AFC Wimbledon 6-1 Fleetwood (11:05:11)
This isn't a European Football Weekend per se, but when Kingstonian fan Jamie Cutteridge comes knocking with a match report, the doors to EFW swing wide open....
The trip from my house to Kingsmeadow is a pleasant, simple one that I have become familiar and comfortable with over the previous 18 or so months. Like a well-worn t-shirt, I know the quirks, how to get the most out of it and most importantly how to wear it without ending up showing bits of torso that no-one needs see. (Example #1 of how to over-extend a metaphor).
My visit to Kingsmeadow on Wednesday night was different, uncomfortable, like someone had put it on the wrong wash and now it was stretched in all the wrong places. Traffic was heavier, parking was trickier and Peter Crouch was in attendance. (At this stage, I wish I had taken pictures, but I forgot, so I have improvised, like when.... *T-shirt metaphor.*)
Peter did look happy to be at Kingsmeadow, but his mood was brought down to earth (which would be hilariously difficult for a man of his height, because, in case you are unaware, Peter Crouch is, ironically, tall), as he was invariably reminded by everyone in around him that his own-goal at Eastlands the previous evening was from the same spot as his winner in the same fixture a year previously. I can also confirm that Peter Crouch is, indeed, taller than most other people. (Hence he would not fit in to any of my t-shirts).
Yes this was not my normal Kingsmeadow experience, because for this evening, the other club whom call it their home, Afc Wimbledon, were hosting Fleetwood Town and the ground, the area around, surrounding roads and the collective goodwill of English football fans were packed for the biggest game in the history of AFC Wimbledon as they sat just one second-leg away from their date with destiny and, less glamorously, Luton, in a game that could see them regain their league status. First, a second leg at home to Fleetword where the Dons arrived overwhelming favourites after leaving the North-West with a 2-0 lead the previous Friday evening. The game was a sell-out and I had only gained my ticket at 7:15 from a well known Christian speaker at a nearby off-license.
Normally upon arriving at Kingsmeadow I can relax, find a space in the car-park, pop in for a quick pint and hop onto the terraces at around 2:59. Tonight however I found myself squashed between a tree and a pizza vendor (at non-league? Outrageous) as I enjoyed a pre-match conversation with the blogging kings and Dons fans Andy 'Top-Brass' Brassell and Chris 'Narrow the Angle' Lines.
Interestingly, through the combination of climbing too many trees and eating too much pizza I can no longer use many a t-shirt.
And so it was game-time, for AFC Wimbledon fans, the biggest night in their history, and the chance to be one game away from an emotional return home. For me, an evening as a stranger in my own home, unable to move but caught up in something bigger than one game itself.
As soon as we entered Kingsmeadow it was buzzing, the fans aware of how big the evening was. The kind of evening where you put on a trusty t-shirt, one you're comfortable in, but one you know will impress. (For occasions such as these I own one that says 'Puns not Guns'). Whilst there was a buzz, there were also nerves. For the first time in their history, Wimbledon have gained a position of big boys. They're no longer the plucky underdogs but coming into this second leg they were expected to deal with Fleetwood comfortably, a feeling that does not fit well with the Wombles identity.
As we weaved our way to the John Smiths stand we realised there was to be no easy view of the evening's game as every view point was packed. Whilst walking along the aforementioned terrace Kaid Mohamed cut inside to score inside 30 seconds to settle everyone's nerves and begin 45 minutes where former £2million man Sean Gregan would be made to look very silly, or as, Rodney Marsh once put it, like a pig in lipstick. Gregan and his CB partner McNulty formed one of the largest, slowest and (to give them one kind word) robust centre half partnerships ever seen, even at non-league level, and hence the problems caused by the pace of this young Wimbledon team was hardly a surprise.
Mohamed's goal all but settled the tie, putting the hosts 3 up on aggregate, but Fleetwood continued to push, in the same way that you try to squeeze into that old t-shirt that you love, but that no longer fits, despite knowing that ultimately, your efforts are in vein. Home keeper Seb Brown produced a couple of decent saves to keep the lead comfortable, and eventually Don stalwart Danny Kedwell scored to confirm the Don's trip to Manchester. By this point, the crowd had generated a glorious party atmosphere, but this led to the deterioration of any kind of view. This therefore is my recollection of Kedwell's goal.
From this point on it was the opposite of every game I have ever seen at Kingsmeadow. The home side were comfortable, knocked the ball around, the atmosphere was rocking from all 4 sides of the ground and there were goals. 6 of them for Wimbledon in fact, matched by a solitary consolation own-goal for Fleetwood. Dons manager and all-round good guy Terry Brown kept those of us stood behind the dug-out entertained with his running commentary, and was able to take off key players to give them a rest. Half-time entertainment consisted of Dons' legends John Hartson, Lawrie Sanchez, Harry Bassett and, yes, Carl Leaburn, appearing on the pitch to a grandiose reception, Kingsmeadow was now home to the feel good event of the summer.
As more goals went in, the party spirit only grew, sure Fleetwood's goal just after half-time brought them back within 4 goals but it was a passing blip. As Mohamed completed his hat-trick with the scrappiest goal I have ever seen the realisation began to sink in that Wimbledon were going to have one game to secure their return to the league. As I have no photo of the scrappy goal, here is Scrappy Doo instead.
By this point I had come to accept the fact that this was not my normal t-shirt, it didn't feel quite normal, but it was good, and I was wearing it to a party, dancing with the prettiest girl and drinking those ones you only consider at 1AM.
Kingsmeadow was rocking and my sorrow at the Ks lack of playoff adventure was not going to ruin my mood. Ex-Ks player Christian Jolley added a 5th with a smart finish after a great fun which only added confusion. Jolley was an average player as the Ks got to the Ryman Playoff final last season but was sold to Wimbledon in the summer and has been a smash hit at, well, Kingsmeadow. Seeing him score in this context remains bizarre, but a glorious bizarre, like when your t-shirt has run in the wash but you realise it looks better in pink anyway.
Mulley made it 6 and it was game over. Full time came, the players processed round the pitch as the assembled masses sung 'Que Sera Sera, Whatever will be will be, we're going to Man City' proud of their imminent trip to Eastlands. To top it up we even had a pantomime villain as we realised that Crawley manager and all round wrong 'un, Steve Evans was performing co-commentary duties on the stand above us. Sometimes a part needs a bad guy as well. Sure these people were throwing a party in my house, but they were paying the rent, the tunes were bangin' and it had that glorious party feeling where you forget what day it is, but realise you only have to crawl upstairs to bed. A party so good that a repeated confusion of metaphors is put in ultimately tiny perspective.
Because that is the joy of AFC Wimbledon, perspective. This is a club, a community that had everything taken away from them, club, ground, money, identity, the lot. But from nothing, they grasped onto what they had. Each other, 11 men and a football. Wimbledon have the ability to embody all that is good about football, to realise the power in people congregating around something bigger than themselves. It shows us that money isn't what drives the game forward, it's the people around it, that soul remains more engaging than a hockey stadium in Milton Keynes. So the club is back, the ground is still up in the air, they can't throw money around but their identity, their soul, that remains, and keeps that ability to transcend themselves to inspire every other football fan in this country. Sure some may be cynical about the Wombles, but this is a club that football needs. To remind us about why we love this ruddy game when it's being taken over by men in suits and kicking us in the Testes on a regular basis. Because everytime you support AFC Wimbledon you're affirming the fact that football is glorious, brilliantly, gorgeously glorious.
Football was the winner and I remained t-shirted. Sometimes that's all you can ask for, that and a journey home that you are ultimately familiar with whilst feeling nothing like normal.
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