For some Dons fans, the realisation of what AFC Wimbledon have achieved a few weeks short of nine years after forming didn’t hit home until they heard it mentioned on the news on the way home from Eastlands in the car, coach or train. For others, it was reading tweets from fellow supports or posts on guestbooks. Still others may have had to wait until they got home on the Saturday night and saw Danny Kedwell’s winning penalty on Sky Sports News.
The reality of the Dons’ promotion to the Football League may have started to sink in only after reliving the penalty shoot-out, through the emotional Radio WDON commentary or TV clips on YouTube. Or perhaps it took the multi-page coverage in the Non-League Paper to do the convincing. For anyone who still can’t quite believe it, read this: AFC Wimbledon are a Football League club. Doesn’t that sound good?
What an extraordinary day. Less than a decade after blue-and-yellow hordes swarmed into tiny, picturesque grounds like Sandhurst Town and Cobham, where fans jostled for position behind hastily erected rope barriers and ate and drank the clubhouses out of ham sandwiches, fairy cakes and home-brewed ale, nearly 7,000 Dons fans were making themselves comfortable in the City of Manchester Stadium, feasting on Marco Pierre White steak slices with organic potato wedges and parking themselves on seats that wouldn’t look out of place in a British Airways first-class cabin. After drinking in the amazing views of the fifth-biggest stadium in Britain and listening to some live music courtesy of Mecca’s Got Talent competition winner Heather Hughes and opera star Martin Toal, it was down to business.
Wimbledon had finished six points clear of Luton in the regular season, but as Shrewsbury Town know too well, league positions mean nothing in a one-off game. That said, though, the Dons had struggled in both their previous encounters with the Hatters, going down 0-3 at Kenilworth Road in September and being quite fortunate to escape from January’s home game with a 0-0 draw. The Dons knew what to expect as Luton had been lining up in a 4-5-1 formation for some weeks; Town boss Gary Brabin had had the Dons watched several times as they chalked up eight wins and a draw from their last nine games and had no doubt planned for Terry Brown’s newly preferred 4-4-2 set-up with Luke Moore and Steven Gregory at either end of a diamond.
As most of the 18,195 crowd probably expected, the opening minutes were cagey, as both sides took their time getting accustomed to the carpet of a pitch that had, to the Dons’ liking, been heavily watered before the game. Luton looked to winger Robbie Wilmott to open up the Wimbledon defence, but although he managed to smartly turn Sam Hatton once, the Dons’ player of the year was more than a match for the tricky ex-Cambridge man.
Wimbledon, far from being overawed by the occasion and the fact that Luton fans outnumbered theirs by two to one, gradually gained confidence, and but for the assistant referee’s flag they would have made a brief period of possession pay. Kaid Mohamed cut in from the left and unleashed a right-footed drive that Mark Tyler could only parry, but as Kedwell planted the loose ball into the net and turned to celebrate, his delight turned to despair as he caught sight of the raised flag. The assistant was, sadly, spot on.
Seb Brown was then called into action three times as Luton suddenly seemed to go up a gear. Jake Howells’ shot took a deflection off Jason Walker and forced Brown into a fine reflex save, Claude Gnapka’s effort required the young Dons keeper to acrobatically tip the ball over the bar, and then Wilmott got the better of Jamie Stuart but fired straight at Brown. Brett Johnson was then booked for a late lunge on Walker, referee Adcock having failed to give Kedwell a free-kick after Zdenek Croca had climbed all over him. It was almost a costly booking, but Gnapka headed over the bar from Wilmott’s curling free-kick.
The second half was more of the same, beginning cautiously before springing into life. Despite the entertainment on offer, neither side created a clear-cut chance for the first 15 minutes of the half. Gareth Gwillim’s withdrawal due to his troublesome hip saw Ismail Yakubu slot in alongside Stuart and Johnson shuffle over to left-back, but this had little effect on the Dons’ solid defending. Ricky Wellard, presumably suffering the after-effects of a particularly solid Keith Keane tackle, went off shortly afterwards and was replaced by James Mulley, whose extra pace seemed to unsettle the Hatters midfield.
Suddenly the Dons started to dominate possession, and if a goal was going to come, it looked as if it would be celebrated by the South-West Londoners. Tyler did well to tip away a Mulley curler from 20 yards, Gregory tried his luck from a similar distance, and Yakubu’s volley from a Hatton corner flew narrowly wide. Johnson then headed another corner wide, and Zdenek Kroca blocked two Luke Moore efforts as the Dons strove to turn their superior possession into a goal.
In the last ten minutes of an energy-sapping half, Luton came back into the game. First, a cute Lawless pass inside Johnson saw Walker just beat Brown to the ball, and in the resulting goalmouth scramble Matthew Barnes-Homer and Lawless both failed to force the loose ball home – Stuart, Yakubu and Hatton somehow kept them at bay. With 90 minutes on the clock, hearts were in mouths when Howells’ cross into the box was met by Walker, and the 12,000 Luton fans watched in horror as the ball struck the inside of the post and bounced back into Brown’s grateful arms. There was still time for Moore to find Kedwell, but Ed Asafu-Adjaye bravely got in the way of the Dons skipper’s piledriver.
The first half of extra time, as is often the case, was the least eventful period of the game. The Dons looked slightly the more tired of the two sides, and Luton were as dangerous as they been at any time in the game. The Dons’ defence held out, and only a 25-yard Lawless effort threatened to breach it. Gregory’s ankle injury, picked up in the second half of normal time courtesy of another fierce Keane tackle, had got the better of him, and Lee Minshull took his place at the fulcrum of the Dons’ midfield.
Just 90 seconds into the second period of extra time, Rashid Yussuff, who had faded after a fine first half, somehow summoned up the energy to burst past two Luton defenders and find Mulley in space on the left of the penalty area, but Tyler pounced on Mulley’s slightly under-hit shot. Luton countered immediately, but Walker’s header flashed wide of the far post.
In the final five minutes of a pulsating 120, the Dons fashioned two great chances. First, Moore did superbly to beat Asafu-Adjaye to get to the byline and square the ball for Mohamed, but from 12 yards out the orange-and-white booted Welshmen, looking for his fifth play-off goal for the Dons, could only find the outside of the post. Thirty seconds into time added on, Moore, Minshull and Yussuff worked the ball out to Hatton, but from his pinpoint cross to the far post, Kedwell and Yakubu got in each other’s way, and the defender couldn’t direct his six-yard header into the gaping net. Luton and Wimbledon would now have to endure the agonies of a penalty shoot-out, at the Wimbledon end of the stadium.
It went like this:
0-0 Lawless sees his spot kick saved by Brown.
1-0 Hatton hammers his into the top corner.
1-1 Pilkington scores.
2-1 Moore does likewise.
2-2 Adam Newton nets comfortably.
2-2 Mohamed’s side-footed effort is easily saved.
2-2 Brown brilliantly saves Walker’s clipped penalty
3-2 Yakubu finds the back of the net with a cool side-footer.
3-3 Howells brings the scores level
4-3 The pressure is on skipper Kedwell, but with one swipe of his trusty right boot he blasts the ball home.
The Dons are in dreamland. 7,000 people explode in a maelstrom of noise and colour and whirling bodies. Terry Brown dances and smashes home an imaginary penalty. Seb Brown and Gareth Gwillim bow to the adoring Wimbledon fans. Every member of the squad take their turn with the trophy, and there is a huge cheer for the departing Jon Main as Kedwell ushers him to the front.
What a ride. Much as Dons fans enjoyed the cheese rolls at Merstham and standing on hay bales at Sandhurst, they’ll be watching their heroes at Plymouth’s Home Park and Swindon’s County Ground next season. Quite what Paolo Di Canio is going to make of the Cherry Red Fans’ Stadium Kingsmeadow is anyone’s guess.