One of the side effects of writing a blog that’s read by slightly more people than my wife and mum (my dad reads too…) is that every so often someone gets in touch and asks for a contribution to their own site. Often the questions asked come from a different angle and make me consider the club in a manner I wouldn’t normally, and one of those came last month in a piece I did for a website called Best of the Bets.
The question referred to our return to the Football League, and whether we’d be looking forward to renewing any old rivalries. Of course, no one really leapt out as a rival on promotion to League Two, I wrote a few lines about looking forward to finally facing Aldershot, some short-term excitement at reprising a couple of Premier League fixtures at Bradford and Swindon, two new London derbies (albeit ones that don’t exactly get the heart pumping).
Yet no one that really makes you sit up and relish facing off against hated local scum. Maybe one day that void will be filled by Aldershot once we’ve got a few years of mutual back slapping out of the way they’ll tire of being reminded certain clubs only took nine years to navigate their way through the non-league pyramid. Perhaps a club currently higher in the pecking order will drop down (or we’ll move up?) and fill that void… a Brentford, maybe even a Millwall (and I’m convinced when Fulham’s bubble eventually bursts they’ll end up making Bradford look a financial success story…).
The problem being that our rise, fall, and second coming has seen us never end up in the same division long enough to develop significant rivalries with clubs of equivalent size… Which has led to a series of almost manufactured rivalries developed almost to fill a void. The first was the almost comical Merton derbies with Raynes Park Vale, laughable in that as far as I can make Dons fans seem to make up the majority of Vale’s home crowds anyway.
Moving up the divisions, we missed out on a few local clubs such as Kingstonian and Sutton, long memories saw us briefly face off against historical rivals, the likes of Dulwich and Tooting, but mostly the keenest of contests came against those sides who somehow found an extra few hundred thousand pounds down the back of the sofa (or by not paying their tax bill for a few years), or welcomed in a rich benefactor for a few years until they eventually got bored and wandered off. Yet while the likes of Withdean and Bromley have now been left long behind, we do still have one thorn left sticking in our sides after scrabbling out of the non-league game, the team that came up with us last year…
Its unlikely Dons fans would be giving Crawley a second thought right now if it hadn’t been for a combination of two factors… their convicted criminal manager, and one of the few people in a game that tends to close its eyes and pull the blanket over its head when faced with potential scandal who has actually managed to have been conclusively proved to be a cheat. Then of course are the huge piles of cash that allowed themselves to buy their way into the League to begin with.
That Crawley are disliked by Dons fans is no great surprise… they didn’t exactly romp to victory in the popularity stakes last year in the Conference, and their presence in League Two has already ensured they aren’t exactly being welcomed with open arms up and down the country – hell, they even managed to turn Manchester United into popular favourites for a game last year…
The Dons selling out our allocation for Saturdays game probably isn’t too much of a surprise, what with the size of Kingsmeadow meaning pretty much every game has been a full house so far, what did surprise me was Crawley selling out their section, meaning they’ll actually have more in the ground than they did at their own stadium for an evening game against Wrexham a couple of years ago.
It seems this game has been elevated to rivalry status by the sheer number of times the two sides have faced off over the past couple of years, this being the eighth meeting in that time, and its no surprise the two sets of supporters are getting sick of each other… I’m not exactly salivating at the prospect of Saturdays game, it’s one to get out of the way more than anything, yet victory will be celebrated by all of us in the same manner last seasons comeback win was (Kedwell free this time).
And as for defeat… well it’s not exactly going to be like last week where the result was pretty much forgotten about five minutes after final whistle – it has the potential to be an evening-wrecker, much as losing to Hampton or Bromley was. You see, knowing we’ll probably have left Crawley spluttering in our dusty trail in two or three years time counts for nothing right now, especially if a large group of noisy visitors are left celebrating in the corner as we file away into the evening.
Lets face it, Crawley have done nothing wrong in spunking vast amounts of dubiously acquired cash at quick-fire promotions, they haven’t broken any wage caps, they are paying their bills up front, and as long as the Fat Eyelinered one hasn’t been up to his old manila envelope tricks they deserve to be where they are on merit (unlike certain other new towns we could mention). And yet the nation still seems to be captivated with the side that went up with them via the playoffs… Crawley were almost the forgotten champions.
Football fans love a good news story, and the Dons progress with Brown assembling a young talented side within budget, playing good football, will ensure Crawley remain in our shadow for a while yet. And that must really stick in their throats, you’ll hear it in the songs they sing, the desperation… they know what’s coming in the years to follow and are looking for cheap victories while they can, like Withdean, like Bromley, like Hampton… hate us now, so you’ll remember us when we’re gone…
Following Jon Main and Marcus Gayle in the ‘Legends of Yore’ series, with his return to Kingsmeadow imminent there can only be one choice… the man whose penalty took us to the Football League, and whose goals and work rate in the preceding forty-eight games got us to Eastlands in the first place.
It’s rare that Wimbledon ever sign a player to the universal approval of Dons fans. Future legends have been written off before they’ve even appeared in a blue shirt by sections of the fanbase of various proportions… we’ve had players come in being too old, too expensive, too injury prone. In Danny Kedwell’s case, his strike rate at his previous club, Grays, was called into question. That would have been understandable had Kedwell been signed as a goalscorer, but at the time his arrival heralded the target man Terry Brown had been looking for, a foil for the prolific Jon Main.
Lets not forget how difficult obtaining a target man actually is… Dons fans had to endure the likes of Tony Battersby and Danny Webb stinking out the place before Ked’s arrival. Yet from his first appearance it was obvious Kedwell was more than just a big guy to lump long balls up to. His appearance as a half time substitute replacing Sam Hatton against a stubborn Maidenhead side changed the game, contributing an assist to tee up the home side’s game clinching second goal.
By the time Kedwell notched his first goal, capping off a comfortable FA Cup replay against Bedford in his first home start, he was already well on his way to securing crowd favourite status. While Main set about breaking scoring records, Kedwell concentrated on teeing them up for him, doing all the leg work, defending from the front… yet grabbing his share of goals, eventually weighing in with fourteen in the league in his first season.
Would we have even gained promotion that season had Kedwell not joined? Despite our brilliant start, the arrival of Danny added an extra dimension even Jon Main couldn’t provide on his own. We stuttered a couple of times, even with Kedwell in the squad, ending up just falling over the line. I’m not convinced, with all respect for the rest of the squad, that we would have gone on to be anything other than playoff fodder… Danny gave us just that little extra we needed.
Kedwell still wouldn’t have been everyone’s first choice for a favourite player – he would have been up there, but these were the days when strike partner Main was still the , erm, main man. That all changed at the start of our first season in the Conference. Main’s goals started to dry up, but Danny was there to make up the shortfall, and then some. Despite an inconsistent season in terms of results, Kedwell performed beyond all expectations, slamming in twenty-six in all competitions. Of course, that form brought with it unwanted attentions…
At the time it wasn’t clear whether Crawley’s move to bring Kedwell was serious, or simply mind games. Yet for all his efforts to present himself otherwise, Steve Evans isn’t an idiot. Kedwell had proved himself the most feared hitman in the Conference, for us holding on to him was an achievement worthy of more than just a t-shirt… yet at the time I wondered whether he could come close to his goal tally from the year before in a young, rebuilt Dons side.
Young it may have been, but it was built around Kedwell. For all the talent in the side, Kedwell’s sheer work rate alone meant the team were heavily dependant on him on a regular basis. And the goals kept on coming… finishing the season matching that twenty-six goal tally from the year before. He hit the net twice more at Eastlands, two strikes that sum the man up…
Firstly, a chink in the armour… and there weren’t many during his days in the Conference. When I was asked back in the summer for some of Danny’s weaknesses this was the only one I could come up with. His disallowed goal was a perfect example of his annoying habit of creeping beyond the last man, even when he is standing on the flank and can see every defensive player on the pitch. He must have been in the top five players caught offside in the Conference last year, infuriating because most of the time he’d bought himself so much space he didn’t need to steal any more.
And there we go – his only weakness as a Conference striker. Some questioned his fitness, but if you saw him blowing during the last ten minutes it was more down to the effort he put in during the previous eighty… and he covered some ground, that boy, probably more than most midfielders. Some questioned his temper, he did look as though he had a spark in him waiting to be lit, but was seldom carded, never sent off. He was always able to channel his energies productively.
About that second strike… I remember the nerves I felt knowing it was score-to-win, forgetting who was still to come, then when I saw Danny striding forward deep down I knew it was going to be ok. Some have questioned Kedwell, the rumours he had spoken to Gillingham as far back as the turn of the year, but look at his face when he buries the penalty that took us to the Football League (6.46 onwards by the way…). Is that the face of someone who didn’t care about the club? Is that the face of a mercenary looking for his next pay day?
And yet when someone who means so much to so many decides to move on, invariably a small minority of the many are going to take it badly, and there’s no disguising some Dons fans certainly saw his departure as some kind of betrayal. A few will boo him on his return, but rest assured that will reflect more on those doing the booing than Kedwell’s Dons legacy.
The rest of us will celebrate his time at the club, applaud politely and sing his name… right up until 3PM, when his history with us is forgotten, and he becomes just another opposition player…
Our first away game in the Football League sees us brave a thirty-six stop marathon down the District line for a trip to Dagenham. In a way its a visit to a club that provide a template for our clubs immediate ambition… consolidation in League Two, followed by a promotion effort a couple of years down the line. It took Dagenham just two years to reach the third tier of English football, but unfortunately only one year up in League One, a victim of the fluid movement between the two divisions four up-four down brings.
Still, an incredible performance… an example for smaller clubs showing success can be achieved in League Two, and relatively quickly to boot, providing the club is well run. Dagenham have already achieved more in League football than some clubs do in decades. Much of the credit must go to manager John Still, a man current Dons boss Terry Brown clearly has a lot of respect for, something that perhaps eased through Gareth Gwillim’s permanent move across London during the summer… that Dagenham didn’t kick up a fuss and try to demand a fee (however small) for a player we clearly wanted, speaks highly of the integrity of club and management, and I hope we get the opportunity to repay that in some way in the future, even if all that means is selling out their stand come Saturday afternoon.
We’ve come across clubs with fractured histories in the past during our rampage through the non-league game, none more so than the Daggers themselves. There’s enough history in the clubs that eventually came together to form the current entity to write three articles… Ilford, Leytonstone and Walthamstow Avenue won the FA Amateur Cup on seven occasions, including Leytonstone’s 1947 victory over the Dons, and you can throw Dagenham’s 1980 FA Trophy victory into the mix.
The series of mergers began when Ilford and Leytonstone came together in 1979, picking up Walthamstow Avenue along the way and becoming Redbridge Forest in 1989. The new club shared Dagenham’s Victoria Road ground and eventually merged in 1992, by which time Redbridge Forest had earned a place in the Conference.
The now fully formed Dagenham & Redbridge FC initially found themselves bach in the Isthmian League a few year s later, winning promotion once more in 2000 and becoming a real force in the Conference. To say the club knocked on the door of the Conference is an understatement, runners-up for the title in 2002… and they would have been champions too had it not been for some hardcore cheating from Steve Evans and Boston United – the Daggers two games against Crawley this season should prove very interesting…
After a few seasons rebuilding, including John Still returning effectively for the fourth time (after two spells as Leytonstone/Ilford manager, and a stint around the period Dagenham and Redbridge came together) in 2004, the Daggers finally made it to the Football League in 2007, pipping Oxford to the title. For a club of Dagenham’s size, mere survival was the initial ambition, and the club managed a 20th place finish in their first season.
A year later the club were at the right end of the table, finishing 8th and only missing out on a playoff place on the final day of the season. They were to go one better next time around, not just in terms of finishing in an all important seventh place, but defeating Morecambe (7-2 on aggregate) and Rotherham to claim a place in League One for the first time.
Dagenham far from made up the numbers in League One last season, despite being the smallest side in the division. Despite those intimidating four relegation spots, and aided in a way by the self-destruction of Plymouth and Swindon, the Daggers fought to the very last day. Unfortunately they slipped to their biggest defeat of the season, 0-5 at rampant (and soon to be promoted via the playoffs) Peterborough, meaning Walsall stayed up despite a 3-1 defeat at Southampton.
A season that was always going to be a struggle probably wasn’t helped by the clubs inability to keep clean sheets, only six, the lowest in the division. If they had converted just one single goal defeat into a point they would have stayed up, instead they find themselves back in the basement, presumably the experience gained will ensure they will remain a tough opponent, even if an immediate return to League One is beyond them for now.
The problem traditionally non-league teams face, one that the Dons are currently feeling and which Dagenham are in the process of dealing with, is that an impressive non-league stadium provides barely adequate once in the Football League. While the Dons seating issues will be resolved next summer with the construction of the new stand, Dagenham are one step ahead with their seating solution, and Dons fans will benefit from the new Marcus James stand on Saturday.
With the exception of the Main (Carling) Stand the rest of the ground is terracing, covered down the side and open at the end (with added scoreboard). With a capacity of just over 6000 Victoria Road (or the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium) has now fulfilled Football League requirements
Dons fans already in possession of tickets will have taken advantage of Dagenham’s pre-purchase deal, with a sharp markup on those tickets bought on the day (in brackets);
Adults £19 (£22)
Concessions £13 (£15)
I haven’t compared them with Dons prices because not having seating behind the goal at the moment doesn’t make for an accurate comparison, but those who buy on the day on Saturday (and invariably will get stuck in the corner) will find they have paid £3 more than the best seats in the house at Kingsmeadow…
I’m not going down my normal route of delving into the history of WFC encounters with the Daggers previous incarnations, as there were just too many of them… 94 meetings with Ilford, and 9o with Leytonstone, as well as 54 encounters with Walthamstow Avenue. and not forgetting the six times we faced Dagenham.
In the modern era, for both clubs, this is the first competitive encounter, however the Dons went down 0-1 in a pre-season game at Victoria Road back in 2004.
This article is playing a little with fate, as I’m choosing to focus mainly on the recent history of our opening league fixture… in other words those since 17th August 1996. This was a date known to the rest of the footballing world as the date David Beckham announced his arrival on the scene with a last-minute drive over Neil Sullivan struck inches from the halfway line, as Manchester United eased to a convincing 3-0 victory at Selhurst Park.
For us Dons fans, this game signifies the last time we witnessed our team beaten on the first day of the league season, a run stretching back fifteen years. That we have gone so long without tasting defeat on one of the most important weekends in the football calendar is a record we should be proud of, particularly as I don’t remember the Dons having a fantastic record on the first day of the season prior to that… I still remember the shock of finding out we had beaten West Ham 2-0 whilst on holiday with family in Suffolk back in 1993, and looking back I’m not surprised… this was the first time we had won the first game in our top flight history.
After defeat at Manchester City in our first ever First Division game we took a couple of beatings at home to Arsenal, before failing to find our way past Chelsea. Our first game in the newly formed Premier League saw defeat at Leeds, before eventual victory at West Ham saw a reversal of fortunes, the Manchester United being something of a blip on an upward trend.
1) 9th August 1997 Wimbledon 1 Liverpool 1
A brilliant Marcus Gayle free kick saw the Dons take the lead, before Liverpool equalised through a Micheal Owen penalty. Owen was poised to become a worldwide star at the World Cup twelve months later, and naturally that nights Match of the Day obliged by replaying his penalty several times over, with Gayle’s free kick, lofted over the wall and striking both posts before entering the goal, brushed over.
2) 15th August 1998 Wimbledon 3 Tottenham 1
One of the few occasions the Dons ended the day on top of English football, not too much to get excited about as not even a full schedule of Premier League games were played out. The Dons took the points thanks to goals from Robbie Earle, and two Efan Ekoku efforts that sandwiched a Ruel Fox response for Spurs.
3) 7th August 1999 Watford 2 Wimbledon 3
The Dons survived a Watford side battling from behind twice in their first season back in the top flight. Carl Cort’s early strike seemed to have given the Dons a perfect start, but thanks to a harsh red card handed to Dean Blackwell, and subsequent penalty that levelled the scores, Wimbledon seemed set for a tough afternoon. Another Marcus Gayle free kick gave the Dons the lead. Watford would have earned a point with an equalizer twenty minutes from time had it not been for a comical own goal and winner minutes later, which unfortunately I can’t find video of to confirm my fading memory of it being blasted in from close range by a defender…
4) 12th August 2000 Wimbledon 0 Tranmere Rovers 0
Perhaps the worst opening day game I can remember… from memory Patrick Agyemang put himself about but missed a couple of chances standing in for injured and suspended first choice forwards, as the Dons coped with a return to second tier football.
5) 11th August 2001 Wimbledon 3 Birmingham City 1
The Dons won 3-1 thanks to goals from Shipperley and a David Connolly brace, an afternoon that we should be looking back on with happy memories was soured thanks to ongoing protests against the Milton Keynes move. Supporters launched a black balloon protest prior to the game, minds distracted by off field events as would be the case all year. One of these sides started the following season in the Premier League, while the other…
6) 17th August 2002 Sandhurst Town 1 AFC Wimbledon 2
…Began a whole new era at Bottom Meadow, Sandhurst, in front of 2449 supporters. The day has been well documented elsewhere, suffice to say a couple of early goals from Kevin Cooper and Keith Ward were enough to see our first Combined Counties League points return to Kingsmeadow…
7) 16th August 2003 Feltham 0 AFC Wimbledon 2
Perhaps the strangest venue for an opening day, the Feltham Arena’s huge roofless, seatless stand overlooked a barely first generation synthetic pitch… effectively fabric glued to concrete, holes ripped in it in places. At least the back of the stand provided an elevated view of events, as Lee Sidwell and Matt Everard earned Wimbledon the first of many wins in an unbeaten championship season.
8 ) 14th August 2004 AFC Wimbledon 5 Ashford Town 1
Another year, another championship season as the Dons stormed Ryman One. However, the Kent version of Ashford had the nerve to take the lead, holding it for two minutes before the Dons took control… Richard Butler and Jamie Taylor each grabbed a brace, with Steve Butler nothing the other.
9) 20th August 2005 AFC Wimbledon 4 Folkestone Invicta 1
Almost a repeat of the previous season as the Dons made an immediate impact on a higher division. While we wouldn’t go on to gain promotion this time, a double from Shane Smeltz, Richard Butler and Matt York won the game in front of a three-sided Kingsmeadow.
10) 19th August 2006 Carshalton Athletic 1 AFC Wimbledon 2
The Dons made it ten years without losing our first league fixture with a derby victory over Carshalton. Richard Butler (a contender for top scorer on opening day, not that I can be bothered going back to work it out!) and Roscoe Dsane won it for the Dons before the hosts replied late on.
11) 18th August 2007 AFC Wimbledon 2 Ramsgate 0
The Dons defeated our Kent opponents thanks to two Sam Hatton goals on his debut, and Terry Brown’s first competitive game in charge. Although I was on holiday at the time. In Manchester, of all places…
12) 9th August 2008 Newport County 1 AFC Wimbledon 4
I remember the nerves I felt while travelling across to Wales, wondering how the Dons would cope with a higher level… after all it had taken three years to get out of the division below… As it was a Jon Main hat trick and Tony Finn effort gave us a 4-1 victory in the standout opening day performance…
13) 8th August 2009 AFC Wimbledon 1 Luton 1
…And a year later the Dons found themselves in the Conference Premier, facing a Luton side just relegated thanks to a huge points deduction the season before. Craddock gave Luton an early lead from the spot as the Dons found it difficult to adapt initially, but the second half introduction of Jon Main changed the game, his rampaging run earning a penalty he dispatched himself. This game marked the first time in the AFC era the Dons had failed to collect all three points first time out, yet at the time many of us presumed Luton would only spend a season at that level, the surprise being two years later they find themselves still stuck down there while we moved on to better things…
14) 14th August 2010 Southport 0 AFC Wimbledon 1
Wimbledon picked up a vital early three points after a long trip to the North-West. After being the hero the previous two seasons, Jon Main fluffed his lines by missing a first half penalty. Replaced by Christian Jolley, the young forward repaid his managers faith by notching the winner and sending the large travelling support home happy.
I wrote at the beginning of this article how I thought I might be messing with fate a little, but to be honest the Dons are long overdue a first day defeat… Can we extend the record by twelve months, or will we end our first game back in the Football League pointless?
My attendance at Friday nights game will mean I will have seen the Dons play in every round of the League Cup with the exception of the Final and, bizarrely, the First Round (although that’s going to come sooner or later…). Ok, maybe it isn’t as fantastic a claim as that held by myself and many other Wimbledon fans to have seen our side play in every round of the FA Cup from Preliminary to Final, but it is another consequence of our, erm, strange history.
The League Cup might not inspire the same sort of passion as its FA equivalent… it’s rare to find even one Premier League manager coming out telling the press this is a competition they want to win. Championship clubs don’t seem to care unless they somehow find their way through to the quarter finals, and the competition is normally over well before the end of September as far as clubs in the bottom two divisions are concerned. Attendances, even in the later rounds, are pitiful.
And yet… every football fan who follows their club regularly has a League Cup story or two, a dramatic giant killing or unexpected classic, perhaps helped by the fact the majority of games are played of an evening under floodlights – I’ve always considered night games to have that little extra atmosphere, as if someone plonked a roof over the ground, and can more than make up for any lack of bodies in the stands.
This season, due to the unusual circumstances surrounding Birmingham qualifying for Europe and getting themselves relegated in the same year, the Dons and Crawley face off in the preliminary round before our League campaign has even started. Yet as those with longer memories than my own will attest (although I do have the excuse of not being born for another three months), in a curious case of history repeating our first games as a Football League club were in this very competition.
The Dons played a two-legged first round tie with Gillingham, winning 4-2 with both games taking place before the Dons kicked off as a Division Four club for the first time against Halifax, our reward for progression being a 0-4 defeat at Tottenham (it will take three wins for us to stand any chance of a return to White Hart Lane in this years competition…). A victory twelve months later against Southend only ensured another heavy Second Round defeat, this time 0-8 at Everton.
The Dons first real run in the competition came as Aldershot, Orient and Plymouth were dispatched prior to a 1-2 defeat to Swindon in the Fourth Round (this was also the first of three seasons in a row where Wimbledon and Aldershot were paired in the First Round). The 83/84 season was the first the Dons really caused an upset, defeating Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest 2-0 at Plough Lane, holding on for a 1-1 draw at the City Ground.
As the Dons rose themselves to ‘giant’ status, the likes of Cambridge, Plymouth and Peterborough were on hand to dump us out of the competition over two legs, the Dons struggling to make in impact on the later rounds despite memorable wins against Newcastle and Manchester United at Plough Lane.
By the time the nineties began, and Plough Lane was sold out from under us in exchange for the joys of Selhurst Park, a League Cup encounter in our second season drew a sub- 2,000 crowd on a Tuesday night to witness a 0-1 defeat to then Third Division Bolton… Fortunately Wimbledon progressed thanks to a 3-1 first leg lead against opponents who would go on to usurp Aldershot as the Dons most frequent League Cup opponents.
I actually have pretty good memories of that night, as it was the first time I was allowed to travel across to Selhurst Park on my own… I say ‘allowed’, my mum decided I wouldn’t be able to go to evening games unless I travelled with friends, With none of my mates willing to go out on a cold October night, I simply made up a name and told my mum I was going with them (looking back I can see where a lot of those jokes about our poor attendances came from, when as a Dons fan I literally resorted to travelling to games with imaginary friends…). Anyway, I couldn’t believe I’d seemingly got away with it, only to find a literally deserted Thornton Heath was not the sort of place a not so street smart 14-year-old kid really wanted to hang out after dark… every staggering drunk became a potential murderer, every shop doorway hid a mugger…
It took twelve months before I was brave enough to repeat the trick, just in time for the first of a number of seasons in the nineties where I became convinced the Dons would go on to win the trophy. Victories over Hereford and Newcastle set up maybe the most memorable League Cup ties the club were involved in, at home to Liverpool (although those who witnessed the 6-4 win at Southend may disagree, and the 4-5 defeat to Charlton was memorable for all the wrong reasons).
The Dons seemed to have the game won leading 2-1 with the clock ticking well beyond ninety minutes, before a freak own goal from Hans Segers took the game to extra time. Segers redeemed himself by saving a penalty in the first period, before the Dons finally got the win after a shootout, the airplane celebration that followed being one of the few truly iconic images of the Dons stay at Selhurst Park.
That year’s quarter final was a huge let down, a 2-1 defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday in a game the Dons didn’t get going in until it was too late. Even more frustratingly we then beat the same side in the League just days later… Not as frustrating as the 0-1 ‘home’ exit to Crystal Palace a year later, my vote for the worst League Cup tie I ever saw. The crazy 8-7 aggregate defeat to Charlton followed twelve months later, and the Dons looked as though they would continue their ongoing poor form in the competition.
Yet a year down the line, Wimbledon made it to the semi-final of the competition after defeating Portsmouth, Luton, Aston Villa and Bolton. I remember watching the first leg of the Leicester tie in a pub in Kingston that no longer exists called the White Horse, the first and last time I entered the place before it was demolished. It seemed to be the only pub in town showing the game, and me and a friend watched in nervous silence as the Dons ground out a 0-0 draw.
What happened before the second leg at Selhurst Park will always be controversial in my mind… the club decided to hand out leaflets telling fans how they could go about buying tickets for the final if we won. Planning for every eventuality maybe, but in my eyes this was a sign of chickens being counted, a terrible omen. Yet the Dons took the lead in the first half, Marcus Gayle scoring a similar effort to the one that defeated Villa earlier in the competition, spotting the keeper out of position and drilling past him at the near post from a tight angle.
However Wimbledon couldn’t build on it and put the game to bed, and when Leicester scrambled an equalizer via a looping header, they repeated the Dons defensive trick until ninety minutes, then extra time, were all but up. We had turned up late on the night, and consequently found ourselves stuck at the back of the upper tier of the Holmesdale Stand, and I found myself having to explain the Away Goals rule to a gentleman sitting behind me confused as to why Neil Sullivan was coming up for corners so close to what he presumed would be penalties…
Bolton finally got one over on us by knocking us out a season later, now a Premier League club themselves, but we took revenge a year later, as the Dons stormed to the semi finals once more. This was a weird year for me, I spent the majority of it working at the airport on a social life murdering Tuesday-Saturday 1-10pm shift pattern, which also meant I didn’t see much of the Dons… that season would have passed me by completely if it hadn’t been for this run.
We found ourselves up against Tottenham, sick to the back teeth of each other with the two-legged semi forming part of five games against them in the space of a few weeks. With no chance of getting the night off work, I decided to tape the game and watch it when I got in, but a chance encounter with an empty staff room complete with TV saw me watch much of the second half. With the Dons trailing 0-1, I decided to turn the TV off and go back to work, for no other reason than I wanted to hold onto the dream for as long as possible… the depression when I got home and finally caught the end of the game was as bad as it had been two years earlier…
The 1999/2000 season would end badly (very badly…) but in retrospect was probably the closest we ever got to winning the League Cup. Cardiff, Sunderland and Huddersfield were dispatched before our obligatory trip to Bolton saw us take an early lead thanks to a Carl Cort goal. Yet Bolton came back to win it 2-1, galling as Tranmere shocked Middlesbrough… while there is no guarantee the Dons would have gone on to beat Tranmere (after all, Bolton were beaten by them pretty convincingly, even less they could have taken some revenge on Leicester, this was the ultimate ‘what if?’ season, and you wonder how a trip to Wembley might have positively affected league form during the run in…
Wimbledon weren’t completely done with the League Cup… a season later we shocked Middlesbrough at Selhurst Park before defeat in the fourth round at Manchester City, but the following years 2-1 loss at the Withdean to Brighton proved to be our last as a fanbase… at least until Friday night…
Of course non-league footballs plethora of knockout competitions provided us with a new meaning to the phrase ‘Mickey Mouse Cup’… Cherry Red Books Trophy anyone? The Bryco Cup??? Which means our trip to Crawley, for me at least, is a meaningful experience. A trip to Crystal Palace might even jog a few happy memories of League Cup encounters past…
The temptation in writing this is to just republish the ‘Conference File’ I wrote about Crawley two years ago, but to be honest the club have changed so much in the last two years I’m almost tempted to start again completely from scratch. Last time I wrote this article all talk was of ongoing financial problems of a club with a track record of receiving point deductions, this time round their situation has completely reversed.
If anything, the club now have too much money, at least as far as keeping within the 55% wage expediture to turnover cap. As you would imagine among clubs still unable to forget Steve Evans antics with Boston, Crawley’s new found financial might wasn’t exactly popular news. They achieved the rare feat of ensuring Manchester United went into a cup tie as popular peoples favourites, eased to the title with plenty to spare, and now head into League Two as hot favourites to claim back to back titles…
Of course, the fun for Crawley will begin when their financial assistance dries up, whenever that may be, will growth off the field be sufficient to prevent the club slipping into financial meltdown and back down the pyramid? You get the impression that next season will be as important off the field as progression on it…
Crawley Town were formed way back in the nineteenth century, and like many clubs they pottered about in county football remaining amateur until the professional revolution that took place in the sixties saw them start paying their players and joining the Southern League back in 1962, the year a still amateur Wimbledon side were beginning a campaign that resulted in our only FA Amateur Cup triumph.
After a brief sojourn into the Premier Division in the late sixties, which lasted all of a year, Crawley remained at the lower level until they were promoted again in 1984. This time they stayed there, right up until Francis Vines guided them to promotion in 2004 (I remember Vines as a prolific goalscorer at Kingstonian during his playing days). No one can claim Crawley’s progress was spectacular, but it was at least steady to the point they slowly progressed to the Conference, mirroring the growth of Crawley as a town. Population in the 1961 census stood at approximately 25,000, growing to just shy of 100,000 at the 2001 census, meaning Crawley is a large enough town to support league football, providing the residents continue to turn out in numbers.
For all the criticism you can throw at Crawley and Steve Evans (and there is plenty), you cannot deny they spent their money very well. The rumoured large fee paid out for Richard Brodie would have been a huge blow at any other club in the division if it failed to work out, but Crawley had the power to splash out on Matt Tubbs as well, who was able to take the goal burden. As well as this, with the scarcity of goalscorers in the division, Crawley’s stockpiling of forwards had the added benefit of ensuring even if they were sat in the stands, it would be preferable to them going out and scoring for rival clubs (this was why it was so vital for the Dons to hold onto Kedwell, and why doing so provoked such joyous celebrations… how different would our season have turned had he been sold and stuck on the bench at Crawley?).
The truth is, they repeated the trick in just about every position on the field, ensuring by the time their long cup run ended it was just a matter of moping up the required points in the run in. Fortunately it had an effect on the Dons season, by pacing us to March the Dons racked up enough points to ensure an all important second place finish, which set up the playoff campaign that followed…
Broadfield features a large, slightly raised, main stand that seems to dominate the ground, and two fairly spacious end terraces which hold 1600 (one of which is given over to away supporters), Coupled with a small terrace on the remaining side is stands as a better than decent non- league ground.
However, with promotion and ambitions beyond simply standing still, the club are planning on adding a new stand to the current open terrace on the east side of the ground. This is planned to be a prefabricated structure that will literally drop onto the existing terrace, ensuring construction time should only last six days. The club currently plans to have this structure open around Christmas, ensuring there should be plenty of room for Dons fans come our second visit on 14th April.
Entry for Friday nights League Cup preliminary round, with Dons prices in brackets for reference. Dons fans will be located in the North Terrace, and a small section of seats in the West Stand.
Terrace – Adults £16 (£15), Concessions (Over 65s only for Crawley) £13 (£9), U16s (U19s for Crawley) £7 (£2)
Seats – Adults £19 (£19/£17), Concessions (Over 65s only for Crawley) £15 (£11/£10), U16s (U19s for Crawley) £10 (£7/£6)
AFCW Era – The Dons and Crawley have now met six times over the past two seasons, Crawley edging it by two wins to one with one draw in the league, with Wimbledon winning the FA Cup tie two seasons back 3-1 after a replay at Kingsmeadow.
As the Dons search for a new forward, one or two of us have noticed Jason Euell is out of contract, and asked the not unnatural question of whether he could come and do a job for us, even for a year or two, and help fill the hole that Kedwell will probably leave. Wanting to sign former players is not unusual at any club, but perhaps holds more meaning for ex-WFC players coming to AFCW. In reality, TB will be looking at any and every player, regardless of their history… Euell would be a nice story in the unlikely event he came, yet if he did he would have some fairly big boots to fill thanks to the last former Don who came to Kingsmeadow for a swan song season… Marcus Gayle.
Marcus started his career at the Bees in 1989, making 158 appearances, as well as 22 while on loan to Finnish outfit KuPS while learning his trade in 1990. It’s fair to say Gayle is as much an icon to Brentford fans as he is to us, and fortunately he got to bookend his career with a spell at both clubs, making 30 appearances for them in 05/06. They apparently had a song based on him that went along the lines of ‘Marcus Gayle, has a fucking huge cock…’. Not sure how they knew this for sure, it sounds a bit like lazy racial stereotyping to me, but I could be doing the great man a disservice!
Marcus song at Wimbledon was ‘Marcus Gayle My Lord’, perhaps due to his religious convictions, perhaps his name just lent itself better to this tune (Wimbledon fans weren’t that clever in those days. I remember when we stole a Cantona chant from Man United to use for John Fashanu- complete with French national anthem. I mean we could have been clever like we are these days and fitted it to ‘God Save The Queen’ in reference to Fash’s England caps, or even found out how the Nigerian anthem went…).
I vaguely remember an early Gayle game against Manchester United where his strong run down the left wing left whoever was playing right back for United that day for dead, delivering a perfect cross for Fashanu. Fash seemed to be preoccupied by his physical tussle with Pallister, and if he got a touch at all it was probably an arm – but a goal it was. Of course Marcus carved his name into Wimbledon legend for a rather more important goal against the same opponents a few years later…
Gayle was the first of the new wave of players that came through in the mid to late 90′s, big, strong and quick, but with great ability to go with it. Combined they played fast counter attacking football combined with an unbeatable spirit. There’s no coincidence that Gayle’s ‘career season’ was probably the greatest in terms of football played we ever saw from a Wimbledon side in the Premier League, 1996/97.
Plus he scored in that memorable 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge. Yes we had taken great pleasure in battering the Blues 4-0 and 5-2 there in the old Division One days, but this was New Chelsea. Gayle put the icing on the cake, the result only tarnished by the dodgiest of dodgy penalties given in the last minute for a non-existent foul outside the area. But the pace and movement of Wimbledon’s performance, especially Gayle and fellow front-man Efan Ekoku, meant Wimbledon had earned a place at the top of the Premier League, even if league form was to slip away after that.
But the Dons were to prove their worth in the cups as well, reaching both semi-finals. In the League Cup Marcus made a habit of beating dozy keepers at their near post from a tight angle, smashing the winner against Aston Villa in the 4th round, before repeating the trick in the semi-final second leg against Leicester. Heartbreak was to follow as the Dons crashed out on away goals (just rubbing salt in the wound – we didn’t actually play a ‘home’ game for nearly fifteen years during that period). The season petered out after a 0-3 surrender to Chelsea at Highbury in the FA Cup Semi-Final leaving us only with memories. But what memories they were.
Plus lets not forget Marcus, along with Robbie Earle, was one of the first Dons players to see action at a World Cup. Although Robbie gets a lot of attention for his goal (and Robbie will get the ‘Legends’ treatment himself one day…), lets not forget Marcus did more than just make up the numbers in 1998.
My personal favourite Marcus moment was set against a backdrop of unpleasantness. I found myself close to the front of what must have been C block in the Holmesdale, only to my horror to find myself sitting next to a Liverpool fan who not only felt he had the right to be there, he had the right to loudly support his team… Naturally, I was slightly annoyed, and this lead to several arguments with the plastic scouser, an argument with a steward, and worse still an argument with my dad, for taking my argument with the previous two too far.
Just as I was about to snap (and bear in mind I’m the sort of person who normally avoids confrontation at all costs…), Wimbledon won a free kick, Gayle floated it into the top corner, bouncing off the inside of the post and into the net after travelling across the goal line and off the opposite post. An absolutely brilliant free kick, and our joyous celebrations persuaded our illegally positioned friend to find a different seat for the second half…
If anyone deserved a move to a big club it was Marcus. Sadly Wimbledon were desperate for money by the time he left, post relegation in 2001 to Rangers, and it’s probably fair to say they were the wrong club at the wrong time. He moved back to England with Watford, and it was here he made the transformation to centre half, a move that effectively extended his career by several seasons.
Normally a pace merchant will leave the game the moment their legs go, but Marcus was always too good a player for that to happen. His footballing brain was put to use at the heart of the defence of not only Watford, but Brentford, Aldershot (where he finally managed to score his first hat trick after coming on as a substitute against Kidderminster), before finally returning home to Wimbledon.
He didn’t have the pace that made him a Premier League star, but it all seemed a bit too easy for Gayle at times. To have him with us just for one season was a dream come true for most Wimbledon fans, one last link to the glory days. Our playoff win at Staines must have been a brilliant way to finish a career, walking off the pitch, knowing your job was done.
Except Marcus Gayle wasn’t finished with Wimbledon just yet. He took over the running of the reserves midway through the very next season, placing an emphasis on youth and guiding the side to a Suburban League Cup win over Bedfont, a game they dominated despite facing a stronger and more experienced side in the final. In future it will be his job to bring promising young players from a successful youth programme, and turn them into footballers, a role he has already performed with Ryan Jackson, with Brendan Kiernan next on the conveyor belt. What does the future hold for Marcus Gayle? He has mentioned previously it is his ambition to become a manager, and there is no reason why he can’t move through the ranks at Wimbledon, as first team coach, assistant manager and perhaps even as successor to Terry Brown?
I’ve tried live match blogs before, notably on one occasion whilst listening to the game on radio two hundred miles away (a huge success, as the three readers who joined me for the afternoon will attest to). So what about trying a live match blog for a game that took place twenty-three years ago? Especially a game I haven’t watched all the way through for over a decade. Well I’m all for experimenting… I was only ten years old that sunny afternoon at Wembley, and its fair to say even if I thought of blogging from the stadium the technology wasn’t quite there at the time. Armed with my rapidly diminishing memories of the day, a copy of the DVD, and a packet of biscuits, here goes nothing. The Anonymous Don time machine has been put in gear…
I remember nothing about the morning of the game. I would imagine I was quite excited, and I can guarantee sugary drinks would have played a part (not Ribena though, that gave me nosebleeds…). I do remember the night before being like Christmas Eve, so its likely I would have been up for several hours by now.
Back in the 21st century, I didn’t feel the need to go to such levels of authenticity. If I did I’d be on the Metropolitan line right now. Instead the sofa beckons. A minor technical difficulty threatens to spoil the experiment… or at very least turn this ‘live’ blog into an examination of Sam Raimi’s campy 2009 horror ‘Drag Me To Hell’. In other words that was the DVD occupying the 88 Cup Final box. A ‘Brass Eye’ disc was in Drag Me To Hell’s box, with a season of ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ having found its way where Brass Eye should have been. To cut a very long story short, the Cup Final disc was finally located in the ‘Game On’ box, along with a copy of ‘Love, Honour and Obey’ that doesn’t even belong to me, my copy of Game On presumably long since stolen…
Balls. I forgot the DVD copy uses Brian Moore’s vastly inferior commentary, so no ‘Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club’ stuff today. According to him, Dave Beasant lives ‘a mere Dave Beasant goal kick from here’, which considering some of Lurch’s clearances could easily have meant he lived in Slough.
By this stage, the ten-year old Anonymous Don was flouting Wembley rules by standing on the step behind but leaning forward to the crush barrier, effectively taking up two spaces and doing exactly what the stewards had told me not to do ten minutes earlier, but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have seen a thing. In fact, coming in at this point is ignoring our journey to the stadium… which was relatively trouble-free and forgettable. As regular visitors to the stadium for England games, we had a regular spot we knew we could park in, simple.
Wembley Way was packed even hours before kick off, and the heat of mid morning meant the concrete burnt like hell if you touched it. Rather more Liverpool fans than Dons, some desperately searching for tickets, fended off easily by my large group of family and friends. It seemed to take forever in the queue for the turnstiles, various ticketless fans littering the place either desperately searching for spares or resigned, head in hands, propped against walls and in doorways obviously not really sure what to do next.
Still, that wasn’t my problem, we finally got ourselves in the ground… Old Wembley was as different to new Wembley as day is to night. Much was made of the new stadiums toilet facilities, partly as those who ever visited the old ground could ever forget the sight (or indeed the smell…).
Lady Diana is being presented to the players, and in the background you can make out the Liverpool support. Those younger fans who caught sight of Harry Enfield’s scousers with thick moustaches and perms might well have thought it was an exaggeration, that their stereotypical presentation was an insult to the fine city of Liverpool. As far as most Dons fans who were there are concerned, it’s a fairly authentic historical reenactment of Cup Final day. And this DVD is proof…
The teams change ends so the Dons will be attacking where I’m standing this half. Or back in the twenty-first century, kicking right to left. Bruce Grobbelaar runs like a chicken.
Hang on. New England manager Steve Nichol (who looks about twelve) blasted the ball back fifty yards to Grobbelaar, who just picked it up, the most blatant back pass you’ll ever see, and the ref just ignores it…. oh, wait now I remember… This isn’t the only Back To The Eighties piece of nostalgia I’ve picked up on, I’m forgetting it took at least another five years before the TV companies decided it would be a good idea to stick a clock in the corner.
Dennis Wise plays a thirty yard ball on the floor forward to Fashanu. Moore decides to describe this in commentary as ‘the first long ball of the afternoon’. No wonder we had such a reputation… Meanwhile, from the resulting move, Fashanu shoots tamely from an angle into Grobbelaars arms.
Aldridge heads over under pressure. Meanwhile Wise is hacked down on the edge of the box by McMahon but Wise drifts his freekick just over. This is already a better game than I remember…
Jones barrels through the side of McMahon with a late challenge. More recent examination of the game on ‘talking head’ type shows such as ‘Footballs 100 Greatest Moments That Just Happen To Be In The BBC Archive’ would have you believe Jones should have been sent off for this, but it was no worse than McMahon’s effort on Wise a couple of minutes earlier. In fact, it probably had a lot to do with that. Everyone just gets on with the game, including McMahon, the TV people don’t even bother showing a replay until a minute or so later. In fact the incident is so unremarkable, the ten-year old Anonymous Don soon forgets all about it.
Corky nods one wide. The Dons fans can be heard singing ‘We’re Gonna Score In A Minute’…
A moment I still remember to this day. Houghton’s cross is steered goalwards by Aldridge, his effort seems to take Beasant by surprise and the ball bounces up off his knee, with John Barnes bearing down to knock it into the empty net. Lurch somehow gets a hand up to tip it away before Jones knocks it away for a corner. A miracle save, somehow the TV pictures don’t do it justice. Liverpool forced a couple of corners on the spin from there, I remember mentally preparing myself for the inevitable goal that would follow…
Beardsley tricks his way to the byline before rifling into the side netting. An absolutely nothing piece of play watching back in 2011, but at the time it was enough to give a nervous ten-year old the fright of his life…
Beardsley is fouled on the way through to goal, the referee’s whistle goes, but Beardsley carries on and puts it in the net. My younger self hasn’t heard the whistle, and the relief I felt when I realised the goal hadn’t stood was unlike anything I’ve felt in life until Eastlands…
Phelan is tugged back by Nichol down by the left corner flag. As Wise prepares to take, we know whats coming next…
Once I realised the ball was in the net, and the goal had been given, I remember jumping around so much I have no recollection of what else was going on around me. Presumably other Dons fans were doing similar. For the first time in the afternoon, I believed (although that belief was to be tested during the half time interval…).
As the ball is floated in by Nichol, Aldridge collapses under no pressure from the lurking Eric Young. What a fucking cheat. I said I wouldn’t go down the ‘these days you would have…’ route, but that would have been a card in this day and age, and quite rightly too. It just shows how desperate Liverpool already were.
Meanwhile, down the other end, Grobbelaar goes walkabout and drops a cross at Terry Gibsons feet, who can’t steer into the net with goalkeeper stranded. To be fair Nichol was lurking, and the angle was really tight. Brian Moore’s measured response to this is to scream ‘No foul on the referee!’. I should have hoped not, Brian…
Moore’s repeated references Little Dennis Wise and Big John Fashanu makes me wonder whether, in his head, he actually thinks he’s commentating on Liverpool v The Bash Street Kids.
The half time whistle goes. A happy Anonymous Don relaxes in the space created by those nipping off to the gents. Until my dad leans over and tells me he thinks Wimbledon need another goal, that one wouldn’t be enough. Bear in mind, at that stage of my life I believed pretty much everything my dad told me, especially regarding football.
The second half kicks off…
Corky makes way for Laurie Cunningham RIP. Even now its surprising how contained Liverpool are, they haven’t even threatened in this half so far.
Penalty to Liverpool
Aldridge runs on to a ball dinked through the Dons back four, Clive Goodyear spots it and slides in, diverting the ball back to Beasant. Aldridge tumbles over his outstretched leg, the referee points to the spot!
From my vantage point, behind the goal, I could see this wasn’t a penalty. I knew it was a great challenge. I was as furious as a ten-year old can get, more furious than I was two years earlier when England played a friendly against Germany in the USA but I got sent to bed (I subsequently sneaked down and tried to listen through the door, this worked for ten minutes before my parents spotted me – partly because England scored and I celebrated. Fortunately they decided this show of determination on my part needed to be rewarded, and I was allowed to watch the rest of the game… but that’s a story for another day).
Back to TV land, and Brian Moore has immediately determined it was a penalty, hesitated on being shown the replay before to his eternal credit Ian St John, Mr Liverpool himself, bailed him out by telling the nation it wasn’t. I wasn’t fully vindicated myself until hours later, on my return home, where my mum confirmed to me it definitely wasn’t a penalty. And what mum said went in our house.
Theres only been one penalty missed in FA Cup final history, and you have to go back to 1913 for that.
A ten-year old Dons fan is believing again… surely, after all this, we can’t lose?
Now I can see why neutrals don’t rate this final. Literally nothing has happened since the penalty. Liverpool have largely held possession in the Dons half, but have created absolutely nothing. Still, the clock is going backwards as far as I can make out, with fifteen minutes to go I was set for the longest quarter-hour I’ve ever experienced…
Now I might have only been young, but I already knew that heartache and agony in football could come out of nowhere. The previous seasons FA Cup campaign had taught me as much. I was convinced Wimbledon’s name was on the cup, until our defeat to Spurs. So the fact that Liverpool hadn’t done anything so far in the half was if anything more worrying…
Three minutes to go, every Dons clearance is greeted with ever louder cheers from the Dons end.
The last few minutes or so has seen Liverpool resort to the long ball game. Fortunately they aren’t very good at it. The Dons fans erupt at the whistle… but it’s only Fashanu caught offside.I have no recollection of this happening, but the real whistle comes not long after…
Big Dave Beasant lifts the cup for Wimbledon, before Dennis Wise shouts the infamous ‘Oi oi you bastards!’ at the Dons fans… three sides of the ground had departed, leaving Dons fans to celebrate, to pinch ourselves, was this real? I don’t remember leaving the ground, my next memory was turning into our street, standing up through the sunroof on my dads car, cheering my head off.
Then the next morning, heading to Wimbledon to see the open top bus. So many people were out on the route, cheering the lads home, for one day the people of Wimbledon remembered they had a football club. What became of them? While on my return to school a few of my schoolmates had become Wimbledon fans overnight, it lasted only a couple of weeks, until the new season started and it was all about Man U and Everton once more. Crowds remained the same next season, people had forgotten again.
Still we had our moment. Ever since that day, on meeting people and revealing I was a Dons fan, they would ask ‘Were you there?’, and I could proudly say yes, yes I was. It was one of the greatest moments in my life, and probably always will be.
Our ascent to League Two means proper Football League London derbies once more, with the Dons facing both Dagenham and the subject of this update, Barnet. And to give the game a little extra significance, the Bees have appointed the man who won us the FA Cup, Mr Lawrie Sanchez, as manager. I can only imagine, as a regular visitor to Kingsmeadow, Sanchez either joined too late or had no say in Barnet arranging a friendly with Them, still their visiting support should boost his budget for the season (if he’s looking to bring in a new tea lady for a few hours a week, that is…)
Alongside Sanchez is bona fide Barnet legend Giuliano Grazioli, who had a short spell on loan at the Dons in ’07 which its fair to say didn’t entirely work out as planned. Grazioli’s short spell as caretaker saw the Bees safe, but Barnet have left it late to secure League football for a couple of seasons on the trot now.
Similar to many clubs formed in London’s suburbs, Barnet’s early years comprised a mish mash of mergers and name changes. The club website recognises the year of formation as 1888 although the club seemed to have played under a couple of other names from as early as 1882.
Skipping through the complications of the early years (more for the sake of keeping it brief) the Dons first encountered Barnet Alston in the final season before they changed their name to simply Barnet FC. By this stage the Bees had joined the Athenian League, a membership that lasted over half a century and saw them lift the title seven times. It was during this period (1946) that Barnet lifted the FA Trophy, beating Bishop Auckland 3-2.
From 1965 until the beginning of the Alliance Premier League (forerunner of the Conference) Barnet spent all but three years in the Southern Premier League. In 1979 a manager that would go a long way towards shaping the Barnet we know today joined the club. Barry Fry’s first spell in charge saw midtable security, after a short spell at Maidstone Fry returned to turn the Bees into a major force in non-league football.
By this stage renowned ticket tout Stan Flashman had bought the club, and from 1986 onwards the club finished second in the league three times in four years, missing out on the first few years of automatic promotion to the Football League. Finally, the 1990/91 season saw Barnet pip Colchester to the title by two points.
This wasn’t the end of Barnets rise, however. Two seasons later they gained promotion to the third tier of English football, by this stage Fry had moved on after one too many disagreements with Flashman. Barnet only stayed at the third level for a season, falling all the way back to the Conference in 1997. Even then it only took four seasons for them to return, after a failed playoff campaign Paul Fairclough led the Bees to their second Conference title.
Since then Barnet have rarely troubled the promotion places in League Two, in fact requiring last day victories in the last two seasons to avoid a second drop back to the non-league game. Struggling with crowds hovering just above the 2,00o mark, with much bigger clubs on their doorstep (problems the Dons know all too well), Barnet are perhaps fortunate to have a chairman such as Tony Kleanthous, one of football’s better administrators and perhaps the reason Barnet have seemingly punched above their weight seeing much larger clubs fall through the trap door to the Conference.
With new manager Mark Stimson raising a few eyebrows signing the likes of Ricky Holmes and Glen Poole (the latter released by the Dons during the summer), a season of struggle always looked likely, and a bad start didn’t entirely help, including a 0-7 defeat at Crewe. A first victory of the season at home to Cheltenham saw Barnet rise out of the bottom four for the first and only time that season. By New Years Day the Bees were stuck in the bottom two, costing Stimson his job.
Paul Fairclough took over, but with wins still hard to come by Barnet took the decision to appoint Martin Allen on 23rd March. Allen presided over three games, a draw with top of the table Chesterfield and victories over Burton and Crewe gave the Bees some hope. Still, they were still in the bottom two, and his controversial departure to Notts County seemed to have dented their chances.
But decent end of season form, including a superb 4-2 win at playoff chasing Gillingham, coupled with the continuing poor form of Lincoln, took the survival battle to the final day. Aldershot easily beat a demoralised Lincoln, but Barnet still had to beat Port Vale, and a 1-0 victory was enough to keep them in the division for another year.
Barnet have had a real headache bringing Underhill up to League status, having seen previous relocation plans blocked, and their local council not exactly bending over backwards to assist (fancy that, a London Borough obstructing the progress of a small football club?). Still, a new stand has risen at the South End of the ground (its capacity of 1016 might give visiting Dons fans an idea of what the KRE stand at Kingsmeadow will look like…).
The visiting support will occupy the northern end of the East Terrace. A temporary 240 capacity seated stand sits next to the small North terrace for visitors seating. A view from each area of the ground can be found on the stadium plan at Barnets website here (we should have something like this too…).
Comparison refers to Barnets 10/11 prices. Note Barnet are able to offer seating behind the goal. This is a comparison of home ticket prices and admission for visiting supporters will be updated closer to our visit.
Barnet also offer a Family ticket for their South Stand, two adults and two U19s for £30.
The Dons haven’t faced Barnet yet in a competitive fixture in the AFC era, but did meet in a memorable friendly in preseason 2004. The Dons, fresh out of the CCL, defeated then Conference Bees 3-0 mainly due to some kid called Rob Ursell, who turned up on trial and spanked a wonderful hat trick. The rest was history as far as Urse and the Dons were concerned, whereas Barnet went on to return to the League at the end of the season.
All time Dons/Barnet
The Dons first met Barnet Alston on 14th April 1919, with Wimbledon running out 2-0 winners.
Continuing the theme of kicking off a summer historical feature with events that have just happened, and acknowledging I never actually managed to knock out a report at the time, the Anonymous Don reminisces about the good old days of, erm, last month… in fact the Dons last competitive game…
Once all the bitterness relating to the choice of venue (with which I never had too much of a problem with) and ticket pricing policy (which I most certainly did) had passed, I actually found the build up to the Conference playoff final at Eastlands pretty comfortable. Well, actually it was completely uncomfortable, but the point is it could have been a lot worse. Remembering the old military adage of the five P’s, or seven P’s… however many P’s, I had prepared long in advance. But I didn’t want to jinx anything either, so I decided a trip to visit my family, relocated years ago to the Doncaster area, could solve my problems… and then, if anything happened to be going on in Manchester on the Saturday, we could just drive over…
A brilliant strategy, one only partially wrecked by the subsequent announcement of ticket costs meaning it would just be my dad and I travelling. I had kind of imagined such an event would see the seats around me filled with family and friends, the decision to play the game at Eastlands kind of killed the latter (with the exception of those who follow the Dons, naturally), but the costs involved in bringing the folks meant it became a no-no for everyone except the old man (he had to come, he was driving…). Plus a well-intentioned gesture at his own expense saw my dad purchase tickets in the upper tier – a great view but this would mean separation from those on the lower tier, including those I most regularly travel with. Still, there’s always scope for a few beers before the game…
The week, or rather more accurately the four days I actually went in before travelling on the Friday, was probably the easiest working week I can remember, largely because I didn’t really give a crap, my mind being prematurely two hundred miles north. Still, this wasn’t a carefree ‘Office Space’ style attitude, I was thinking about the game, thinking about it some more, then realising I had over thought it, scrapped all my previous thinking and started again. Occasionally I would snap out of it momentarily and realise I’d spent the best part of five minutes staring at a pencil, or completing a task I’d already completed. My colleagues must have had a great deal of fun over the following days clearing up the mistakes I must have made. This was an occasion I had no point of reference for, the only game that even came close was 1988 (which will be getting the Yesteryear treatment itself pretty soon); the difference being the prize on offer… our return to the Football League. Was it a bigger game than ’88? It felt like it, certainly, although its difficult to weigh up the relative importance of league and cup games, never mind those in different eras.
The journey across the M62 brought reminders this was the only game of any note taking place in England, although supporters coaches ferrying fans back and forth along the M62 were a familiar sight, albeit carrying Rugby League fans… arriving at Manchester early, we found our way to the ‘fan zone’ style bars of City Square. While we have been away, the average Premier League fan has found themselves spoil beyond what we could ever have imagined on our journeys to place like The Dell and The County Ground in our experiences of the early years of the competition. Such facilities don’t replace pubs entirely (they don’t have the capacity for a start, as I was soon to find out…), but Premier League fans pay through the nose for it, and I wonder just how active a fan I would be if the Dons had somehow survived that final day in 2000 and gone on to entrench themselves in the top flight, I might not have been priced out of home games, but trips to stadiums such as this would be the exception rather than the norm.
It was at this stage we decided to take a quick walk across City Square to the food outlets, somehow the fact the food had the Marco Pierre White seal of approval made that £4.00 sausage in baguette seem a little easier to swallow. I mean it wasn’t worth the money, but was definitely worth a pound more than similar fare served in the outlets at KM… perhaps we could get our own deal with Ainsley Harriott? The problem was this twenty-minute trip across the square cost us, our vision blocked by the City Megastore or whatever it is, the bar had filled thanks to the arrival of the first dozen or so supporter coaches. Thinking back I’m certain my dad might have engineered this, although he is supportive of the Dons on the whole, he seems to have it in for Dons fans in general thanks to an incident at an FA Cup replay at Goodison Park (away capacity 5,000) where a Dons fan (one of approximately 80 there on the night) managed to tread on his foot…
A short abortive conversation over the barrier with those now in the bar later, nerves had got the better of me, and it was time to head into the stadium. Empty, Eastlands doesn’t disappoint (although to be fair it didn’t exactly fill up…). The view from block 230 was worth the extra fiver, becoming aware I could see the opposite corner flag a bonus considering some of the grounds we have played at over the last nine years. The organisers had tried their best to entertain, although the opera guy might have checked whether either side had any chants that went with his selection before urging everyone to sing along, and its fair to say even those in the ground early of an 18,000 crowd would be by far the largest audience the winner of Mecca’s Got Talent (seriously) has ever performed in front of.
The arrival of the players saw flames leap thirty or forty feet in the air from what I had previously presumed were speakers, finally it was game time. I had set myself up to expect Wimbledon to concede a couple of early goals, so seeing Mohamed Kaid’s shot parried into the path of Danny Kedwell for the captain to fire home seemed too good to be true. Sorry, it WAS too good to be true, a linesman’s flag cutting the celebrations short as Keds had strayed offside. My memory of ’88 was restricted to the big moments, I had presumed this was because it was so long ago and I was quite young, but writing this just over two weeks later I can’t visualise the details… I remember the Dons looking good, vaguely threatening throughout, but Luton having chances too. The guy sitting next to me identified a nervous Sam Hatton as our weak link, obviously not a regular I told him he was our Player of the Year…
I don’ really remember much more about the second half either. Luton came into it more, but Wimbledon were getting the counter attacking side of their game together and it looked like a pacy break might be enough, but final balls were lacking and shot blocked. Unfortunately a few Dons forwards started to cramp up… Kedwell wasn’t dropping as deep to collect the ball anymore, for example, and all of a sudden the pitch was looking larger by the minute. For those out there on the pitch standing on the edge of their own box, the opposite goal must have seemed miles away.
Then a heart in mouth moment, a huge ‘what if?’ if ever I saw one (in fact that’s an idea for a future feature…). A cross into the Dons box, Luton’s Walker gets his head on the ball, it hits the post… as far as I can see it’s in, its rolled back into the goal… Seb Brown has clutched the ball but surely it went over the line… from a hundred yards away I couldn’t understand why the Luton players weren’t celebrating. But play continued… somehow the ball didn’t go in. A huge escape.
Then of course there was the penalty incident, or as I saw it at the time the ‘ cleared off the line’ incident. I’ve since seen it on YouTube, and from that high angle that followed the player I’ve seen them given. The bigger picture being the forward managed to get his cross/shot away as Brown came out to spread himself there was an inevitable collision. Fortunately that’s how the referee saw it, and the Dons were able to scramble the ball away from danger.
Full time, and far from celebrating or leaving, we prepared for an extra half an hour. It wasn’t just Kedwell struggling now, Mohamed went down early in the period, all over the field players were struggling. Looking back it seems miraculous there wasn’t a goal. There so nearly was. Luke Moore somehow failed to turn in a low ball into the box… a similar move sees Mohamed side foot past Tyler, we’re already on our feet celebrating, but the ball bounces away off the outside of the post. The agony continues… one final chance, a deep ball into the Luton box with Kedwell and Yakubu unmarked an queuing up at the far post with Tyler stranded. Yakubu took responsibility, but his header nestled in the side netting rather than the back of the net – and before we knew it, after nine months, forty-six games, a two leg semi-final and 120 minutes, it was going to take ten penalty kicks to separate the two sides.
There are undoubtedly fairer ways to decide a football match. In the good old days both sides would have replayed a few days later (well, being pedantic the Dons would have gone up as runners-up without all this nonsense…). And yet I’ve always thought if you’re going to settle a game on the day, penalties are probably the best way of doing it. They aren’t the lottery they are sometimes made out to be. I’ve seen the Dons lose shootouts before, and it hasn’t changed my opinion, whether I’d be cursing them now if we had lost I’m not sure. Victory in a shootout depends on a number of things, keeping your nerve, accurate finishing, and perhaps most importantly, a goalkeeper with excellent reactions… and whose research is up to scratch…
Much has been made of Seb’s scrap of paper, I certainly didn’t notice it at the time, and wonder how many of the Luton players did. Even if there was any writing on it, you would have hoped Seb and the management tem had found every video clip, every match report, everywhere a description of a potential Luton penalty takers technique might have been, I’m sure they would have looked. But at the time, none of these thoughts crossed my mind. I was convinced we had blown our best chance in extra time, and spent the ten minutes or so while the shootout was organised attempting to mentally prepare for defeat.
You will have all relived the penalties by now, and will at least be familiar enough not to require a blow-by-blow account. Suffice to say from my point of view Seb saving the first penalty was bad news, as shootouts have a habit of swinging, Mohamed’s miss was a sign the shootout had indeed swung in Luton’s favour, and Browns second save was little more than miraculous as far as I was concerned. Still, I only really believed when Yakubu stuck away his penalty, knowing who was coming last, we were as good as in the Football League… which didn’t stop me needing to bend double just to get some air in, convinced I would faint at any moment…
Once the penalty went in, everything was a blur. I screamed until my throat hurt (which didn’t take very long…). I literally floated out of the stadium, saw and old school friend through the crowd and ran like a kid to shake his hand. Getting the car out of the car park saw me hanging out of the car window shouting to those waiting for coaches, singing with passers-by… and then before I knew it the stadium was long behind me. Then, a surreal moment, we got lost trying to find the motorway…
The thing is, the week before I told myself no matter how hard it was, if we won, if we went back to the Football League, I’d feel like I was floating on air. And I was… at least, I though I was. It turned out I had the flu, and celebrating returning to the Football League mainly involved a week in bed watching media clips over and over and over again. Still, I’m sure I’ll get a chance to do a big game properly when we reach the JPT final in 2019…