As we walk into the bar at Kingsmeadow, something silver and shiny catches my attention in the corner of my eye. “It’s the FA Trophy!”, I squeal, “The real FA Trophy”. It takes a sharp prod to the rib cage to remind me that, sitting next to it, is the squatter but considerably shinier FA Cup. It’s carnival day in south-west London, the day of the Co-Operative Supporters Direct Cup match, an annual invitation match for supporters trust owned clubs, and this year – as it was two years ago this weekend – it’s Wimbledon and FC United doing the honours. The mutual respect and friendship is immense, but Wimbledon are starting to show United a clean pair of heels on the pitch.
The last time the two sides met Wimbledon were in the Ryman League Premier Division. Since then, they’ve managed two successive promotions and, for all the talk of a season of consolidation, they have become accustomed enough to success to be able to dream of challenging in the Blue Square Premier, even if they might not want to admit it to themselves just yet. United, on the other hand, stalled in the Unibond League Premier Division last season and missed out on the play-offs on the last day of the season. One might expect a side playing to average home crowds of 2,000 in what is effectively the regional seventh division of English football to be in a more powerful position than they are, but the eye-watering price of renting their temporary home – Bury’s Gigg Lane – and the fact that every spare penny is going into a ground development fund means that they compete, on the pitch at least, as equals.
Wimbledon, however, make slightly hard work of things, particularly in the first half. They push the United defence back and seem physically stronger, but the United defence isn’t playing this match as a friendly. They dig deep, get feet and bodies in the way and show a nice touch on the ball after a nervy looking start. Then came the big chance – Phil Marsh cut into the penalty area and was tripped by a clumsy tackle from Kennedy Adjei to give the visitors a penalty. Adam Carden, their Player of the Year last year, stepped up to take the kick, but his finish was poorly placed and predictable, and Wimbledon goalkeeper James Pullen saved comfortably. Half-time came with the scores goalless but Wimbledon still looking in pre-season mode – a sharper attack may have severely punished them.
Parity lasted barely fifteen minutes into the second half, and when it came it was with simplicity that was apposite for a match of this type – Chris Hussey drove a free-kick across the six yard area and Ben Judge tapped it, unmarked at the far post. Many of the travelling supporters could have been forgiven an inward sigh at this point. They travelled from Manchester to London two years ago and lost 2-0 – any pretence of football not being been a harsh mistress coming when United’s Marsh thumped a low free kick against the inside of the post. In the dying seconds, Luke Moore found himself little space on the right hand wide and whipped over a low cross for triallist Peter Rapson to roll the ball past the prone FC United goalkeeper Sam Ashton to wrap the game up.
After the match, the ceremonies and awards. The awarding of a cup gave this game a little more bite than most pre-season friendlies, and the addition of triallists – men who are playing for a job – meant that there weren’t many tackles that were being avoided. Again, though, the most notable thing on the menu this afternoon was the mutual respect between the two clubs, both of whom have much to look forward to. Wimbledon have their work cut out in the BSP, but will benefit from being newly-promoted into a league which may see more established clubs struggling with Setanta money that they may already have spent but definitely won’t receive. FC United, meanwhile, will continue to fight their battles both on and off the pitch. The Unibond League Premier Division remains a winnable league, but their biggest goal remains a home of their own.
To an extent, what was visible off the pitch was more important than anything that could have happened on it. With Notts County supporters choosing a get rich scheme over controlling their own destiny, Wycombe Wanderers being backed into a corner by their managing director Steve Hayes and Stockport County taken out of supporter ownership after falling into administration at the end of last season, this match was a timely reminder that it doesn’t have to be bad news all of the time and a pleasing diversion from the increasingly dispiriting circus that seems to follow the game around each summer.