Category Archives: A Short History

Opening Day – A Short (Recent) History

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.

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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?

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The Dons In The League Cup – A Short History

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…

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