That rumbling feeling in the pit of my stomach. Its been growing since I arrived back in the country on Wednesday night. This morning, as confused repetitive dreams are replaced by daylight and dawning realisation, I remember why. Its match day. Basingstoke are coming to town. They shouldn’t cause us any problems, should they?
The butterflies fail to go away, in fact they grow in number, threatening to flood my throat and prevent me breathing. Its 12.30pm; jetlag has forced my lie in, and as I step into the bath Eastleigh are taking the field against Bromley. I allow myself to daydream that Bromley have forced an unlikely victory until the bathwater cools to lukewarm, I feel the cold, its time to get ready for the game.
I wait until I’m walking to the game until I dare check the final score. Eastleigh have won 1-0. They would, I think, knowing the gap at the top is down to one point, hopefully temporarily. I carry on my way, making sure each pre match tradition is upheld, walking past the bus stop on the road side and trying to remain on the road for as long as possible, past Fatboys and the chip shop, all the time trees and kerb remaining on my right side, until the final tree, I’ve made it all the way. Programme and copy of WUP are purchased. I briefly allow myself to admire my own article, meet friends, forget these particular good people don’t know about my blog, and have to spend the next few minutes patiently explaining to them what it is and what I write here.
It takes my mind off the game though, laughing nervously, I can barely get my words out. I take some photos. Make some notes. The team step out late, they look confident none the less, and the realisation the despite any nerves hidden in the bellies of our players, Basingstoke are near the bottom of the league for a reason. I pray for an early goal.
Basingstoke come to defend and play over the top on the break wherever possible. Wimbledon are taking control but heavy touches and overhit passes, the classic signs of nervousness, are hindering progress. The first chance of sorts falls to Basingstoke. Matt Warners strong run and shot is straight at Pullen, but stings his palms as he turns it away for a corner.
Then at last, on the quarter hour, a chance for the home team. A simple ball over the top, Reynolds lets it bounce and Main senses an opportunity, muscling the defender out of the way. His firm shot into the bottom left hand corner is not celebrated, the referees whistle had sounded several seconds beforehand, the first and certainly not the last time the official put paid to a Dons attack or generally frustrated, calling seemingly at random for minor infringements, not letting the game flow, whistle, whistle, whistle.
The Dons were celebrating soon after though following their best spell of pressure so far. Finn found space in the left channel, his effort was immediately blocked casuing the ball to loop up over Kitteridge, dropping goalbound until an unidentified Basingstoke man diverts the ball over the bar. The Dons smell blood and are rewarded from the resulting corner. Hussey hits in firmly, dipping viciously as it enters the area, and Alan Inns is on hand to stab home emphatically.
The celebrations are slightly muted for such an occasion and such a crowd, 4136 packed into the ‘Meadow, as if to a man we realise its nowhere near job done yet. As if to prove us right, a spell of head tennis develops in the Dons area on the half hour, the men in blue cannot clear, and Ryan Stevens attempted overhead kick, although tame, appears to have caught Pullen out from my position in the stadium and its a relief to see it float harmlessly wide.
Minutes later the Dons are back on the front foot again. Good play down the left between Hussey and Finn releases the full back who finds Main, barely six yards out and with the goal to his mercy, who can only steer his header wide. Another Hussey cross then finds Alan Inns, whos firm header crashes against the left post and away.
At this point its worth mentioning the overall performance of Inns. The eventual man of the match, he was everywhere at the back. He never once looked like he would lose out in the air, and absolutely dominated the back line, abley assisted by his defensive partner Ben Judge. I was scathing of Inns lack of professionalism at Eastleigh, and after todays performance its even more frustrating knowing he won’t play a part in our last three vital regular season games. But letting bygones be bygones, he made sure that his last involvement in the title race was a positive one today, and I hope he greatly enjoys the curry a New Malden restaurant awarded him on account of his Man of the Match accolade. The Anonymous Don doesn’t give champagne or meals as reward, but for what its worth he was my star man by a street today.
Half time came and went, as I half witnessed an amazing display in the Square Up challenge, where a fan managed to keep the thing in the air… well I lost count but it was well into the twenties. For those normally in the bar its worth remembering the ‘ball’ is actually a small cube, resembling more a well chewed dog toy than a football. Perhaps the sponsors should bring down New Maldens most famous resident, professional ball juggler Mr Wu, and see how well he fares…
The Dons looked on top again during a sluggish start to the second period, with Phil Ruggles shot on the turn waking the crowd up as it deflected wide. It was to prove Basingstokes last serious effort on goal, as Wimbledon took control, a lack of finishing still keeping the nerves on edge until the end. A perfect example of this being Kezie Ibe, in what will certainly be his last game for the club, charging down an attempted clearance to Jon Main, whos through ball back to the pacy frontman was well overhit with the Basingstoke defense floundering.
Thats not to say Wimbledon didn’t look like scoring. Earlier a quickly taken Sam Hatton free kick had almost caught Kitteridge out, but the Basingstoke stopper was able to scramble it wide. Another chance fell to Hatton following an excellent ball into the box from Elliott Godfrey but he was the wrong man in the right position as his flicked header flew harmlessly over the bar.
Terry Brown took the opportunity to bring on fresh legs with Kedwell replacing a tired and out of luck Jon Main. While Main will finish the season as leading scorer in the Blue Square South by some distance, his last ten games have not shown him in a favourable light, he certainly won’t be hitting the 40 goal mark this term. He needs a couple of goals to fire him up and us to the title, bringing back confidence for the new season. Hard working Anthony Finn also made way for Dwayne Lee. I was impressed by Finn today. He gave the ball away once or twice, but never stopped working for the team, chasing down lost causes and generally looking a million times better than the player who would have allowed the game to pass him by this time last year, hands on hips, anguished look on his face.
The introduction of the experienced Lee didn’t exactly calm fans nerves either. Playing in his usual position in front of the back four, Lee has a peculiar manner of controlling a football, leaning back, almost off balance, and killing it with an outstretched foot. This also has the habit of turning a pass he seemingly has seconds to make into a 50/50 as he adjusts his centre of balance to the front foot. Naturally this doesn’t sit well with all supporters in the last five minutes of a tight game when the title is on the line.
As time ticked away and Wimbledon repeatedly fail to kill off their plucky opponents the pressure grew. The Dons last chance fell to Danny Kedwell from an angle, but he lashed his effort high into the Tempest End. And the closest Basingstoke were to come was a hopeful freekick floated wide from all of thirty-plus yards. This didn’t mean the Wimbledon faithful weren’t sweating. No matter how toothless Basingstoke looked, it is the potential that something might go wrong that worries rather than the quality of opponent. Sometimes thats all it takes for a defence to crumble.
The final whistle brings relief, and the league table looks very good right now. Soon though the anxiety will be back. Monday will bring another game, a team we have previous with, a team that won’t roll over so easily. How comfortable we are come Monday morning depends on the result of a game tomorrow. Braintree will find they have an extra few thousand supporters for a couple of hours come 3pm. If they get any kind of a result, it will be unexpected, but surely appreciated by people like myself, for whom two weeks is too long to wait for the outcome of this particular title race.