I woke up on Saturday morning in a pessimistic state of mind. I really had the impression that we would suffer in the manner Norwich eventually did, with season-ticket assaults on Terry Brown and everything… (while I’m on the subject, I bet those Norwich fans who ran on the pitch regretted it five seconds after they had done it, especially when they found that not only were they not getting their season tickets back, they wouldn’t be watching football for three years minimum…).
We have history of blowing big games. Remember Wycombe last year? Torquay? Even going back to St Albans in the Trophy and Thurrock in the FA Cup, whenever we had come across a side that represented a huge step up in quality we had fluffed our lines. The difference was, those games had been cup ties… however as this game was our first in the Conference and we had nothing to measure it against, it did have more of the one-off feeling of a cup game.
Fortunately I wasn’t the only one suffering from a case of the pre-game jitters. After taking my non-attending wife for lunch at the Slug and Lettuce in Kingston to make up for not getting her a ticket, I bumped into an agreeable bunch of Luton fans who weren’t entirely sure of my gut feeling we would be annihilated. This led to me delivering them to the Peel via the 131, obtaining other Luton fans on the way – I felt like the Pied Piper, perhaps I should have led them into the river?!
Kingsmeadow was at its glorious sweaty best as I arrived, coincidentally at the same time as Sam Hatton, who almost became the first person to fatally mow down a blogger in Jack Goodchild Way. I bought a WUP, amazed to find an article I wrote at the end of last season had been included… in fact I had forgotten I had submitted it, which meant there was at least one decent article for me to read in there! The ground looked in great condition. There were even a few new advertising hoardings this year dotted around. Oh, and of course, this – http://fleydon-flags.blogspot.com/2009/08/these-boots.html
Once again I’m in the John Smiths again this year although with no access to the KRE (at least this week) it was entirely forced on me… on Saturday I found myself behind the home dugout. However I must say the vast majority the support was superb, barring one or two who felt the need to slag of a certain midfielder of ours. I’ve gone on and on about it elsewhere, and its something that annoys me, I’m glad it seems to annoy the majority of Dons fans as well. But if the elimination of this kind of negativity is perhaps a step too far for us at the moment, the majority did a fantastic job of drowning them out. Even the John Smiths, which seems to be a better place to stand thanks to the addition of some singers who presumably found themselves edged out of the Tempest this year.
The lineup was pretty similar to as I expected, with a couple of exceptions. Firstly, we went 4-5-1, no Jon Main as I exclusively revealed on this very blog. But no Luke Moore either, the extra place in midfield going to crowd favourite Sam Hatton. Finally, Luke Garrard got the nod at right back over Jay Conroy, presumably it came down to Luke’s experience.
There were a lot of nerves kicking around, and that seemed to transfer itself to the pitch. The opening few minutes were low key, the referee setting his stall out by awarding a couple of baffling freekicks. Wimbledon’s first chance came during this period, a corner on the left found its way over to Lorraine, who guided his effort up and over, finding himself called for pushing at the same time.
Lets get this straight, Luton looked faster, more composed and basically in control in every department, but they hadn’t managed to fashion a chance of any sort. While Wimbledon were giving away possession left, right and centre, caught by the speed in which they were closed down by Luton men, it hadn’t led to any problems. This was until the thirteenth minute, when a Luton corner delivered in at pace amid a lot of pushing and shoving in the box. Lorraine and Shane Blackett crashed to the floor, with the referee electing to make a decision against the Dons man.
Luton’s impressive forward Tom Craddock slotted home from the spot powerfully striking into the right corner, despite Jamie Pullen reading his intentions the penalty was just too good for him to get anywhere near. The visitors almost doubled their lead only minutes later, the impressive Adam Newton racing clear down the right, picking out Craddock (one of two Luton players completely free at the far post) whose firm header was brilliantly saved by James Pullen. The ball bobbled about in the six-yard box for a moment before being cleared to safety by Paul Lorraine.
Now Luton had the lead, Wimbledon’s five man midfield worked in their favour. Godfrey and Hatton were working overtime in the midfield, but were well off the pace. Neither were helped by some poor balls into them requiring them to release the ball a lot quicker than either of them had experienced before. This was a real baptism of fire for certain Dons players, with the two midfielders and Chris Hussey desperately trying to keep their heads above water.
I mentioned in pre-season how Husseys decision making seems to let him down in defensive situations. On many occasions Hussey had the chance to knock a 60/40 challenge in his favour to safety before the ball had even got to Newton, but his cautiousness in keeping his feet let the tricky winger beat him time and again simply but knocking the ball past him and beating him in a leg race.
However he persisted, going on to enjoy a much better second half which led to Newton being removed from the game, and while Hatton and Godfrey were substituted in the second as well, they at least left the field having worked so hard to keep Wimbledon within touching distance of our illustrious visitors. Even before the safety of half time, the Dons had to defend for their lives on a couple of occasions.
On twenty minutes, another cross from the right was flicked on dangerously, Wimbledon perhaps fortunate that it was too far from a dozing Kevin Gallen. Portly ex-franchise hitman Gallen looked out of place among this talented Luton team, employed seemingly only to shout at the referee and fall over when appropriate. He picked up a yellow card during the first half, perhaps he receives a bonus for this as any reliance on a goal bonus this season could see the mercenary forward well out of pocket come April.
The Hatters were confounded again on twenty five minutes, the visitors breaking quickly to create a two on two led by Newton. While the nippy winger seemed too good for Wimbledon down the right, when approaching goal through the centre he seemed overwhelmed by the options available to him. Eventually he decided to ignore his teammate and go it alone, being brilliantly held up by Luke Garrard before Chris Hussey finished the job, clearing to safety.
Garrard had an interesting afternoon. While looking comfortable on the right side of defense he had an annoying habit of playing colleagues into danger. While Luke needs time to adapt to the speed of the game, both in terms of overcoming rustiness following his injury and getting used to the pace of a higher level once more, he was inconsistant rather than poor.
While Wimbledon were losing the ball in midfield on a regular basis,the sheer number of players on hand mean the opposition themselves suffer the same problems. While Luton looked comfortable, they weren’t creating as much as the would have wished, and did not dominate as much as their manager suggested after the game. While it would serve a purpose for him to suggest they were unlucky on this occasion, they are going to face teams who flood the midfield week in, week out. Most probably won’t be able to work as hard as we did, in fact we must be the fittest ‘part time’ club in the country, but those that do will frustrate Luton, especially away from home.
Danny Kedwell cut a lonely figure all alone up front. When the ball found its way to him and he managed to win it, he either flicked the ball on to no-one or got it under control and fed a midfielder to knock it long into space or find themselves closed down before they even got a chance to do that. Consequently Wimbledon created nothing until just before half time.
Sammy Hatton found himself in an advanced position to flick on to Kedwell. However Danny was still far from goal with defenders in his way. He improvised well, juggling the ball around a defender which sadly left him off balance, his stabbed volley rolling harmlessly wide. With Wimbledon on the front foot, Lewis Taylor and Derek Duncan managed to get forward, the former almost providing an assist or the latter with a superb drilled ball that Duncan stabbed just wide.
Just a quick word about the Luton fans in the first half. As I said before the majority were a decent bunch, although they did seem to have a minority of braindead scum, one of which who made a name for himself by breaking through the segregation and removing Haydons head, before throwing it on the pitch. Now this incident has been covered extensively elsewhere, but you have to wonder what was going on with the security. Now I’m not one of those willing to slag off the stewards, they are just volunteers and they do a great job. Wherever possible they should be able to watch the game, thats a given – it’s not as if they earn money or anything.
And they shouldn’t be expected to put their own personal safety on the line when someone misbehaves in a violent manner. In that particular corner there was a group of half a dozen police officers. These gentlemen certainly were being paid for their afternoon at the game, primarily to prevent what happened from happening. It seems it’s not only the team who need to sharpen up to Conference Premier standard…
The second half started late (somehow that Tempest End goal became unfastened again…) yet this time Wimbledon were starting to give as good as they got. A strong run by Lewis Taylor down the right, powerfully holding off a Luton man before feeding Luke Garrard, whose delicate chip found Kedwell who found no pace on the ball, his header dropping into keeper Tyler’s arms. Still, it was promising. Duncan and Taylor were more advanced however that inevitably gave Luton more space to build for themselves. Pullen had to save smartly from Cradock, before the same player again found space in the left side of the penalty area, hitting across goal agonisingly wide of the right post.
Wimbledon were still having trouble creating chances, and it took until the hour mark for them to produce their best moment of the match so far. Great play down the left between Duncan and Hussey saw a deep cross evade everybody apart from Lewis Taylor at the far post. It took him some time to get it under control, but when he did he had a couple of lashes at it- the second of these excellently parried wide by Tyler.
At last the Luton keeper merits a mention in this report, and this was good enough to persuade Terry Brown it was time to unleash our not-so-secret weapon. Jon Main and Luke Moore replaced the exhausted Derek Duncan and Sam Hatton, with Godfrey following shortly after for Ricky Wellard. This shot in the arm was enough for Wimbledon to take the front foot. Main’s pace scared the life out of the Luton defense, resulting in the penalty award with just ten minutes to go.
Last night in the Score! update I mentioned the to penalties were ‘dubious’ after I saw it described as such elsewhere. However – after seeing a shaky video of it, I’m now prepared to believe what my own eyes saw at the time, that while Blackettgot the ball he did so by scything down Main as he was about to shoot. Blackett had to go for that, and the penalty itself was despatched by Main, sending Tyler the wrong way rolling the ball into the right corner.
From here on in, it looked as though it was only going to be Wimbledon who would win. Another dangerous ball into the box fell to Taylor who struck firmly at goal from eight yards only to see it deflected wide for a corner. Luton weren’t helping themselves, or to be more accurate their manager wasn’t anyway, bringing on Basham and a midfielder in exchange for their best players on the day, Adam Newton and Tom Craddock… which meant while the Hatters now had two big men up front they had no-one to service them.
Of course, Wimbledon were on hand to provide that last chance. Garrard collided with Johnson to gift posession to Luton by way of a freekick given when Garrards attempt to recover the situation only led to him chopping down a Luton man who appeared from nowhere. Fortunately, the freekick was delivered straight at the wall (ironically enough charged down by Chris Hussey…).
It was down to Hussey to deliver a great, great chance for Paul Lorraine, unmarked coming round the back from a corner, to head into the ground and wide, the Dons improbable chance to win the game having gone begging. Despite this Wimbledon fans celebrated at the final whistle, a point gained following a tough first half.
Perhaps we could have faced easier opposition on the first day of the season, but Luton have lifted the bar high enough for us to prepare ourselves for lesser opposition as well as the likes of Oxford and Wrexham looming on the horizon. Make no mistake, watching Wimbledon defend for their lives in the first half was no fun, but had we started with an orthodox 4-4-2 we would have been taken apart by a much better side than we are. Had we player the diamond we would vitually have sacrificed the midfield, again leading to us losing the match before we had even got into our stride.
The formations we played in pre-season will come in handy later in the year, but the fact we had to start with a containing tactic, and at home as well, should give everyone an idea of how tough it’s going to be to eventually win this league. It worked for us today, on the hour we were still in the game, and that was good enough for us to go for broke and swap things around a bit. Some young players learned some harsh lessons out there, yet we survived, we took something from the game, we almost snatched an amazing win. I guarantee when we look back at this game at the end of the season we will see it as a point gained.
Now on to Eastbourne for a more ‘usual’ Conference game… and whisper it, but a great chance for our first three points?
NOTE – Unfortunately I was unable to take any pictures this week. Apologies to those of you who look forward to them, normal service will hopefully be resumed on Tuesday, although I took a couple on my mobile, so a couple may appear on the report later…