striker in the league is irrelevant if your midfield is incapable of getting ball to him. Anthony Finn and, ironically, former St Albans player Tom Davis were more or less completely anonymous in the centre of the pitch, often playing much too far upfield, leaving a gaping gap for defence to have to cover. Indeed, the defence was the one area of the pitch in which Wimbledon seemed to remain in control, with composed clearances frequently tidying up the shortcomings that were increasingly evident in the middle third of the pitch. Manager Terry Brown claimed that Wimbledon had watched St Albans in preparation for this match, but they made little use of the full width of the pitch, which at the exceptionally wide Clarence Park is a basic for any team looking to win there.
In the second half, St Albans began to tire and Wimbledon pressed forward more and more. The match-winning ball, however, continued to be conspicuous by its absence, and had the visitors converted from a succession of corners in the last few seconds of the match it would have been very rough justice on the home side. St Albans City will almost certainly finish the season in mid-table, which may come as a welcome relief after several seasons of rather more excitement than regulars there are used to. After many years of not far short of uninterrupted mediocrity, the last three seasons had been not far short of a rollercoaster ride. Unexpectedly promoted into the Blue Square Premier behind Weymouth in 2006, they practically fell off the bottom of their temporary home in getting relegated straight back from whence they came, and the disrepair at the club was such that they only narrowly avoided a second successive relegation last season. With an absentee landlord as chairman and a ground which, while an attractive place to visit, is lacking in many basic facilities and will always act as a hindrance to their making any significant progress on the pitch, a season of comparative anonymity in the middle of the Blue Square South doesn’t really seem so bad.
Where now, though, for the league leaders? They entertain struggling Dorchester Town on Saturday in a match which now has a “must win” air about it. There are positives for them to still hold on to. They’re unbeaten in fifteen matches and their defence continues to look strong, having conceded just one goal in their last five matches. Reserve goalkeeper James Pullen – enjoying a run in the first team after first choice Andy Little ruptured cruciate ligaments during their recent match against Worcester City – is proving to be a more than ample replacement. It could also be argued that this recent run will prove to be good for the souls of their supporters, some of whom have been a little too confident of their accession into the Blue Square Premier over the last few weeks. There’s a long way to go yet, and those being over-critical would do well to remember how far they’ve come over the last twelve months.