The problem with starting the season with a winning streak is even experienced supporters with twenty-five full seasons of following their team (like myself) can be fooled into thinking this might be the year we break all records as we romp to the title… until the first defeat shatters the illusion and we resign ourselves to a season of frustration and joy in equal measures.
Our first defeat of the season came in frustrating circumstances as the Dons dominated the game. Hang on, sorry, the Dons dominated the game for the first three minutes. For the remaining ninety-two minutes of play both sides played as if they had their memories wiped and were just coming to terms with this new spherical object bobbling around the place.
The hosts satisfied themselves with the basics – getting the ball forward quickly, keeping it tight at the back, etc. Wimbledon tried to play their normal brand of passing football, sadly not realising that the spell that makes the ball magically go where they need it doesn’t work away from home, where they are reduced to mere mortals cursed with poor touch and little vision.
Yet it could have been so different if either Yakubu’s header had veered either side of Rushden keeper Roberts (more on him later…), or Luke Moore had buried the rebound rather than looping his header onto the bar (it hit the bar right? It was quite murky down the far end…). It could have been a repeat of last season. Instead the game settled down, the Dons started to come apart and the visitors began to come into it themselves, especially once Sam Hatton left the game half way through the first half. Hattons replacement, Ryan Jackson, has been one of the highlights of the embryonic season so far, but when used in an attacking position on the right. When introduced as Hatton’s replacement at right back, he looked a little lost, unsure when to press on or hold, often finding himself not quite there positionally because of it.
As well as this, Rashid Yusseff was having a few difficulties fitting into midfield in place of the injured Ricky Wellard. Toks has looked impressive during his cameo appearances against Histon and Tamworth, but after a disappointing start he disappeared into anonymity midway through the half only to reappear occasionally to give the ball away. Up front Main and Moore looked isolated either side of Kedwell… Moore seemed to receive more than his fair share of high balls, which he stood little chance of converting into anything meaningful… and I have no doubt Jon Main will be his awesome self if presented with a chance in front of goal, but suffers when he receives the ball awkwardly on the half way line with little support.
Against a better side (perhaps that is a little unfair on Rushden – it would probably be more accurate to give them the benefit of the doubt and say ‘against a more confident side’…), the Dons would have gone in a couple of goals down. But the hosts were having their own problems creating chances, unless a chance counts as a mishit shot from twenty yards skewed wide these days. Their best effort came when Howe found space on the right, only to loft a back pass into Seb Browns hands while attempting to chip the goalkeeper.
Half time came with presumably the majority of the sparse crowd wondering why they had bothered making the journey, especially the Dons fans who paid £17 for the privilege. You have to wonder what Premier Sports viewers (sorry… THE Premier Sports viewer) will make of this tripe on a regular basis… and there are too many games like that at our level. At least a highlights package with a more mainstream channel would have given as much exposure to clubs whilst also papering over the rather boring cracks…
The Dons fans could cheer themselves up in the second half however – Dale Roberts was only yards away and well within earshot of some rather loud abuse from the Dons support, chants of ‘Where were you when Terry scored?’ and absolutely nowhere for the goalkeeper to hide, after his girlfriends rather public indiscretion with his former team-mate Paul Terry. If you’ve never seen Dale Roberts, consider this. John Terry has been beaten a few times with the ugly stick, and his brother resembles him if crossed with a slightly retarded pit bull. Now imagine the sort of guy who would make Paul Terry seem a looker, and you’re half way there…
Not that Roberts had anything else to do but listen to the good-natured ribbing… The Dons started the second half in pretty much the same manner as they did the first. This might have worked at Southport where the luck went our way, but tonight nothing was going for the Dons. Despite this the defence were holding firm… and by ‘the defence’ I mean Yakubu and Johnson. Yakubu in particular was solid, real no-nonsense defending at times, on several occasions having to recover after his initial clearance was gifted to the opposition by a lacklustre midfield. As for the full backs – I mentioned before Jackson was learning a hard lesson, and Andre Blackman, despite admittedly getting stuck in, seemed to spoil his hard work losing possession following one touch too many on rampaging runs into the opposition half.
It was slightly frustrating watching Andre, as there wasn’t much wrong with the performance except in the detail. Like Jackson, when he gets his positional sense cracked and learns to distribute the ball at the right time, he’ll be fine. It is slightly annoying to hear people accuse him of being greedy with the ball, it’s actually a blessing to have a player who feels comfortable running at opponents (especially ones who scare so easily…), and hopefully it won’t be too long before he starts to realise when he’s running down a blind alley and becomes the devastating force we know he can be. Having said that he did pick up a rather unfortunate booking before later firing the ball into the stand following conceding a throw. Fortunately, the referee saw it as a misguided attempt to speed up returning the ball to the opposition rather than any petulance, yet it didn’t exactly endear him to the home support. Still, in my experience these provincial types don’t normally need much of an excuse to hurl abuse at a Blackman…
When the goal came it was the sort of incident that makes you want to storm the referees room en mass to recover your travelling and ticket expenses from his wallet. And if he didn’t have enough to cover all of us, I’m sure the still thriving slave market in certain parts of the world would have appreciated a bit of fresh blood… The incident that started this course of events should really have finishing with Rushden’s Howe trudging down the tunnel in disgrace, having thrown an arm in Blackmans direction. The referee managed to make a bit of a meal of the incident, but it seemed certain a red card would follow… in fact for the first time that evening I felt comfortable, knowing the man advantage would at least secure a point. Yet eventually he had a quick word with the culprit… then let him off completely.
Of course the Dons managed to make a mess of the resulting free-kick, and somehow conceded one themselves… which was taken very quickly and nowhere near the incident (something the Dons had been pulled up for all evening long), finding its way to Howe in the right channel about twenty yards out. As the Dons stood off, he hit one across Brown that seemed to do something strange in the air, dipping over the keeper before finding the net via bar and post.
As I said before, this kind of blow is normally easier to take knowing the Dons were playing poorly, but the opposition had really given them a run for their money in the crap stakes, Finding ourselves a goal down following this type of incident was really tough to take. The Dons attempts come back into the game only seemed to end up resulting in Rushden counter attacks which were fortunately wasted as frequently as they were presented.
In the absence of Ricky Wellard and with no Lee Minshull to fall back on (and boy could we have done with him in the last few minutes…), Toks was eventually replaced with Reece Jones. To be fair Jones deserved a chance to show what he could do, but you get the impression that it was more for the experience than any realistic expectation he would make an impact. Jones will come good for us, with a little hard work and a lot of patience, but the pace of the game seemed to take him by surprise from the off.
Eventually, one of the Dons few shining lights in Christian Jolley started to get a grip on the game. Rushden had little answer to him on the left, the only disappointment being his team mates inability to feed the ball to him with greater regularity. Jolley had replaced Jon Main, and I have to say I felt sorry for Mainy on the night, he had little impact on the game and it was an obvious call to bring on the pace and width of Jolley, but as a striker he got little decent service from his colleagues and it can’t be all that fun to endure that for sixty minutes before being hauled off for the fourth game in a row.
While Jolley gave the ball away (no one was immune to that on the night), he also provided two wonderful balls into the box from the left that were begging to be put away by someone, only for the ball to ricocheted around the box before somehow ending up in the grateful hands of Roberts. Four minutes of injury time were played, although Rushden had realised they weren’t going to score again and had one eye on the clock well before then. This reached its nadir when the referee ordered Corcoran from the field for treatment, yet allowed the Rushden man to hang around on the pitch for an age before finally yellow carding him, much to the anger of those in blue as time ticked away.
To be fair to the referee he had been very much in charge earlier in the evening, and only lost control when he blew his whistle at around 7.45 and allowed the game to begin – we would have had a decent time together if he hadn’t bothered… Fortunately he had added time on for the Corcoran incident, enough in fact to allow him to turn down a huge Wimbledon penalty appeal – and to be fair to him it was the sort you appeal for knowing he will only give it to make up for some earlier injustice… and those who read my Southport report will know what I think about that! It was very much a corner though, which explained why the referee gave a goal kick…
The final whistle went, which allowed Roberts his own personal moment of triumph and meant we had to endure this gurning oaf pumping his fists and wagging his jug ears in our general direction. I’m sure that went a long way to killing a few personal demons, at least until he woke in the middle of the night, noticed the cold empty side of the bed and remembered once again how small a man he really is. Well, we can only hope…
On another day we would come out of this type of game with a point. There were periods of the match when the Dons seemed unable to string more that two passes together, but the opposition were equally weak. They may have managed to get the ball into our box more than we did theirs, but for all their territorial advantage the hosts had the nervous manner of a side yet to claim a win. They were there for the taking, but Wimbledon put in the sort of shift that was way below recent performances in terms of quality. If they could have captured just a hint of what they showed during the second half of the Tamworth game it would have been a different story. Digging deep and earning points when you haven’t played well, even if you don’t particularly deserve to, was probably the difference between a play off place and upper mid table for us last term, and it will be again this year.
And yet… despite the poor performance, despite the negatives, it was just only ninety minutes. Two big games await this weekend, two winnable games. Lets not set ourselves any targets, but things could look a lot brighter come Monday evening.