A rush and push and the lands is ours
Rushden and Diamonds 1-0 AFC Wimbledon (24:08:10)
Making his EFW debut today is David Bevan from The Guardian endorsed 'Seventy Two' Football League website. Beaven talks us through the top of the table clash at Nene Park in the Football Conference:
Non-league games are my guilty pleasure. I support a Championship club, watch a fair bit of Premiership football, run a Football League website and have soft spots for various foreign teams. But there is something about the non-league scene that casts a spell over me. This game, a fairly routine home win which is already lost to the sands of time, perfectly encapsulated the reasons for my captivation.
Handily, my flatmate Haydon is similarly enamoured. We make regular trips to local games and, no matter how terrible the football is, there is always a talking point and there are always a few laughs. And we are getting awfully familiar to the same look of horror on the faces of stewards at non-league clubs across Northamptonshire and the bordering counties.
Haydon is a wheelchair user, you see. Access is improving and some facilities have been extremely impressive. Pretty much everyone we have encountered along the way has been fantastically helpful in ensuring that our hunger for non-league football is taken care of. And when you rock up at Leamington and a steward has to manoeuvre a small plastic mascot sheep out of their rudimentary wheelchair section to make room for you, it's clear that you're onto a winner.
Upon arrival at Nene Park, primarily a conference centre and secondarily a football ground, we were promptly asked for three of our English pounds sterling in exchange for a spot in Rushden's admittedly lovely car park. Flash of the blue badge.
"It's still three pounds mate".
Worth a go. All parked up, we headed into the ground. We'd decided beforehand to go in with the AFC Wimbledon supporters and were prepared to part with twelve quid for the privilege, but it quickly became clear that Rushden's stewards were more concerned with where we would be located than taking any money off us at the disabled entrance gate. Perhaps some people would cough up regardless of whether they were actually asked to or not, but I've had enough unmerited grief off stewards over the years to have earned a few free non-league games.
In the end, we were plonked halfway between the home fans and the away section. We turned our attention to the teamsheet. I was particularly interested to see the name of Andre Blackman in the visiting lineup. Blackman is following a well-trodden path, tumbling down the league ladder from heady heights. He began his career with youth team outings for Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, but has ended up with the Wombles via a spell at Portsmouth and trials this summer with both Bristol City and my own team Leicester City. Wimbledon played Blackman at left-back and he duly made a beeline for goal whenever he got the ball, in the manner of a player who thought he could do it all on his own. He couldn't.
Wimbledon brought a respectable following of between 150 and 200 fans, who made a very decent noise throughout. The real stars of the show, however, were the characters on the pitch. Both Rushden and Wimbledon are continuing the time-honoured tradition of sticking a gigantic bloke in central defence and inviting said bloke to propel the ball into orbit whenever it dares go near him. Curtis Osano fulfilled this task for the home side, while Wimbledon were calling upon the former Barnet stopper Ismail Yakubu. The latter comfortably won the contest, managing to launch the ball high into the fading light on an impressively regular basis. Osano admittedly looked the better player on this showing, but never threatened to match Yakubu's incredible feats of aimless hoofing.
Both teams also opted for a bit of a unit up front, Rushden fielding the much-travelled Rene Howe and Wimbledon being led by their centre-forward, captain and all-round bull-in-china-shop Danny Kedwell. Again, the Dons man provoked the greater levels of laughter. Not that I'd tell him to his face, so I sincerely hope he doesn't read European Football Weekends.
Kedwell appears to treat passing, shooting, crossing, dribbling and other similar talents as almost entirely redundant when compared with the merits of charging down an opposition clearance. Never in my life have I seen a more formidable display of closing down. And that includes a good few years watching Paul Dickov every week. The Wimbledon skipper takes closing down to a ferocious new level, only stopping just short of scraping his foot on the ground in cartoon fashion before barrelling towards each target with unrivalled velocity. I think he managed to block one clearance all game, conceding a throw-in a few yards inside Rushden's half. He also launched a series of abusive torrents at the linesman on our side of the pitch. Admittedly, there may have been the odd wrong decision or five.
The best thing about our location was its proximity to the dugouts. I love listening to managers barking instructions at their players. Wimbledon manager Terry Brown fired himself straight into second place in my own personal chart for his efforts at Nene Park, narrowly losing out on top spot to lower-league nomad Carl Heggs. Former Northampton striker Heggs was managing the ill-fated King's Lynn when Leicester travelled there for a friendly a couple of seasons ago. He spent the entire game repeating two phrases ad nauseum - when his side had the ball, he yelled "now we play!" and when they didn't, he shrieked "now we squeeze!" For ninety minutes. It was insane.
Brown ran him very close, though. At one point in the first half against Rushden, one of Wimbledon's midfielders cheaply surrendered possession and his manager strode purposefully to the touchline:
"You can play later! You can play later! First you've got to put a shift in!"
We wondered aloud about the wisdom of 45 minutes worth of being Vinnie Jones earning you the right to play like Xavi or Iniesta during the second half. As it turned out, 42 was instead the magic number. Perhaps Brown is a big fan of the works of Douglas Adams. Who knows. Three minutes before the break, the same poor sod in the Wombles engine room thumped a ball out of play under pressure from his opposite number. Cue Brown:
"Play some football! Play some football!"
Two minutes later, someone tried a backheel that went out of play. I wasn't altogether sure whether this plan would continue in the second half. As it turned out, Wimbledon didn't get much of a chance to play any football. Rushden got on top and the burly Howe, shortly after escaping a red card following an altercation with Blackman, scored a goal of real quality, picking the ball up outside the area and curling it into the top corner.
And that was about that. Wimbledon pressed late on and their fans were left furious at referee Stephen Martin for not awarding them a late penalty, but it was anger that veiled their side's poor showing. The home side just about deserved their three points, courtesy of a goal that deserved to win any game.
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