In the morning came the doubts and the what ifs. What if half-time comes and Hampton are five up at Maidenhead? However unlikely it seemed, there was no mathematical certainty to Wimbledon’s promotion into the BSP until five o’clock but, back in the real world, everyone knows that the game is already up. On a bright, sunny spring afternoon, they come to see the coronation, and they come – not for the first time this season – in extraordinary numbers. The crowd is an all-ticket 4,722 and tickets had sold out several days ago. Take a moment to consider that. The regional sixth division of English football, almost 5,000 people (had Kingsmeadow been able to hold more people, it would have been higher) have turned out. Extraordinary, by any standards, and a testament to the pulling power of this remarkable football club and the strength in depth of English football.
St Albans City are the foils for this, and they play the part to perfection. Although the championship is not mathematically certain, they still form a guard of honour for Wimbledon as the team takes to the pitch and then, after showing some resistance in the first half, eventually roll over and allowed their bellies to be tickled. The exception to this rule is the Saints’ goalkeeper Paul Bastock. The best goalkeeper that I have seen at Clarence Park in over twenty-five years continues to cut a unique figure in the City goal, pouring forth extraordinary amounts of fury upon his defenders when they leave him and his goal exposed. This may be his last game for City – he turns thirty-eight next month – but age certainly doesn’t seem to have mellowed him.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first half is played at a dull, subdued tempo, as if everyone – the players included – just want it to be five o’clock already. On the terrace behind the goal, the celebration has already but the atmosphere doesn’t reflect onto the pitch, where City’s central defensive partnership of James Quilter and Adam Everitt make light work of snuffing out any threats on their goal. Wimbledon look their best when they play the ball on the floor, but their smarter touches and tidy passing don’t cause the visitors any undue difficulties. The match sleepwalks to half-time with the score still goalless.
Whether Wimbledon manager Terry Brown gave his team a kick of the backside at half-time is uncertain. What is certain is that the home side come out with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose. After the interval, three minutes is all it takes for everything to click. Anthony Finn feeds the ball to Kennedy Adjei, who skips past a challenge before rolling the ball precisely past Bastock and into the corner for the opening goal. City do briefly muster a semblance of resistance. Hector Mackie, otherwise more notable for his flamboyant name than for any specific contribution on the pitch, fizzes a shot narrowly wide and a last-ditch block stops a shot from Paul Hakim.
Midway through the second half, however, Wimbledon tie the game up with a goal of such simplicity that one is tempted to wonder why they didn’t do it earlier. Finn crosses and Sam Hatton, St Albans born and bred, heads wide of Bastock and into the corner of the net. For a while afterwards it seems as if City may cave in but Bastock provides a stubborn last line of defence, saving brilliantly from Adjei, while Tom Davis – who, having won promotion from the BSS with City in 2006 and Lewes last season, is becoming something of a specialist at this sort of thing – also forces him into action. With two minutes left to play, however, the third goal comes. Finn’s shot is saved by Bastock, but the goalkeeper’s parry only pushes the ball into the path of Jason Goodliffe, who scores from close range.
In injury time, Wimbledon almost sign off for the season in the most spectacular way possible. Finn, an obvious choice as man of the match, fires a sensational shot from twenty-five yards that leaves Bastock for dead and rattles off the crossbar and away to safety. Then the whistle blows, and it’s all over. There’s no pitch invasion this week, and the players come out one by one to receive the acclaim of the crowd before the championship trophy – which looks curiously like a bigger, less shiny version of the FA Cup – is handed over. The bar starts to fill, and the celebrations start in earnest, buoyed still further by the news that Franchise have lost at home to Walsall, guaranteeing that they cannot get automatic promotion and may well have a tough play-off semi-final against Leeds United.
How, then, will Wimbledon cope in the Blue Square Premier? The gap between it and the regional divisions below it is one of the biggest in English football. The overwhelming majority of BSP clubs are fully professional, and the facilities are much better than in the divisions below. Indeed, nine BSP clubs are former Football League clubs. Wimbledon are to stay part-time which could be considered a handicap, but this needn’t necessarily be so. They will be the only BSP team within the M25 next season, and they may find that, come the summer, they have the pick of part-time players in the south east of England. Some players choose to stay part-time rather than turning professional, so staying part-time doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have to sign inferior players. It does seem likely, however, that next season will be one of consolidation rather than chasing a place in the Football League. In these days of play-offs, however, only a fool would say never.
Of more immediate concern, however, is Kingsmeadow itself. Two sides of the ground remain comparatively undeveloped and it struggles with crowds of much more than 3,000. There is immediate work required to bring it up to standard, but whether the club will seek to increase the capacity is an interesting question. The massive crowd yesterday was different to their previous full houses this season against Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup and Chelmsford City in the league in that only just over 100 of the people in the ground were travelling supporters. The bigger BSP clubs have massive away followings, and it seems likely that there will be at least several full houses next season. Renovation work, however, is expensive and complicated by issues relating to the ownership of the land immediately surrounding Kingsmeadow. It would seem to make common sense, though, to seek to improve the facilities where possible.
All of that, however, is for another time. This morning there will have been be a very large number of fuzzy heads waking up across south-west London, but these hangovers will uniformly be deemed to have been thoroughly worthwhile. It almost goes without saying that Wimbledon should be congratulated for their promotion, which is yet further proof – as if it were needed – that lower league football needn’t be about ennui, failure and acceptance of mediocrity. They are leaving behind the peculiarly insular world of what purists may call “true” non-league football, and it’s difficult to envisage that they will return to it or that, should they ever return to it, it will be for very long.
The three man independent committee that the FA brought in to sanction the old club’s move to Milton Keynes famously stated that, “resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, ‘Wimbledon Town’ is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so that they could go back to the position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football”. For a committee that was surely already aware of the amount of hurt that they would cause by sanctioning this move to make such a statement was an extraordinary lesson in, quite literally, adding insult to injury. Quite why this statement was made has never even been explained, still less apologised for. Perhaps it is time for the FA to acknowledge the wrong-headedness of this statement. Seven years on, and with AFC Wimbledon now just one step away from a return to the Football League, they couldn’t have been more wrong.