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…