The clouds are leaden grey, and the rain is slight yet relentless. Half of the nations train timetables are running a Sunday service, and the other half aren’t running at all. It can only be a British bank holiday weekend, and this weekend is kicking off with a match from the top of the Blue Square South. I’m no great fan of Alex Ferguson’s oft-quoted phrase “squeaky bum time”, but it seems particularly apposite today. There are three teams still in the race for the BSS championship – Wimbledon are top of table but, where they had been sitting pretty at the top of the table they are now clinging on by their already frayed fingernails, whilst Eastleigh and Hampton & Richmond Borough grimly hang onto their coat tails, nipping at their heels and sticking thorns in their side.
Over the last seven days, however, things have swung slightly back in their favour. They put in a workmanlike performance in beating Team Bath last Saturday, ending a run of just one win in six matches. On Monday night, they had a further large slice of luck when their nearest challengers, Hampton & Richmond Borough, lost 3-2 at Chelmsford City. Hampton would have drawn level on points with four matches left to play. As it stands, with a three point gap and a superior goal difference, the chink of daylight remains in place. This should, therefore, be a stroll in the park, shouldn’t it? Basingstoke Town sit in sixteenth place in the table. Crippled by financial difficulties earlier in the year, they sit just above the relegation places. Safe, for now. They’ve brought a couple of hundred supporters today, an impressive turnout for a match that is effectively meaningless to them at this stage of the season.
The decision to play this match on Good Friday has worked in their favour. Apart from Welling United’s home BSS match against Thurrock, this is the only match of this standard or higher in London this afternoon and the crowd has swollen to 4,136. In the first half, Wimbledon are completely in control, but are failing to turn their possession into goals. The pressure builds like so much steam inside a pressure cooker until it reaches bursting point. Anthony Finn’s shot beats the goalkeeper and skids up off the ground, off a defender and quite possibly onto the crossbar. From where we’re standing, it’s difficult to tell – all we can see is that the crowd is getting more and more tense again. Those old nerves may be starting to return. The only goal of the match comes from a corner on the right hand side – Alan Inns turns to the ball goalwards and the defender on the line, Matt Warner, can only help it into the roof of the net.
This should be the cue for delirium, but it isn’t. Wimbledon fluff another chance before half-time – playing their best football of the match now, a header from eight yards hits the post with the goalkeeper a mere spectator, but half-time arrives with the suspicion that they should have made more of their first half domination. The size of the crowd means that the bar is shut at half-time, which doesn’t help matters. The crowd has fifteen minutes to dwell upon the complexity of the situation at the top of the table. No matter which way that you look at it, they have to win this afternoon. There is no alternative.
So, then, to the second half. More pressure an no end product. The passes start to go astray, and the nagging feeling that Basingstoke are one shot, one header, one deflection away from blowing everything wide open again is as relentless as the drizzling rain. Basingstoke are committed, but limited. You can see how they have struggled this season, but also that they have the wherewithal and commitment to have pulled enough out of the bag to guarantee their own safety. The crowd doesn’t get on Wimbledon’s back, but the tension on the terraces seems to emanate pitchwards and in the final ten minutes Basingstoke start to press forward in search of an equalizer. The referee’s whistle brings a free kick to Basingstoke, and the resulting shot whistles just wide of the post. Just how close it was seems to roll down the terrace along the side of the pitch. The clock ticks past ten to five, and past five to. Eventually, the whistle blows and there is a colossal sigh of relief. Another three points, and now it’s onto Bromley on Monday.
At this stage of the season, it’s the points that count rather than the performance. In the bar after the match, the importance of the win hits home. Eastleigh have beaten Bromley 1-0. Wimbledon are still four points ahead of them, and now six points clear of Hampton & Richmond, who play Braintree Town tomorrow. Bromley away on Monday is the next must win match, and viewers of a nervous disposition will not feel comforted by the fact that next Saturday’s match might just turn out to be the title decider. It’s away to Hampton & Richmond, though nobody will know what sort of result Wimbledon will need until about 5.00 on Monday afternoon. For the next forty-eight hours they can relax before it all starts again, but start again it will. That place in the Blue Square Premier is close enough to be able to taste, yet still feels as far away as ever.