AFC Wimbledon finally secured promotion out of the Ryman divisions in what was surely one of the most enthralling matches ever witnessed by Wimbledon fans. Conceding early, the Dons fought back with goals from Luis Cumbers and Mark De Bolla in a captivating contest, surrounded with controversy. Confident from previous displays against Staines, Wimbledon were raring to go, unchanged from midweek, and up against familiar faces Richard Butler and Dave Sargent in their opponent’s line up.
As the match began, both sides seemed all too aware of the significance of the game. Staines settled quicker and forced a few corners with Adrian Toppin heading over from one. Wimbledon also won a string of corners themselves and a third saw a Cumbers header fantastically tipped over by James Courtnage in the Staines goal.
However, if the opening quarter of an hour had been tight and nervy, the next would involve some of the best football seen at this level, as both teams contributed to a pulsating spectacle, full of end-to-end action. On 17 minutes Butler found himself one-on-one with Pullen who pulled off an impressive, smothering save. Seconds later and suddenly Jon Main bore down on the Staines goal, only to find the goalkeeper equal to his effort too. With no time to react and with defences seemingly non-existent, the resulting clearance saw Staines Town’s Andre Scarlett scampering free towards Wimbledon’s goal as another glorious opportunity was offered. Scarlett bagged an impressive play off semi-final goal for Staines, yet Pullen again was a match for the Staines attack. It was heart wrenching stuff for the Wimbledon masses as these two sides continued to trade counter-attacks.
However, when Jon Main was played through again, the slightly built striker was unceremoniously felled by Staines captain Matt Flitter, denying Main a goal-scoring opportunity. The linesman flagged, and Wimbledon fans hollered for the red card to be shown. The referee took Flitter aside, yet to the vast majority’s dismay, and genuine surprise, only a yellow card was shown by the referee. Staines could breath again.
Understandably the pace eased a little after this frenetic passage of play, although chances still fell to Main for Wimbledon, and the speedy Nwokeji for Staines. On 36 minutes Staines took the lead. Winning a corner, an impressive delivery was sent in and eventually forced in - inevitably, it seemed - by Flitter. If Wimbledon fans did not feel aggrieved enough with Flitter surviving a seemingly obvious dismissal earlier, the fact he headed his side into a lead caused further abuse of the hapless referee.
Undoubtedly feeling hard done by, Wimbledon looked physically shocked and played out the rest of the first half in unconvincing fashion. Previously impressive flowing passes and dynamic through balls were replaced by hopeful aimless high balls, while Pullen again came to the rescue of his team, for whom half time arrived at an opportune moment.
The Staines Town stadium was brimming with nervous Wimbledon fans - was today just not to be? No doubt Terry Brown delivered his most important half-time speech as Wimbledon manager.
As the players emerged for the second half, Finn was replaced by McDonnell. Eager to improve their performance, Wimbledon pressed forward early, but consequently were left exposed at the back. A dubiously-awarded free kick was taken quickly by Staines, and Jason Goodliffe deflected the resulting effort inches wide. Wimbledon continued to possess the ball more often and in more advanced positions, but chances were not being taken at anywhere like the same pace as seen in the first half. Worryingly, the Ryman Premier League’s top scorers were consequently enjoying the extra space Wimbledon were leaving at the back.
Frustration mounted for Wimbledon fans as a clearly tiring Staines team started to use delaying tactics. Up front Richard Butler was infuriating the Dons’ supporters, falling to the ground at almost every physical contact and Courtnage was booked in the Staines goal for time wasting.
With 20 minutes to play, Mark De Bolla entered the fray for Ferguson. De Bolla instantly looked lively and added extra impetus to Wimbledon’s attacking ideas. However, if the mood in the terraces was not incensed enough by earlier refereeing decisions, on 75 minutes the atmosphere threatened to boil over. Jon Main conjured up space in Staines Town’s final third of the pitch and was floored in the area. The linesman flagged for a penalty, yet incredibly the referee waved away all protests from Wimbledon players and management staff. Surely that was it, everything had seemingly conspired against Wimbledon when it mattered most.
Terry Brown’s last role of the dice saw Hatton enter for Quinn and suddenly a bit of fortune went Wimbledon’s way as Staines conceded a needless corner. On 82 minutes, Courtnage seemed to claim the resulting delivery but then he fell to the floor under a challenge. He dropped the ball and McDonnell was first to it, hitting a low cross to the near post where Cumbers threw himself at it and headed the ball home via a Staines defender. Staines players looked for a flag but, to their horror, none was raised. AFC Wimbledon were back in the game thanks to a controversial, but certainly deserved equaliser. Meanwhile, Courtnage was very fortunate to escape a sending off after having to be restrainted from abusing the referee. If there was any doubt about the Wimbledon goal, there was a sort of rough justice given the earlier decisions that had gone against the Dons.
Wimbledon pressed with a new found energy and, when a free kick was won just outside the area, De Bolla grabbed the ball off his team mates. The pint-sized forward stepped up and curled a beautifully struck ball into the bottom corner of the goal - cue hysteria, Wheatsheaf Park rocked, players ran towards the dugout swamping Terry Brown. From nowhere and seemingly against all odds Wimbledon could sense promotion. After some courageous defending, the controversial referee finally brought the game to an end. Wimbledon had done it - third time lucky.
Supporters ran on to the pitch in elation to congratulate their players. Glorious and emotional scenes ensued as Jason Goodliffe lifted the play off trophy. The fans truly gave everything today, supporting their team to the last. As the celebrations commenced an overriding sense of pride surrounded all involved.
Terry Brown achieved what he set out to do and Wimbledon finally say goodbye to the Ryman divisions and step up to the Conference South. If cup results against teams at this level are anything to go by, this step up may not be so huge. The Conference South play offs are currently being contested by three of the four sides promoted from the Ryman League over the last two years. Fisher, Braintree and Hampton & Richmond have clearly found that level enjoyable enough, suggesting that Wimbledon is quite capable of fully utilising this opportunity. However for now, players, staff and fans can enjoy a quite incredible day and can bask in this glory throughout the summer. Today, credit must go to all involved, with extra directed in the way of the excellent Pullen and the daring De Bolla.