A lot of people worked very hard for this moment. In modern football, a considerable amount of time, paper and bandwidth is spent on celebrating a relative few, but at Wimbledon it was the likes of Erik Samuelson, Kris Stewart, Marc Jones and Ivor Heller, who refused to let their club die with a that was brought about by little more than carpet-baggers. Today, though, is not a day for protesting. Today is a day for a celebration. It only, as the song goes, took nine years for AFC Wimbledon to rise from the Combined Counties League, and the glow to come from the club with promotion to the Football League has shone over all of English football during the entire summer.
In the midst of all of this excitement, the scale of the challenge facing the club cannot be understated. They lost arguably their two best players – Danny Kedwell and Steven Gregory – during the summer, and on their limited resources, League Two may prove to be a culture shock to supporters considerably more used to winning far more matches than they have been losing each of their opening three matches, all against sides relegated from League One at the end of last season, may prove to be a shock to the system. Indeed, the relegation of their opposition today, Bristol Rovers, at the end of last season was something of a surprise, and Rovers may well feel that the publicity being offered to their opponents today will suit them down to the ground.
Within twenty minutes, the scale of the task facing Wimbledon this season has been thrown into a very harsh light indeed. Rovers are in control of this match from the very start and, whilst the first clear chance of the match falls to Wimbledon – for Christian Jolley, who breaks clear but takes a fraction too long to shoot and sees his shot blocked by the Bristol Rovers goalkeeper Scott Bevan – it is clear that, whilst there are no nerves amongst the visiting team, the home side look on edge. It takes sixteen minutes for them to take the lead, a debut goal for Scott McGleish from an angle after some sloppy defending, and within three minutes Matt Harrold, who tormented the Wimbledon defence when he played here or Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup a couple of years ago, takes advantage of more defensive skittishness to double their lead.
With this quick one-two the atmosphere flattens, but Wimbledon do finally start to settle and after thirty-two minutes they break effectively, but a short diagonal pass to Luke Moore gets stuck under the striker’s feet and his shot, when it finally comes, is comfortable for Bevan. They are looking more comfortable, though, and with nine minutes left to play of the half they pull a goal back when Sam Hatton’s free-kick from the left-hand side is flicked in by captain Jamie Stuart. The goal seems to shake a little life into Bristol Rovers, and in stoppage time at the end of the half a scramble which sees a header hit the crossbar and Harrold’s rebound somehow bundled over the crossbar means that Wimbledon are fortunate to end the half just the one goal behind.
If the Wimbledon manager Terry Brown couldn’t wait for the opportunity for half-time to come in order to drill a little defensive discipline into his team, then the benefits of this become appararent in the opening ten minutes of the second half. This match now feels like a league than the first, which had felt more than a little like an FA Cup match between a non-leagu side and a Football League side. Wimbledon start assertively, but Bristol Rovers still look as likely as not to score when they get close to Seb Brown’s goal. With a little over twenty minutes to play, though, Kingsmeadow explodes. Christian Jolley was replaced by Charles Ademeno five years after, and his impact couldn’t be much more immediate. A low ball into penalty area finds Ademeno, whose low shot squeezes in and brings Wimbledon level.
Perhaps, Wimbledon supporters might start to believe, this afternoon is going to end considerably more happily than it started, but Bristol Rovers still look stronger than most of the opposition than they faced in the Blue Square Premier last season. Jo Kuffour’s shot is saved by Brown. Bristol Rovers are getting closer, but it takes a little slice of luck for them to take all three points home with them. With just over five minutes left to play, Chris Lines swings a free-kick into the penalty area and Wimbledon defender Brett Johnson, possibly nudged, has his arm in the air and the ball strikes it. As if Wimbledon needed any reminding of where they were, Adam Virgo’s penalty kick is absolutely perfect, sending Brown the wrong way and into the corner of the goal. Three points to Bristol Rovers, and Wimbledon, temporarily least, are bottom of the table for the first time in their history.
Twenty minutes into the new season, Wimbledon supporters might have been forgiven for wondering what might become of them this season. However, their comeback from two goals down suggests that there is a strength of character within this team that will seek them okay over the next nine months or so. Manager Terry Brown will obviously – and rightly – be concerned at the individual errors that shipped all three of his team’s goals this afternoon, but there were plenty of positives to take from this performance. Bristol Rovers, meanwhile, for the most part lived up to their pre-season billing as being amongst the favourites for promotion back to League One, and their sole major concern this afternoon will be that, having built themselves into a very strong position, they managed to put themselves in such danger of only returning with a solitary point to show for their endeavours.
Whilst the disappointment of losing will sting for Wimbledon supporters, there was little – individual mistakes nothwithstanding – on display today to suggest that they will struggle this season, and there remains a broader point at play, here. This is a club that remains a club apart, borne of a decision that should never be made. As a League Two club, they may now finally fulfil what many of their supporters wanted to be all along, just another Football League club, quietly getting on with the job of being just another Football League club. This, however, is only a part of their story. AFC Wimbledon are different, with a unique story which sets them apart from almost all of their peers, and if this season is another chapter opening in a story which perhaps began in 1889, or maybe in 1977, it was at least fitting that it should have started in dramatic fashion, even if the result wasn’t the one that would have wished for. With one down and forty-five left to play, it may just be that there is no such thing as “just another season” for this particular club.
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