In the end, it was all a step too far. AFC Wimbledon were outdone last night by a Wycombe side that was that little bit fitter, taller and better organised than they were. No-one can have any complaints about the result. To say that this was the only thing that mattered last night, however, would be to misinterpret the significance of the evening. This was the evening that Wimbledon re-entered the national stage, and the club that an FA committee had once famously said were not in “the wider interests of football” pulled it off brilliantly.
There were times yesterday when it looked as if the match wouldn’t take place at all. Pouring rain across the whole of the south of England coupled with a failure to cover the pitch meant that it was touch and go whether the pitch would be playable or not. However, volunteers at their Kingsmeadow stadium worked throughout the day to ensure that the pitch was in the best possible condition to play. Over 4,500 tickets had been sold for this match and the television cameras were there. Nothing was going to get in the way of this match going ahead. It was, indeed, something of a strange sight to see the mobile broadcasting unit of Setanta Sports parked up behind the Kingston Road goal. Wimbledon play at a level that isn’t televised very often – it felt a bit like it would feel to turn up at a friend’s wedding and find television cameras at that.
The opposition was formidable. Wycombe Wanderers were unbeaten in the league, from the Premier League right the way down to the Conference North and South. They had, however, been knocked out of both the League Cup and the Johnstones Paint Trophy. The romantics amongst us tried to suspend the reality of it all, but the harsh truth of the matter is that managing to get a result against a team as strong as Wycombe was always going to be a very tall order indeed. The atmosphere inside Kingsmeadow was electric. The ticketing arrangements may have meant that many people weren’t standing where they would normally want to stand, but this had the effect that noise was coming from all four sides of the ground.
It took just eight minutes for the noise to dissipate. Jake Leberl’s wayward pass ended up in the possession of Matt Harrold, who rolled the ball past Andy Little to give the visitors the lead. It was a needless mistake, and all the worse for the bright opening that Wimbledon had made. After this, they settled but didn’t look likely to score. To their credit, they tried to keep the ball on the floor and didn’t often resort to the tactic of thumping the ball as long as they could. Defensively, however, they continued to look brittle and the second goal, when it came, was simultaneously completely predictable and came out of nothing. Chris Zebrowski’s ball through the middle found Harrold clear, and he rounded Little to score. Just before half-time, Little pulled off an outstanding save, tipping Harrold’s shot onto the post.
Two goals down at half-time, the match should really have been over, but eleven minutes into the second half, Wimbledon bir suddenly and expectedly back. Tom Davis crossed from the right and the ball was deflected away for Sam Hatton to score from close range. Suddenly lifted, the crowd noise reached new heights and, briefly, it looked as if they might find a way back into the match. It was, however, a false dawn and, just five minutes later, Wycombe extended their lead again, John Mousinho carrying the ball from midfield and teeing up Matt Phillips to score. With sixteen minutes to play, Wycombe extended their lead still further, with Mousinho this time releasing Matt Harrold – who’d only scored once all season prior to last nigh t- to complete his hat-trick. Wycombe, again, went through the Wimbledon like a hot knife through butter. It was an expectedly professional performance from a professsional club.
At full time, the teams took their applause and we took our places in the bar to watch the post-match interviews on the big screen, and to watch the Man Of The Match presentations. It was here that Wimbledon came into their own, with good humour and a genuine sense of community shining through the obvious disappointment of their defeat, with dimiuntive commercial director Ivor Heller presenting the awards with the assistance of the delighted looking sponsors. Wimbledon still have much work to do on the pitch if they are to join the likes of Wycombe Wanderers on the pitch as equals, and Kingsmeadow – the Kingston Road End of which has terrible sightlines and makes for a poor view for all bar those standing at the front – also requires work, but as a role model for how to run a club off the pitch, they remain at the top of their league.