I awoke yesterday morning with a sense of chilling foreboding. London, the city in which I was born, appears to be suffering from some sort of collective nervous breakdown and has voted in Boris Johnson as its mayor. It’s an encouraging way to start the day. Gripped by a slight but niggling hangover, my thoughts turn to the afternoon’s football. The last couple of weeks of the season have a strangely dislocated feel to them, primarily because the different divisions finish at different times. The non-league season finished last week, the Football League this weekend and the Premier League comes to a conclusion next weekend. There are big gaps in the fixture list already where leagues that have already finished should be playing, and the biggest gap, for me, is the end of the non-league season.
It is a big week for AFC Wimbledon. Tuesday night’s win against AFC Hornchurch at Kingsmeadow is followed up by a somewhat unholy scramble to get tickets for the Ryman League play-off final at Staines Town. With a ground capacity of 2,600 at their Wheatsheaf Park ground, Staines Town only had to allocate them 600 tickets, but, in one of the season’s less well-advised press releases, they announced that 1,500 tickets would be made available to Wimbledon supporters, a figure that was hastily revised down to 1,000 when it became apparent that demand for tickets was going to be high. As it turns out, it’s little more than a minor inconvenience for the travelling supporters. Staines are selling tickets at their ground, have no real way of knowing who supports who, and their ground doesn’t have effective segregation in any case. Away supporters ended up with the vast majority of tickets for the match, regardless of more or less all other considerations.
In an age in which one can, with the right mixture of satellite dishes and decoders, watch more or less any match from the comfort of one’s own laptop, there is something strangely retro about a sold out that can only be listened to on a shonky radio connection that might just fall over at any time. Staines Town have an online radio service, but there is no way that it will be able to cope with the level of demand for a match of this calibre, so Radio Wdon, the online Wimbledon radio service, has offered it’s considerably richer resources in order that we can all listen in. The Staines commentary team, however, do an excellent job, offering a largely unbiased view of the afternoon’s proceedings.
Listening to a football match on the radio is the most exquisite form of agony. The game goes at a pace that not even the best professional commentators can keep up with, and the crowd are always completely up to speed with what is going on. A collective groan can sound like a huge cheer in the wrong conditions and, even if you’re listening very carefully, the ball can be at the wrong end of the pitch without you even noticing. It’s a uniquely tense experience, completely unlike watching on the television, or even being at the match yourself. It’s not helped by the fact that this particular match is played at absolute breakneck pace, with the ball pinging from end to end like a game of pinball. It looks as if it’s not going to be Wimbledon’s day. Early exchanges between the sides are fairly even, yet the better of the chances are falling to the visitors. The Staines goalkeeper pulls off a brilliant point blank save from a shot from six yards. Pullen blocks excellently from Nwokeji. Main gets through and is pulled down by Flitter, but the defender is inexplicably booked, rather than being sent off.
This failure on the part of the referee costs them heavily on thirty six minutes, when Flitter himself heads Staines in front from close range, and for the next twenty minutes or so, Staines sound like the better team, squandering a couple of half-decent chances to double the lead and put the game beyond Wimbledon’s reach. Nic McDonnell comes on for Anthony Finn at half-time – a switch to a more attacking formation – and, with twenty minutes to play, Mark De Bolla replaces Steve Ferguson, but it seems that nothing is going to go their way. John Main, who has sounded throughout, gets through and is tripped in the penalty area. The linesman flags for a penalty, but the referee overrules him and plays on. Staines, though, are starting to tire. They’ve had an insanely long season, and it’s starting, for the first time, to show. It is now solely a question of whether they can hang on for the last ten or fifteen minutes.
The answer to that question is no, and the balance of the game suddenly swings dramatically in Wimbledon’s favour in three suffocatingly extraordinary minutes. With nine minutes left to play, the Staines goalkeeper Courtnage comes out to catch a long throw, but drops the ball under no real pressure at all. McDonnell flicks the ball back across and Luis Cumbers heads the ball in. Courtnage, who has been a safe pair of hands all afternoon, has already been booked for time-wasting and is fortunate not to be sent off. Straight from the kick-off, Staines swarm forward and threaten a second goal, but Pullen safely catches the shot and delivers it back up the other end of the pitch, where McDonnell is tripped up twenty-five yards from goal. Mark De Bolla steps up and shoots low, through the wall and into the bottom corner. At the end of a season like this, such a massive turnaround wasn’t exactly in the script.
And then… silence. The radio station has collapsed under the pressure of people trying to log in, and the next best alternative, their supporters forum, has done likewise. There follows an agonising ten minute wait, before independent sources confirm, just after 5.00, that the final whistle has gone at Wheatsheaf Park, that Wimbledon have won 2-1 and have been promoted to the Conference South. The news then comes through that FC United of Manchester have beaten Skelmersdale United in the Unibond League Division One North play-off at Gigg Lane. It has been, Boris Johnson notwithstanding, a decent enough weekend.
So, after four years in the Ryman League, and having failed in the Premier Division play-offs last year and the year before, AFC Wimbledon go forward into to Conference South. Another small step in their fight to reclaim what was taken away from them in 2002. Due to the somewhat cackhanded way that the reorganisation of non-league football to include the Conference North & South was managed in 2004, they have little to fear there. A number of clubs in the Conference South seem happy to do little more than tread water there, and there is plenty of room for the newly-promoted clubs to do well. Last year’s champions, Hampton & Richmond Borough, are through to this year’s play-off final there, against Eastbourne Borough.
There can be little doubt that, should AFC Wimbledon wish to continue to progress on the pitch, they will need to strengthen their squad, and recent plans to develop their ground will mean that money there is tight. More troubling for them, crowds had been starting to fall at Kingsmeadow this season, though this was most likely due to the feeling of stagnation that followed the two failed promotion bids. This may be arrested by the promotion, even though the prospect of visits from the likes of Thurrock, Bognor Regis Town and Bishops Stortford might not immediately set the heart racing. For all of that, however, they’re potentially only one season away from the Conference, Thursday night football live on Setanta and the possibility of a place in the Football League. For now, though, any practical considerations can take the back seat. These are days for merely basking in the warmth of a job well done.