So it all comes down to ninety minutes. There can, at least, be little debate that this year’s Blue Square Premier play-off final is being played between the two best teams left in the competition, following Crawley Town’s testosterone-fuelled championship win but, as we pan across the banks of empty seats at Eastlands this afternoon, it is difficult not to reflect upon the wisdom of the decision to host the showpiece of this league here – although we are talking here about ticket prices and specifically not about the decision to play the match in Manchester – and wonder what a spectacle the match might have been had it been played in London. The decision was made, however, and we are where we are. It’s also worth pointing out that, while the crowd of 19,000 is clearly a disappointment for this match, it’s worth remembering the fact that even describing it thus is a remarkable comment upon the strength in depth of English football. This, let us not forget, is a match in the fifth division of English football.
Both clubs are here this afternoon seeking to take steps towards wronging a right and, while the story of what happened to Wimbledon FC is a well-trodden path, it occasionally feels as if what happened to Luton Town has not received the attention that it deserves. To be clear, the owners, whose mismanagement had involved serial financial irregularity, were not in control of the club when it was docked the thirty points that proved to be the death knell for Luton’s near-ninety year stay in the Football League. Since then, the club has not been run by a supporters trust, but it does seem to be run by genuine supporters. Their support will go through its own catharsis should they win this afternoon.
This week, though, the media has focussed on the AFC wimbledon story, and this is perhaps understandable. Their journey from the Combined Counties League to the cusp of the Football League has been an adventure, if nothing else. The spirit of protest still runs through the culture of the club and a win today would be the end of a perfect week for their supporters, who have already enjoyed the result from Peterborough United’s London Road on Thursday evening over the last few days. Expectations at the club have risen as the club has grown, though, and the AFC Wimbledon arriving in Manchester are certainly not suffering from any inferiority complex. These are two very evenly-matched sides, and to try and call a winner before the match begins is almost impossible.
Luton Town have gone back to the future for this match, and their shorts of orange with a vertical white and navy stripe summon forth memories of happier times during the mid-1970s. It’s a strong look, but looks count for little on the pitch and the opening stages of the match are very evenly contested. Luton seem to shade possession, but Wimbledon create the first two clear chances of the match. Kaid Mohammad breaks free on the left-hand side, sees his shot parried by the Luton goalkeeper Tyler and Danny Kedwell taps in from close range, only for the linesman’s flag to rule the goal out. At first glance it looks tight, but a replay confirms a good call. Minutes later, another shot is only half-cleared. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, a shot from Claude Gnakpa from a very tight angle is excellently turned away by Wimbledon’s Seb Brown.
Gnakpa remains an issue that the Wimbledon defence needs to deal with. He is a sprightly striker if a somewhat flaky one, but today he is causing them all manner of problems. Just after the half-hour mark, a swinging cross from the right-hand side sees him stoop from eight yards out and head narrowly over. On another day – on most other days – that would have sailed into the roof of the net. He is getting closer and closer. Just when it had started to feel as if Luton were reasserting themselves though, Wimbledon manage some encouraging possession in the minutes leading up to half-time. They sniff around the edge of the Luton penalty area, as if pushing and poking in search of a vulnerable spot, but are unable to fashion themselves a genuine goal-scoring opportunity. Half-time comes with the score still goalless and we are little closer to knowing who will eventually win this match than we were before it started.
The second half starts much as the first ends, with play undulating from end to end without either team seeming able to fashion a clear sight at goal. What does change, however, is its temper. The tackling feels more aggressive and Luton’s Alex Lawless is booked for a poor, ill-timed challenge. The tetchiness on the pitch reflects itself in an increase in volume from the stands, and the match feels like what it effectively is – a cup final – now. An angled ball from Kedwell is snuffed out by a brilliant block and, minutes later, Tyler comes from his line to acrobatically claim a deep cross.
Time, though, keeps ticking by. Wimbledon push on again and James Mulley has a shot that looked to be heading wide pushed away by Tyler. Better safe than sorry. Down to the last fifteen minutes, and still nothing between the two teams. Luke Moore jumps for the ball with Keith Keane, who may have been clutching his face after he fell to the ground when Moore seemed to put an arm across his shoulder. With six minutes to play, and Wimbledon back on top, a chance from a corner sees Yakubu – possibly – put the ball wide from six yards and a shot from Gregory flies narrowly wide.
A minute after this, at the other end of the pitch, Seb Brown is lucky not to concede a penalty and get sent off for a tackle on James Walker but the ball escapes both of them and Matthew Barnes-Homer’s shot is brilliantly blocked. Seconds, mere seconds later, a deep cross from the left-hand side finds Walker unmarked and six yards out. His downward header leaves Brown flat-footed but bounces out off the inside of the post… and out. Walker stands, looking utterly disbelieving. How did it stay out? How could this possibly have happened? It’s two massive chances for Luton, chances that were stunning in their bad luck for them. After ninety minutes, the two teams can’t be separated. Wimbledon, one suspects, are considerably happier to hear the whistle than Luton.
Extra-time is rapidly sapping the energy of the players – the Eastlands pitch is a very big one – and this is bad news for Wimbledon, who did tire suddenly and almost calamitously in the last five minutes of normal time. A couple of minutes in, Dan Gleeson, who has managed one goal in his entire career flashes a shot a foot or so over. Brown probably had it covered, but it’s another example of a recurrent theme during the closing stages of the match – a gap in the Wimbledon defence. Play settles down, but it’s tatty around the edges now. The passing is saggier and the running – particularly off the ball – is visibly more than lethargic than it had been. After a bright start to the first period of extra time, though, Luton quiet down, but they are defensively cohesive and Wimbledon can’t find a route through. At the other end, meanwhile, Brown is beaten again, this time by Alex Lawless, but his shot flies narrowly wide. One hundred and five minutes played, and still no score.
A minute into the second period of extra-time, a chance for Wimbledon. Sudden space on the left and a low shot saved by Tyler. A reminder for Luton Town, as if they needed one, that, for all the chances that they had during normal time, this match is far from over yet. Even closer, five minutes later, the ball is dragged back from the touchline and Kaid Mohammad, eight yards out, sees his shot bounce out of the outside of the post and wide. A low cross sees Gleeson get to the ball just before Luke Moore and clear it. With a minute to play, Gleeson comes to the rescue again, stretching every sinew to breaking point to clear the ball on the edge of the six yard area. As the clock ticks over thirty minutes, Yakubu heads wide from an angle and six yards. Wimbledon have dominated extra-time, it’s still level, so we turn to a penalty shoot-out.
It is simultaneously entirely appropriate and utterly inappropriate that this match should be determined by this method. It is a match that neither side deserves to lose and, while Luton shaded the first ninety minutes, they have ridden their luck during the additional thirty minutes of extra-time. First up for Luton is Lawless, and… Brown saves. Sam Hatton then gives Wimbledon the lead. The next three, as Hatton’s was, are inch-perfect. Kaid Mohammad then steps up for Wimbledon, and Tyler makes a comfortable save. Luton’s relief, however, is short-lived as Brown saves, just about, by the width of his bootlaces, from Walker. Yakubu restores Wimbledon’s advantage. That it should come down to Danny Kedwell is obvious. His penalty, is a blast, a rush of adrenaline and serotonin, as sharp as an arrow into the corner of the net. Wimbledon are back in the Football League.
Luton Town, then, will spend another year of purgatory in the Blue Square Premier, but their time will surely come. They will surely not be stuck at this level indefinitely, and both their players and supporters deserve full credit for having given it absolutely everything this afternoon. Whatever the injustice done to Wimbledon’s supporters all those years ago is another step towards being avenged; the ultimate one in the eye for those that said that this club couldn’t or wouldn’t work. We noted on here the other evening that the experiment in Milton Keynes is either stalling or slowly failing. The other club to emerge from this disgraceful saga in football’s shitory in this country, though,would still have been a stunning success over the last nine years even if it hadn’t achieved what it has this afternoon, of that much we can be certain, and today is a victory for principles. Terry Brown, a manager who has been the very definition of magnanimity as so many others around him have descended into lower and lower levels in the name of gamesmanship, deserves it. Most of all, though, those that refused to shuffle quietly away when they were effectively told that they were not wanted, deserve it. Wimbledon is back in the Football League, and the soul of English football will feel a little cleaner for it.
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