It’s the Anonymous Don’s birthday weekend, and for the first time in three years the Dons won’t be travelling to Barrow… Not that I travelled, a day of celebration over sixteen hours on the coach for two fixtures that ultimately resulted in a solitary Wimbledon point. Slightly disappointing scheduling, as I normally would have been all over the sort of fixture that is essentially a loyalty test. Gateshead away with nothing to play for? Tick. Goalless draw at Darlington? Tick. Barrow sadly left blank unless fortunes really turn for them, or we get a fortunate (or unfortunate considering our record up there) cup draw at some point in the future.
But before Scunthorpe, we played the first of the clubs four cup games in little over a week at Swindon on Tuesday night, crashing out of the Paint Trophy on penalties. What have we learnt from our first experience of the Paint Trophy? Obviously it’s not the most prestigious of tournaments, I’ll move on to the issue of attracting people to watch a little later as this seems to be affecting all cup competitions at the moment, a problem not exclusively the most minor of first team knockout efforts.
The biggest issue we’ve had, especially as a club that for a multitude of reasons can’t enter a bona fide reserve competition at the moment, is the six player rule. A good idea in principle, you wonder whether the rules as they currently stand are too inflexible for a club such as AFC Wimbledon, especially as the competition in certain areas means we could go exceed the limit and still field a stronger squad than we would by sticking to the rules. Midfield for example, we could play Sammy Moore, Yussuff and Porter on the Saturday, then Minshull, Mulley and Wellard on the Tuesday night, and you wouldn’t say there’s a huge difference in the quality between the two selections.
Then you have to consider all the others who need game time – Fraser Franks needs a game, Bush wants to prove himself, Ademeno is looking for a start, then there’s Djilali… All of a sudden you have a game of selection musical chairs going on, and this time around when the music stopped there was one very big loser in Jack Turner. Personally I think the management team made a mistake not just playing him and working around the six player problem in other areas of the pitch, the kid is having huge problems getting game time with no one willing or able to take him on loan and no other obvious opportunities presenting themselves.
And this really is a big issue, not just for Jack personally, but for AFC Wimbledon. I mentioned in my Stevenage report I thought he made an error in judgement for the first goal – he didn’t directly cause it, the experienced centre half who should have kicked the ball out of the ground takes the majority of the blame – but the point is his eagerness to get involved was probably all down to the fact he spends most of his time on the bench itching to be out there proving himself. And that’s all well and good in a Paint Trophy game that didn’t really matter and we won anyway, that’s the point of blooding him in that type of fixture – he can make mistakes and learn from them without the pressure of a full house.
But what if Seb is unavailable for any reason, and Jack comes in for a League game? Will he be suitably prepared? If he makes a mistake, which as an inexperienced keeper he almost certainly will at some point, all of a sudden you’ll have knee jerk reactions on the terraces and message boards with people saying ‘he ain’t good enough’ and ‘we need to bring in someone on loan with a little more experience’.
More importantly, I was under the impression the Paint Trophy was supposed to be Jack’s competition, and right up to Monday lunchtime Cash was giving interviews to the press saying Jack will definitely start. Then all of a sudden the rugs been pulled from under his feet… I’m sure this is a problem other clubs have with their bench keeper, promising to give them game time in cups, for that reason wouldn’t it be simpler to change the rules to outfield players only, be it 6+4 or 5+5, and let clubs change their keeper with impunity if they so wish?
Whats the solution to the Jack Turner problem? Do we try to give him game time in the League if we’re a couple of goals up with twenty minutes to go? Wait until we’re safe and give him full games? Play him up front??? The player has shown a lot of loyalty to the club during his time here, I don’t begrudge him moaning the situation he finds himself in, and maybe its time for the club to show him a little loyalty in return?
Moving on, we face Scunthorpe tomorrow, a club many Dons fans will have fond memories of thanks to their playoff victory over the footballing subsidiary of a Buckinghamshire property development a couple of years ago. And effectively they are something of a realistic example of what we can achieve as a smaller club… Presuming the construction of our new stadium, whenever that happens, doesn’t uncover a bunker containing thirty thousand Dons fans sealed in an underground bunker by Hammam or Koppell or whoever, League One with a couple of years in the Championship here and there is probably most Wimbledon supporters pipe dream right now.
Yet even the visit of a club recently competing at Championship level probably won’t be enough to tempt more than three thousand or so to the ground tomorrow, never mind actually fill the place. This is the polar opposite to football as I remember it as a kid, where the hardcore turned up for the bread and butter of League action, but the ground filled for the FA Cup. And it’s not exactly hard to see how the most magical of cup competitions lost its shine… The introduction of the Premier League meant that far from looking forward to FA Cup ties, filling ground and coffers alike, clubs at the highest level found they were making more money from League fixtures… The influx of foreign players and coaches, while raising standards, also brought a culture not raised on knock out competition. This combined with a certain sports channel losing the rights to show games and simultaneously forgetting the competition ever existed had the knock on effect of supporters of top-level clubs seeing the FA Cup as a secondary competition.
Somehow that fed its way down to the lower levels of the game, as sure as supporters steal chants they hear at top-level games they’ll ape their Premier League counterparts. You don’t need to be a behavioural specialist to work out why – most people subconsciously copy their more successful counterparts, if only to fit in at the pub or workplace. The attitude that ‘its only the FA Cup’ has worked its way into English football and its hard to see exactly how it can be reversed.
I’ll admit it, even when we’re losing I can’t get enough of watching the Dons… due to the physical nature of the game we only get to play once, maybe twice a week if lucky, and to be honest this just isn’t enough. The majority of my spare time outside of the ongoing quest to hold on to my rapidly diminishing social life is spent either watching someone elses team on TV, or even worse, having conversations with my wife… The more games the Dons play, the more competitions they are involved in, the better.
Where did this strange modern version of ‘loyalty’ come from? Those who love their team, but will only venture out to actually watch them if certain conditions are met in terms of the competitive nature of the fixture? The weird thing is cup ties normally provide just as much entertainment as league games, if not more… Yes we’ve all seen two sides clam up with nerves on the big occasion or set out with an over cautious nature such as the Ebbsfleet game last season, but you don’t normally see League fixtures as pulsating as the replay of said game either…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not slagging off those who genuinely can’t make it, times are hard financially – I know that more than anyone and the amount of away games I’ve made this season reflects that – and I’m not having a go at those who travel sometimes hundreds of miles to watch the Dons for whom this might be one game too many. Those people make up a moderate minority of our fanbase, but for everyone else, whats your excuse?
Depending on how full your glass is the Dons are either going through a six game winless streak or are unbeaten in three at the moment, and face a Scunthorpe side going through their own spell of indifferent form. The visitors are definitely there for the taking as long as we can get back into the same frame of mind we were in about a month ago, where we looked unbeatable. The last thing we really want is those Scunthorpe fans going back knowing they were in a game, but grateful the Dons switched off for twenty minutes allowing them to nick a couple of goals and take the tie.
The Dons squad have the opportunity to answer a few questions that have been posed of them of late, it’s a big day for most of them facing off against opposition from a higher division, seemingly none more so that Kieran Djilali. A trial spell at Scunthorpe in the summer came to nothing, and he’s been pretty open about the fact this one is personal for him. Now finally back to full fitness, Djilali’s arrival from the bench on Saturday changed the game adding much-needed impetus to the Dons play… I mentioned in the report it looked as though he dropped in from another planet, and questioned whether we would be seeing him longer than a season. Yet its one thing looking far too good for the division in one game, it’s another to turn it on week in, week out, and I’m hoping Kieran can get a run of games and goals under his belt, turning the Dons form around and easing the fears of those of us currently looking over our shoulders…
I can’t finish this preview without presumably sharing what every Dons fan is thinking right now, absolute delight that Terry Brown is back at work and will presumably be in the dugout tomorrow. Terry always seems such a positive character, but thrown into that situation once more he undoubtedly would have had some very dark moments over the last couple of weeks, so I’m delighted to hear Suzy is on the road to recovery.
Finally, those two other cup ties next week. The U18’s face Bristol Rovers in the FA Youth Cup on Tuesday, and development squad travel to Tooting on Wednesday in the SSC, good luck to both…