Monthly Archives: January 2011

January Conquered

Comfortable win last night. Fair play to those who managed to make the journey, the noise you made translated well from the TV coverage. I say ‘TV’, it was of course a dodgy feed on my laptop. Obviously this is a legally grey area, and I have to say I’m glad it was the first and possibly last time I’ll have to do it, normally being actually at the game. Having said that I did watch half an hour of the Luton-Grimsby game on Tuesday night in order to test the technology in case it was required, and the game came through clear as a bell. Last night I had the frustration of having to put up with the picture freaking out for twenty seconds or so every other minute. I could have made the ten minute walk down to Kingsmeadow to watch in the bar, but not feeling 100% I gave it a miss, a decision I thought I would regret…

Its worth remembering this was the first time I had watched a Dons game via any kind of televisual transmission for almost a decade, and made the kind of sofa based error we all have at some point of another, I got caught up watching a QI repeat and turned the laptop back on slightly late… late enough to miss Christian Jolley’s opener. This had followed a frustrating first half (and not just because of the stream-related interruptions) where the Dons had started to look as though they would boss it, missing a couple of chances including Mulley hitting the post, before Gateshead got back into it as the break approached, hitting the post themselves.

Jolley’s effort was an example of what he can do when he’s at his best, cutting inside and sneaking his effort in at the near post. From that point on there was only one side in it, and you thought the Dons might stretch their legs. Chances were created and missed, it took until fifteen minutes from time for Wimbledon to put the game beyond the hosts. Was it really a controversial free kick? I can understand the Gateshead manager being frustrated, but had it happened at the other end we would probably be feeling a little disappointed with our goalkeeper right now.

The fact the defender was stretching is a little bit of a red herring, the reason he had to stretch was in order to get a decent connection so the ball died off his boot, and suggesting there was an element of luck in that is probably a bit of an insult to him. Quite why the keeper didn’t just hack it clear is a mystery, and if there was any doubt in the referees mind it was probably made up by the keepers dallying. Still, you don’t see a lot of those kind of free-kicks given these days, I can’t remember the last time we were given one, let alone scored from it… CCL maybe???

When I saw Kedwell shaping up to hit it I had an idea it was only going to end up in the back of the net. The dummied effort before helped, checking the blockers, and the skipper did brilliantly to target the bottle job guarding the post… there were probably a few Gateshead players who would have taken one in the face in order to keep their side in it, but Kedwell’s effort flew into the top corner via the back of the defender.

The result capped off what has been a wonderful month for the Dons. Forget the drawn games, I know we were disappointed after dropping two points against Bath, but to go through what had looked a pretty intimidating series of games taking at least something from each has been impressive. Our only problem has been that our promotion rivals have been equally tought to break down over this period, some lengthy unbeaten runs are being put together as the top four start to stretch their legs in the run in.

We find ourselves top again, at least while Crawley go on a bit of a Cup adventure. As I write they look like progressing at Torquay, good luck to them as they attempt to navigate a fixture backlog that allows us, for the time being, to remain a thorn in their side. In reality it wouldn’t surprise me if Crawley’s games in hand would see them gain the sort of lead we couldn’t overcome simply by winning our game against them and hoping Luton do us a favour. Yet there are still plenty of games to play, and despite their resources a run of poor form could see the race turn in our direction.  If that happens of course, we will still have Luton to worry about… lets just say the next three months could be quite exciting…

Debacle

Firstly, an apology as there hasn’t been much writing going from the Anonymous Don these last few days. This would happen to coincide with a particularly heavy period of on field action… unfortunately I have suffered from an ear infection which didn’t really make me feel like doing anything – one of the downsides of being a one man operation is life has a nasty habit of getting in the way. In a couple of weeks service will suffer once more as I move house (those counting will by now have worked out this is the fourth move in the two-year life span of this blog…), therefore losing broadband for a couple of weeks.

So now I have a little catching up to do, and the left side of my face is still doing its Elephant Man impression I have a feeling its going to be short… Firstly, last Saturday. Theres not too much you can add to what has already been said apart from it really goes to show the gap in class between the top and bottom of this division. To be honest the Dons looked poor in the first half, a move up to second gear after the break was enough to see the Dons comfortably home but you got the impression there was plenty in the tank come final whistle.

Beyond that, Jamie Stuart’s enthusiastic reaction at the final whistle got my vote, as well as James Mulley comfortably outstripping a flagging Southport side in the final minute before clipping home his second expertly – pretty much summing up the differences between semi-pro and full-time clubs in the space of thirty seconds. Also, we got to see the rare sight of the supporters playing their part in the performance… last year the Tempest End pretty much won us a point after their Frank Sinclair baiting against Wrexham, but you don’t see it very often as even players several divisions below ours are on the whole pretty good at ignoring the crowd. This time round the ‘limited’ Southport defender Earl Davis was the one to suffer, after nodding a clearance into touch under no pressure a section of home fans questioned whether this was in fact the first time Davis had seen a football. Obviously that played on his mind as the quick throw fell to Nwokeji, and his desperate lunge scythed down the forward, gifting the Dons a penalty.

I can’t really comment on the Bath debacle, as I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even particularly listening to WDON either, at least in the second half – it was on in the background but, and perhaps this was slightly arrogant, I kind of presumed that at 2-0 playing (with all due respect for a side that ultimately battled back for a well deserved point) the sort of side you would expect to have gone on and beaten under those circumstances.

As for tomorrow, well Gateshead are picking up a bit of form and it won’t be easy, we all know that. I’m not going to be one of the small group heading north, and in fact if I don’t manage to make it down to Kingsmeadow to watch on the big screen, I might even think of doing another one of those live blogs for the occasion… I haven’t had a chance to watch a Dons game on tv (I’ve always been at the game…) so it will actually be quite novel…

On Paper

After missing Fleetwood last night, I’m now getting over the fact that our huge Merton (in Kingston) derby against Colliers Wood tomorrow night has fallen foul of the weather… rearranged for next Wednesday to ensure I don’t feel left out missing the Bath game either. On paper last nights result against a side occupying a play-off position was a decent result… which is good as because I wasn’t there ‘on paper’ is the only method I have of judging the performance…

Being difficult to beat is a sign of a side who are going to be there or there abouts this season, and while our four drawn games in a row might have effectively extinguished our fairytale title dreams, we have to look at how we have progressed. Earlier in the season given such a daunting run of fixtures we surely wouldn’t have escaped without a defeat somewhere down the line.

Plus the fact we have technically only picked up four from twelve available points despite remaining unbeaten is one of those unfortunate statistics… there are those who suggest a more fair system would be to give an extra point to the away side in a draw, but surely then everyone (and I mean everyone) will stick as many men behind the ball as required to escape with a 0-0? If we are going to ever alter with the points system to take into account the minor home/away advantage, it would have to go to the extents of making the league table unrecognisable (i.e. twelve points for a win, five for a draw away from home, bonus points for goals, etc) and I’m sure it’ll be like watching F1 for a few seasons with the system being tweaked here and there…

Was in danger of going on a massive tangent there, probably an argument I should explore in more detail over on Control>Shoot (if it was still active…). One of the benefits of drawing with Fleetwood (and Newport, Luton, and to a lesser extent Darlington) is they don’t pick up the points either. With a better record and a comfortable points cushion, we are still in prime play-off position. Also, without wanting to place undue pressure on the squad, our next three fixtures are more than winnable.

With Crawley in backlog due to their cup commitments, victory in those three games WILL see us return to the top of the table, albeit our rivals will then have several games in hand… I like that idea. I want us to be the thorn in their side, more importantly I want them to at least have to work for it. The same goes for Luton, who we have a slightly more realistic chance of trumping. But ultimately the only real benefit in the playoffs is finishing in the top three, and thus getting a preferable playoff pairing (not that it helped Luton last season…).

Beyond that, I suppose it could be argued that if the top three remains the same we could see a Grimsby or a Mansfield come flying into the equation and be the form side from fourth, but then equally a Wrexham or Fleetwood could hold them at bay. The fact that I didn’t mention Newport among those clubs has plenty to do with my opinion that the South Wales club are this seasons AFC Wimbledon. In other words they’ve shot their bolt already, although the managerial change won’t have helped.

As many of you will know know our game against Crawley has been moved to the Friday… more to assist Crawley than anything by the sound of it (although we might be able to fit a county cup game into the free Wednesday…). Now I have to say I don’t mind Friday night games at nearby places like Crawley, still a mission but I’m glad I don’t have to get up for work the next day, and its ten times harder when you lose… While this game is live on Premier Sports, our biggest games of the remainder of the season are the return against yesterdays hosts, the rearranged fixture at now fourth placed Wrexham, the two fixtures against Grimsby and York, both ominously positioned in the table and set for a playoff challenge if they can put together a run of form at the right time.

Can we even question our right to simply presume we will gain a play-off place? Right now, we deserve to be in the position we currently find ourselves in. Yet we will have to prove ourselves more than once in the run in, against hungry sides with everything to play for…

WUP 8.6

This article was originally published in the Womble Underground Press fanzine 8.6, January ’11.

As some of you may recall, in a recent edition I wrote a long, elegant and mostly funny account of my plans to move to the States. As is normally the case when I make dramatic announcements, said plans go to shit within weeks and I end up with egg on my face. A combination of economic factors on both sides of the Atlantic means I will be around for a little longer than I expected… in fact emigration plans are now on hold indefinitely which means it might be 4-5 years until we try again. So you’ll all have to put up with both my ugly mug and inconsistent blogging for the foreseeable future. Sorry.

I’m trying to look at the benefits of the move breaking down. With holiday reset at work, and five weeks to fill, I know employment in the States would have been a huge culture shock with an average of ten days annual leave, and would significantly have cut down my opportunities to return to my homeland and watch the Dons. Oh, and maybe visit family and stuff while I’m here… There are other factors too. We might moan about our NHS for example, but you only realise how important it is when you don’t have it to fall back on anymore.

But for all the things wrong with the USA there are a million things they do right, and one of those things is the organisation of major sporting leagues. Whatever your opinion of the big four sports in North America, the administration is second to none. Of course, they have good reason to be so efficient. I’ve heard it said that the NFL is almost communist in its commitment to equality among its teams, but at the heart of it is the desire to accumulate that most capitalist of commodities, cold hard dollars… Here in England, clubs are given carte noir to invest how they see fit, regardless of the effect it might have on skewing the competition in the short-term.

But is there anything we can learn from American sports? Our top division is dominated by the same old clubs year in, year out. Certain clubs have broken into the Champions League moneypit simply by throwing vast amounts of cash into the playing budget – and anyone wondering how all this affects the Dons will probably see where this is going… It’s hard to imagine a club rising from non-league football to the top flight of English football in the manner the Dons once did – with financial prudence and good management. In that respect the Crawley model of throwing seemingly infinite amounts of cash at the problem is the quickest method of rising above your station. And I know they are supposedly paying all the bills up front which has resulted in them getting some positive press, that’s all well and good, but the point being missed is this funding needs to continue far longer, decades even, in order for there to be even a chance that the sustainability of the club catch up with the elevated position it finds itself in.

If Crawley find themselves in League One in a couple of years, and the money men decide to walk away, all that leaves is an uncompetitive club trying to exist on sub 3000 crowds. At that stage the board will spend its way into trouble in a desperate attempt to remain competitive, or take the hit with an inferior budget and weak playing staff, thus dropping down the divisions, perhaps even plummeting beyond their current level. As newly acquired supporters are normally the first to abandon ship, they’ll find themselves in a much worse situation than they started, as presumably a portion of the pre-existing fanbase will have been driven away, alienated by the whole experience. Or so we hope.

The only example of such spending, ignoring a few non-league sides who shone brightly before imploding (some of whom we encountered on our own journey…), is Chelsea. Ten years on, are they really sustainable yet?  While Abramovic is still paying the bills, Chelsea will remain competitive. In fact, you get the impression that the speculated situation they now find themselves in, that Abramovic is slowly losing interest, is their best possible outcome. Rich enough to continue signing away cheques in absence, Chelsea now have a period of warning rather than the money just drying up out of the blue. Some Chelsea fans I know are already looking forward to returning to 20,000 crowds and no ‘tourists’, although I get the impression there is a fair amount of self-defence behind such comments, as they return to their typical position in footballs history, a mid table top flight club, equally capable of getting relegated to winning anything…

And if Crawley are lucky, they’ll return intact to the fifth tier of English football unharmed. In the meantime however, ourselves, Luton, in fact all well run Conference clubs with ambitions to escape the division, have to compete in an environment where one side has a ridiculously unfair advantage, skewing the competition accordingly. Of course, you don’t need a rich benefactor to achieve such results, you could simply borrow a unsutainable amount of cash. Or why not just avoid paying your tax bill for a few years? Football authorities are catching up… Michel Platini might be unfairly demonized by certain UK tabloids for the perception that he is anti-English football… for all I know he might be, but the fact is he seems to be committed to levelling the playing field by introducing a salary cap based on turnover, at least as far as entry into European competition is concerned.

The Football League also has plans for a cap, in fact League 2 clubs are currently restricted to spending no more than 60% of turnover. While this was introduced as a protection measure, and may well reduce the number of clubs losing ten points through administration, it could have the effect of curbing Crawleys spending plans if they gain promotion. Yet I’m not sure I’m personally keen on an arbitrary cap on spending based on turnover either. While it might have the effect of preventing short-term vanity projects such as our Sussex rivals, surely in the long-term it will only ensure a return to the historical problem that larger clubs will always have an advantage… bigger crowds = higher gate receipts = larger turnover.

Naturally US sports have tailor-made solutions to these problems, which work because the leagues are either completely closed shops (such as the NFL) or sit atop a world game as by far the dominant market (i.e. basketball, hockey). Implementing, say, a luxury tax on English club would just lead to a migration of talent to clubs in nations or competitions not restricted in such ways. For an easier way to level the playing field, yet still reward clubs for higher attendances, we need only search our history. As late as the mid-eighties, gate receipts in the Football League were shared equally, less 4% which went into a pot for distribution to all the league. Perhaps returning to a system of gate sharing will go a long way towards levelling the playing fields. Maybe such a move will allow a well run club to progress through the pyramid once more, without the need for vast and unsustainable investment?

Since this article was written, the Football League agreed to extend its cap to 55% turnover for League 2 clubs, and 60% for League One clubs as of the 2011/12 season.

Further WUP articles can be found in the Features Index

Recycled

The Dons crashed out of the Trophy at the Third Second Round stage after being outfought by limited but hardworking midtable Blue Square North South side Workington Woking. Despite goals from much maligned forward Nathan Elder Mark Nwokeji and inspirational skipper Danny Kedwell, the home team slipped to a 2-3 reverse, while pushing for the winner were caught by a sucker punch four three minutes from time.

Seriously though, I had more than a sense of deja vu after that one. The Dons only managed five victories in the league and the Workington Debacle became a turning point in our season last term. A repeat performance would be very hard to stomach. We know the squad is young, and young players make mistakes, and perhaps the squad have done themselves no favours by having as good a start they had as it has only gone to raise expectations. Perhaps we could have accepted a poorer start picking up as the season went on, knowing that it was taking a step backwards to move forwards.

Some of us are walking around in the mistaken belief we are bona fide title contenders. The problem is, when I say ‘some of us’ I get the impression that includes one or two of those on the field today. Confidence and self-belief are one thing but the starting line-up today, easily good enough to overcome Woking, looked as though they thought merely stepping onto the pitch would be enough to see them into the next round.

I’m more than angry right now – still, several hours after the game has finished – and to be honest I don’t want to waste any more of my precious weekend writing about it. Hopefully I’ll be a little more focused when I come to preview the Fleetwood game, and boy do our players owe us something out of that…

Ten Points

Back in the days when the Dons were in the Premier League, and the Kingsmeadow bar was one of the few places a spotty and awkward teen who later in life would become the Anonymous Don could get served in his home town, trips to watch Kingstonian were a semi-regular experience when I couldn’t make it to Dons away games, which normally left a dozen or so K’s games a season, plus evening games in random cup ties. For me and my group of school friends it gave us a chance to go to football together, essential when we pretty much all supported different teams.

Following the K’s part-time was fun, particularly in the later years when they had a decent team and reached a pair of FA Trophy finals. It gave me a healthy respect for the competition and ensured when the Dons were reformed in non-League mode I could dream that maybe we would go to Wembley some day. Of course, I failed to realise that the shifting sands of football could intervene… Back in 1999 for Kingstonians first trip to the Trophy final they finished in 8th place, knowing pretty much from the outset they weren’t going to win the division and able to concentrate on non-league footballs premier cup competition. If the Dons were to win the Trophy but finish eighth there would be an outpouring of grief over missing out on the playoffs, fixture congestion, fatigue and the like…

Of course football has changed, back in those days only the champions were promoted, so apart from a handful at the top of the table and those in danger of relegation, league competition became less meaningful a lot earlier. Plus now, far from bookending the season, the final is now sandwiched between the final league fixture and the playoffs, meaning finalists still involved in the race for a place in the Football League have another big game to fit in just days before the two leg semi-final. I’m not sure how you can get over that scheduling problem. Perhaps play the final in early April, although that would mean the early rounds would interfere with the FA Cup, and possibly have to share a date with the Vase, something the FA would be reluctant to do.

Yet beyond the interference with our progress in the league, the Trophy is still a tournament worth winning. I’m glad TB is taking it seriously, and hopefully with the players he has brought in recently he can find the right balance, both tomorrow and in the coming months should we progress. Besides, if form drops and we end up plummeting down the table, it will be down to factors other than playing an extra game once every three weeks or so. Besides, we have the strength in depth now, and only the worst of injury crisis or bouts of injury will be enough to leave us struggling for players… and we’ve just come through that spell, twice in one season will be enough for me to seek out whichever one of you has been smashing up mirrors and wandering under ladders…

Yet there will be no point discussing the relevant positives and negatives of the Trophy if we find ourselves hosting Fleetwood on then 5th February, tomorrows game still needs to be won. One of the factors involved in classic cup upsets is a former legendary player returning to the club that discarded them . Or two, in the case of big Andy Little and Alan Inns. While it seems we have played enough BSS sides this season to have earned enough points to avoid relegation from that particular division if the fixtures were league games (did I use that joke last month? If so, sorry, but you get what you pay for…), we have managed to avoid defeat despite a tough series of matches. While you look at a side top of the division above and say, yes, they should be beating sides from the division below, you wouldn’t have thought that if you actually had to endure any of those fixtures.

In terms of a lineup, the big question is will our captain have earned a well-earned rest? We certainly have enough quality going forward despite the departure of Jon Main exclusively guessed on this here blog mere days ago, and Kedwell can of course be brought on if required to break down stubborn visitors. Just sticking with the Main situation, well I was getting frustrated with him making occasional appearances from the bench and not getting into the game. Now he has the chance to remember how to score goals and come back in confident mood, although a side struggling near the bottom of the BSS might not seem the place he can hit the back of the net with abundance, that might be a good thing. Remembering how to take a chance when it comes along is all he needs to do, in order to come back a more confident player, yet he still needs to pass Nwokeji and a possible new signing (I don’t actually know if we are going to sign another striker, its guesswork based on the failed Hylton bid…), just in order to play some part in a lineup (442) we have used approximately 10% of the time this season…

Main joins Chris Bush in leaving, and as I suggested in my last post the signing of Gareth Gwillim will have filled that particular hole. I also recently expressed hope that Andre might still have a part to play. The fact that TB has let him go to Oldham on trial betrays that we are almost certain not to see Andre in a Dons shirt again, although judging by Oldhams midweek stuffing at home to Southampton the last player they seem to need right now is a fullback that can’t defend… We can only hope Gwillim settles in as quickly as Jamie Stuart has…

Once again I’m out of time! I suppose you can blame Premier Sports for that… oh, and WUP, who set a deadline for this weekend which means I have to start writing… well, right now…

Tagged

Composure

The game in short – neither side really dominated overall in a hard-fought game, the Dons seemed to have the better of the first half and Luton much more so the second, with the visitors shading the game and having the better of the few chances that were created. For the home team, Seb Brown once again showed his class, and attempts to counter in the second half could have been more fruitful had we shown a little more composure on the ball. While both sides picked up a point, then real winners tonight were Crawley Town…

Now that’s out of the way, lets add a little more flesh to those bones of a story. Did the Dons deserve their point? Of course as a Dons fan looking for positives I’m going to say ‘yes’, we certainly looked far more solid at the back than we did at Kenilworth Road back in September. The introduction of Jamie Stuart has played a big part in that, he looked the second best player in a Dons shirt last night and has now partnered first Franks, now Yakubu, and given the impression he has been part of the squad for years rather than just a few days.

Fraser Franks had a difficult evening playing left back, and under the circumstances he did well, but it must have been reassuring having a vastly experienced player just inside to talk him through what was one of the biggest games of his short career. Played out of position, I thought Franks had as good a game as can be expected, although its great to see TB was immediately able to end the uncertainty surrounding the position by signing Gareth Gwillim.

Naturally the earlier comment on Stuart being the best player on the pitch was in now way intended as a slight on him, but more an indication of the performance of Sebb Brown. When your goalkeeper is voted man of the match, and the opposition have also managed to hit the woodwork a couple of times, regardless of what we thought we deserved I get the impression our opponents went away wondering how they didn’t claim the points. 

Regardless, the Dons kept another clean sheet, the only problem being we were blanked at the other end for the second game running. Going forward we showed our inexperience at times, we shouldn’t forget this was a very slightly different game to what the majority of the squad were used to. Having the confidence to get the ball down and take it round a player is one thing, but on several occasions Dons players rode a challenge, but in the process knocked the ball slightly too far, having to win a fifty/fifty, and so on.

I put this down to the game being slightly faster than the average Conference fixture, that Luton were pressing us and getting in our faces that split second quicker, but it could equally be put down to that extra bit of adrenaline giving them a heavier than normal touch. Either way, it didn’t seem to affect the more experienced Luton players. Having said that, the visitors did leave some inviting gaps at the back during the last fifteen minutes or so in their desire to pick up maximum points, and a little bit of composure could have paid dividends.

In terms of title contenders, I hate to ever admit that Steve Evans is right about anything and really hope our squad can go on and prove him wrong, but on last nights showing it looked as if Luton might well be the only team able to stand in the way of the monied chumps. A victory for Luton in their game in hand will as it stands take them above us, and even if Crawley slip up on Saturday against Kettering, with their games in hand it surely won’t be long before they pass us too. 

Accepting third place is showing no lack of ambition on our part either, it would actually be a massive achievement, especially if we have the opportunity for a run in the Trophy. Should we miss out on promotion this year, lets not forget that’s definitely no failure. Missing out on the playoffs would be disappointing, especially in the position we find ourselves now, but the chances are with our daunting looking next half-dozen games that we could find ourselves ending the month closer points-wise to the sixth place team than the leaders….

So much to write about in what was an eventful game for a goalless draw, and so little time to write about it, darn employment… I never go the chance to write about Yakubu’s impromptu freestyle breakdance juggling in his own penalty area that almost set up Barnes-Homer. Nor the fact that the only referee deemed neutral enough to take charge of such a fixture appeared to be a very close relative of Richard Brodie. This match report is going to spill into the Woking preview (otherwise there won’t be one), so I’ll probably touch on a few of the topics I missed out…

Tagged

Different Ninety Minutes

It goes without saying if we don’t win the league this season I hope our visitors tomorrow go on to claim the title ahead of a certain club from Sussex, and in an ideal world we would wish Luton all the best after tomorrow. But as the old proverb reminds us ‘be careful what you wish for…’ as such circumstances would invariably see us paired with Crawley in the playoffs, and I get the impression we would rather prefer tomorrows visitors should it come down to it.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, they are marginally more beatable (although as I mentioned the other day, still insanely difficult). Secondly, if us and Luton end up in Manchester come May, I don’t think I would take defeat half as badly as I would if I had to witness Steve Evans waddling across the pitch in celebration, sweaty pits visible to all as he raises his arms as high as his chubby shoulders allow. In the real world, we can only focus on our own team and worry about winning enough points to take the title or (perhaps more realistically) an advantageous position in the playoffs.

To be honest if you had told me we would still be top of the league and four points ahead of our visitors at this point in the season after we had lost 0-3 on that miserable Friday evening up at Kenilworth Road, I would have had a bit of difficulty taking you seriously. It wasn’t that we were outclassed, just well beaten on the night by a far more professional team, and the journey home was filled with thoughts that Luton would go on and stretch their legs in a two-way battle with Crawley. Yet, here we are, with over half the season played, somehow still involved in the chase. This is testament to how our young squad has grown as a team, and the marked improvement of certain members of the squad as the season has progressed. Throw in the recent reinforcements made by Brown (its been negated to a certain extent by the recent bout of illness ravaging the squad, but I’ll throw it in anyway…), and we are set for a very different ninety minutes of football to that seen back in September. Cue 3-0 Luton win…

There will still be more than a few missing from tomorrows squad, but lets not forget the sorry state we were in when the original fixture was somewhat mercifully postponed. In the days before we realised Lee Minshull could fill in at centre-half (although that’s slightly irrelevant as the original game fell outside the two-week window every three months that Lee manages to find himself fully fit…), Fraser Franks would have been the only player fit enough recognised to play the position. Quite who would have partnered him I know not, although I have a funny feeling it would have been Sam Hatton and he would have had a stormer. Now despite the absence of Johnson and I presume Yakubu, we have Franks, Harris and new signing Stuart available, with Patrick Kanyuka waiting in the wings with his deal presumably reliant on Brett Johnson’s long-term fitness.

While we are on the subject of defenders (and harking back to being careful what you wish for following my comments after the Darlington game), Chris Bush sat on the bench for Brentford tonight, and while he will presumably still be available to us under the terms of his work experience it does make you question his long-term future at the club. To be fair, the Football League allows seven substitutes and it could just have been a case of Brentford needing a body to sit on the bench and naming him for experience, but we can only hope either (i) we sign a new left back, or (b) Andre overcomes whatever ‘fitness’ problems are holding him back. I know some of you have given up on Andre already, but I believe players with the sort of ability he has already shown in his few appearances in a Dons shirt should be given as many chances as are practical to make it work before chopping them.

An example to Blackman in how to overcome both fitness issues and the gossipy nature of the Dons fanbase is Mark Nwokeji. Two months ago he was on the verge of getting shipped out on loan, with question marks raised over his attitude, even whether he could physically cope with being a professional. Football fans are always going to fill in the details themselves in situations such as this, especially in an information vacuum, so we’ll probably never know how true those rumours were. Yet we can consider ourselves fortunate that while Nokkers hasn’t won everybody over just yet, he has played and scored recently, and is the natural choice to partner Kedwell when playing 442. In fact, even if we start in Browns preferred 433 formation, he has a decent chance of filling in for the out of form Ryan Jackson (presuming the returning Hudson will relieve Christian Jolley on the left…).

The Dons have remained top of the table for what has seemed like months (actually I just checked, it has been months…) yet a Luton victory tomorrow would see us drop for the first time in a while. If we are to sacrifice the summit we will find it incredibly difficult to find our way back there. For that reason I want to end on a plea… the laws of football dictate that should at any stage our fans sing any song relating to being ‘top of the league’ at any stage before the final whistle, we WILL lose. Regardless of how much of a lead we hold at the time. Crawley found that out to their cost earlier in the season, and we got lucky when we sung it during the last ten minutes of that game. And the last thing we really want is to hear the visitors singing it come 9.45PM tomorrow…

Tagged

Winners and Losers

My wife doesn’t get drawn games. It’s just a complete anathema in her culture for a sporting event to end in a tie. Thus, upon being informed our Dons have drawn, she tells me that ‘both sides lost’. In a way, of course, she is correct. Three points were up for grabs, yet only two awarded. The only practical winners following our goalless draw in the North-East were Crawley Town. Yet in a more detailed sense, her opinion is hopelessly naive. There is a reason in our sport why even her own country’s domestic league stopped using shootouts to decide drawn games following massive public opposition. Football is a simple game in most respects, you either win or you lose. It’s when you draw it gets complicated… I mean was yesterday a point gained or two points dropped?

I suppose the answer to that question depends on your philosophical outlook on life… is the glass half full or half empty? Yet tied games like this often, like Schrödinger’s cat, have the ability to simultaneously be a positive and negative experience. From one perspective earning a point at playoff chasing Darlington is a decent result, on a solid surface against a robust ex-League outfit, and its great to see the Dons picking up points from games we would have lost a few months earlier. Yet on the other hand, you get the impression that Crawley would have found that moment of quality to break the deadlock in a game like this. Despite the brilliant season we are having you start to get the feeling we simply won’t be able to compete with their superior resources despite our own January recruitment drive, and that we are destined to scrap with Luton for second – itself a ridiculously difficult proposition. Crawley have raised the bar to the point even a decent result such as yesterday isn’t enough.

As you might have gathered, the game itself was junk, I’m having to improvise. Aside from a Danny Kedwell/Sammy Moore (delete as appropriate – I was too far away to tell) effort late in the first half I can’t remember a moment when I really thought we would score. We just didn’t seem to have the incision to make the breakthrough. Of course, the same could be said for Darlington, and I believe that could have had something to do with the state of the playing surface. From a distance it looked the sort of pitch the Dons would excel on; bowling green flat and in perfect condition, the problem was it seemed to be frozen solid in certain areas. The near side touchline was a joke, pools of frozen water stood just off the playing surface. The conditions being the same for both sides I can understand why the game went ahead, especially as I had been on a coach for nearing five hours by the time the inspection took place and my backside was already screaming for mercy. I would imagine if the conditions were replicated at a fixture involving two sides local to each other, or we hadn’t suffered the misfortune of having most of December wiped out by the weather, this game would probably have fallen foul of the icy conditions.

No first visit to Darlington could go without commenting on their new stadium. I have to say if you didn’t go, and you’ve already visited the new efforts built by Middlesbrough, Derby, Southampton, Reading, et al, you haven’t missed anything you wouldn’t have seen before elsewhere. Yet all of those stadiums, besides being architecturally similar, are always impressive to visit. Some mentioned how surreal it felt among 2000 hardy souls in an arena designed to hold over ten times that amount, personally I’m waiting until a shower of frogs fall from the sky mid-game – that really would be surreal. Nevertheless it’s certainly novel… anyone who has ever seen a reserve game or FA Youth Cup game at a large stadium, or even watched a Dons game in the early rounds of the League cup back in the day. I suppose any lurking MK scumbags will be able to understand the feeling of regularly playing in a stadium that is way too big for them.

As you can imagine the largely unused seats were displaying the sort of dirt you would expect given the lack of backsides giving them a regular polish. Not that most Dons fans bothered using them of course, not that the stewards were that bothered, until an impromptu disco took place in the aisles when they were forced to earn their money and shepherd those involved back to their seats. Another feature of the stadium were the stewards – there were dozens of them, far more than you would see at a regular Conference fixture, from the team who shepherded the coach in, to those responsible showing us to the seating area, to the well staffed control room above us, we almost had a steward each. Without wanting to delve too greatly into another teams finances you have to worry about the money Darlo fritter away forced to staff such an arena, and unless they can find a way of downsizing you fear for their ability to challenge in this division.

On to what could be gathered from the game itself, well let’s get the negatives out of the way first. TB has made no secret of his desire to get a new left back in, if only as cover. With Andre Blackman suffering unspecified fitness issues, Chris Bush, himself only on work experience from Brentford, has no competition for the shirt. The problem is while Bush occasionally shows glimpses of the brilliant player he will undoubtedly become, he is prone to putting in the sort of poor performance that marks him out as our weak link. I wouldn’t have a problem persisting with him if he was our player, as far as I’m concerned the sooner Andre makes it back into the side the better, as if we are going to persist on fielding a youngster who regularly misplaces passes and finds himself caught out of position frequently, it may as well be one that’s under contract for us to reap the benefits if they turn out to be a prospect. Beyond that, a few of the team still seemed to be suffering the after effects of the flu virus that has swept the squad. Kirk Hudson has only been with us for ten days and has already fallen foul of it…

As for the positives, well it reinforced in my mind what a wonderful young goalkeeper we have. He didn’t have a lot to do, but came and claimed just about every high ball Darlo tossed into our box. A few months ago he would have punched some of those, but with confidence flowing he looked unbeatable even when called upon to make couple of good stops on the rare occasions the hosts broke through what was a pretty solid backline. A lot of the credit for that has to go to the highlight of the afternoon, the debut performance of Jamie Stuart. He really was solid, made everything that came near him his own, and seemed to strike up a pretty decent understanding with Fraser Franks (who also stood out for the Dons).

The midfield didn’t really show the sort of cohesion that won us points over Xmas, yet James Mulley was a bright spot in an otherwise frustrating afternoon in the middle of the park. Mulley had probably the best Dons chance with the exception of the Kedwell/Moore effort, when he showed great composure in the box to wriggle past two men only to slightly over hit the ball and see the goalkeeper reach it first when a better touch would have left the goal at his mercy. I remember being a little underwhelmed upon finding out Mulley was released by Hayes earlier in the season, but it seems Hayes loss could definitely be our gain. Brown had a decent look at him as he trained with the squad for a couple of weeks and obviously liked what he saw, signing him up on non-contract terms, giving Mulley the chance to play his way into a deal.

Attacking-wise we didn’t seem to have the potency that has seen us hit the net three times in each of our last five games, in icy conditions such as those I would always favour big tough centre halves to come out on top of our young forward line, although the captain put himself about as you would expect. In the first half Kedwell found himself isolated on a Darlington pitch which lets just say is a little bit larger than Kingsmeadow and didn’t favour wide players who like to stick to the flanks. Young Jolley and Jackson were sacrificed at the break as the Dons switched again to 442, although the Dons looked slightly more potent than during the first period the tactical change failed to work on this occasion.

This wasn’t due to any lack of effort from Mark Nwokeji however, I still can’t get over how he manages to beat guys in the air who have a clear foot in height advantage over him. Of course if Jon Main had shown any kind of form or confidence this tactical switch would have worked in his favour, and Nwokeji finds himself a clear pick when Kedwell needs a partner. Now it seems he is finally injury free and has started to score goal I expect Nokkers to play a big role during the next few months or so. The deal to bring Danny Hylton in from Aldershot appears to be dead although there still remains to be seen whether Brown has any other striking targets. If someone is brought in I would expect to see Jon Main leave, at least on loan, before January is out. It will be in the best interests of both club and player, Main has served us well over the past couple of years yet is caught in a rut at the moment. He needs game time, he isn’t going to get it at AFCW any time soon except for the odd county cup game. Lets face it, I’m sure we all dream of Jon Main finding his scoring boots and grabbing the goals that take us back to the Football League, but the time has come to accept that probably isn’t going to happen, and its time to let someone who was an important part of our recent history find the chance elsewhere to rebuild his career.

To sum up, and answer the question I originally posed, as I see it this was more a point gained than two lost. The last time I saw a performance as disjointed as that we lost to Rushden on a night we couldn’t blame the conditions, and I believe Darlington are a far better side than they are. Following on from our comeback at Newport we are picking up points here and there in games we would have lost a few months ago. It’s frustrating we end up in a division where one of our rivals is able to reinforce at will, and with the games we have in hand I fear we could see a similar situation to our first season where Withdean 2000 eventually hauled themselves into an unassailable lead. Wednesday is a big game for so many reason, a win could reinvigorate all of us and ensure we are in the title race for the long run, a defeat and we will find it difficult to even retain parity with Luton.

As for me, I now face the unenviable task of trying to explain once more the concept of a ‘six pointer’. She didn’t get it when we played Hampton, and I’m sure she won’t get it now…

Tagged ,

Feeling Mildly Positive

Congratulations all of you who travelled to Newport. I’ve just watched the highlights and I have to say standing fifty yards from the nearest goal in blizzard conditions doesn’t sound like my idea of fun, especially as I would imagine the first the majority of you saw of the action would have been when you returned and viewed the aforementioned highlights on Youtube.

Not having been at the game, my immediate reaction was… good result Dons. This goes a long way to answering those critics (and to a point I would consider myself among them) who suggested the side may struggle against big tough sides on poor pitches in inclement conditions. However, I will say that despite recent positive performances there has been a noticeable shift in our ambitions as supporters over the last couple of weeks. Perhaps its the difficult nature of our January fixtures, or maybe noticing Crawley’s early January spending has caused us to re-evaluate our position. But lately I have noticed even the most optimistic of Dons supporters comment along the lines that although we find ourselves in the middle of a title race at the moment, that won’t necessarily be the case come April…

One person who will agree is Terry Brown, who has presented the image of a man extremely happy with his lot in recent interviews. One statement even went as far as suggesting should he have the sort of January transfer window he expects, he will end up with the most talented squad he has ever managed. Yet Brown isn’t talking about the title, at least not publicly. To be fair, he never has. It’s always been about the playoffs as far as he is concerned, as that was the target he set at the start of the season.

It wouldn’t be fair on the manager to change the goalposts now and suggest a top three finish (or better) would be in order. The playoffs, if it happens (and lets not count our chickens) would be a fantastic achievement – not only a potential route back to the Football League right now, but an excellent launch pad for future promotion efforts should this turn out not to be our year after all. And that’s just it – the reason the manager isn’t going to talk about it, the reason we have started to play it down, why Evans was pretty much laughed at for even attempting mind games last week… we aren’t going to go broke if we don’t gain promotion this time around.

There are however one group of people associated with AFC Wimbledon who will not give up believing they can win the league, and that’s the players. It speaks volumes that the likes of Ricky Wellard are prepared to come out and stand up for themselves in the press. You could argue he’s playing into Evans hands in terms of mind games, but I would argue the opposite. This wasn’t an angry response. Evans clearly hasn’t got Wellard’s back up. His reaction was more mildly annoyed, the sort of reaction you would expect of someone bugged by a fly while trying to eat a sandwich on a sunny day.

This is now a determined Wimbledon squad. While January might be a tough month for us, if the squad show the sort of fight and determination they showed at Newport over the next few months, then Crawley and Luton will have to beat us on the pitch, not the press, if they to finish above us. I’ll tell you what, if the season goes the way the money spent suggests it should, whichever one of those sides who doesn’t make it up as champions will dread the thought of facing off against us in the playoffs.

Fortunately, money doesn’t always dictate in football, our history tells us that much. It gives a massive advantage, it would be naive to think otherwise, but think of the massive satisfaction we would take if the unlikely happens. It is after all the Wimbledon way…