Just to clarify, Liverpool aren’t in the European Cup final because they played brilliantly. By the time last night’s match reached extra time, Chelsea had nothing left to give. They were fortunate to get to a penalty shootout, but their legs must have felt like lead. It made all the difference, in the end. Having said that, it was a poor, poor game. It didn’t look or feel like a cup semi-final. It was somewhat pleasing to see Chelsea players in tears at the end, too, but this has to be tempered with what I fear might turn out to be a torrent of self-righteousness from Merseyside over the next four weeks or so. Still, Milan might dump Manchester United out tonight. You never know.
To be completely honest, my mind was only half focussed on events at Anfield last night. As you well know (at least those of you that actually read my spit and bile, as opposed to those of you who click on the link by mistake and rapidly realise the error of your ways, will be aware), my mind was continually drifting to Hayes Lane in Bromley, and their semi-final of the Ryman League play-offs match against AFC Wimbledon. Well, Bromley won 1-0, so the Dons have another season (at least) in the Ryman League to put up with. Watching the highlights earlier this evening, it looked like a reasonably tight match, with the turning point arguably being the sending off of Wimbledon’s Wes Daly for a second bookable offence in the first half. In all honesty, it’s difficult to fault Bromley for their win. They had finished second in the table, and five points clear of the Dons. On the night, it looks as if they were marginally the better team. They play Billericay Town at home on Saturday for a place in the Conference South.
Where, then, do AFC Wimbledon go from here? Well, part of that decision has been made for them, with the resignation of manager Dave Anderson earlier today. The impression that I took away from the Wimbledon matches that I saw this season was that he had probably taken the team as far as he could. They are a talented bunch of individuals – two or three of their players could at least could hold their own in the Conference, two divisions above where they’re playing now – but they frequently looked as if they were playing to too basic a game-plan, and that they lacked some of the basic building blocks of organisation. Even when they were winning (and they won four out of the five matches that I saw them play last season), you could see how easily they could lose. They’ll start next season again amongst the favourites to win the league, but there will be stiff competition again from Margate, Chelmsford City and newly promoted AFC Hornchurch.
Already, a quick look at their message board shows that a number of names have already been discussed, but the current favourite appears to be the former Aldershot Town manager, Terry Brown. Brown started out in management in the old Ryman League, at Hayes. On a limited budget, he took them clear of the relegation zone, and won them promotion into the Conference. Once there, despite having the smallest crowds (and surely the smallest wage budget) in the league, he took them to the giddy heights of third place in the league. The good times couldn’t last, though, and in 2002 he left for Aldershot, whose previous abortive attempts to get into the Conference had made them the laughing stocks of the Ryman League. In his first full season in charge, though, he took them up as champions, and then managed two successive play-off places in the Conference, before leaving to look after his wife (who suffers from leukaemia) in March of this year. His appointment would be an excellent one for AFC Wimbledon. He is proven as a successful non-league manager, and has experience of taking a club with big expectations by the scruff of its neck and fulfilling those expectations.
In a broader sense, Wimbledon’s supporters need to accept where they are and lift themselves to continue their support next season. They’ve got a brilliant set up at Kingsmeadow, and it is surely only a matter of time before they continue their upward trajectory. However, their club would be ill-served if they become disillusioned. They need to keep going, keep supporting, and keep the dream alive – non-league football is far more competitive than most people give credit for. It took Aldershot over ten years to clamber into the Conference. As they continue to progress, they will find it tougher and tougher. But they need to stick with it. They need to disregard the navel-gazing jealousy of other non-league fans, and keep behind their team. Like I say, they’ve got a lot of things on their side. It will come.