Match report by Simon Bailey
After the last few days spent talking about jumping out of planes, busking at Wimbledon Station and market returns on share issues it was somewhat of a relief to get back to the real business of watching football.
Mertsham had provided reasonably stiff opposition on a cold, foggy and cheese roll filled day in Surrey way back in November and despite a decline in their league position over the last five months, were expected to be no pushovers for Terry Eames' men. And so it proved.
An unchanged Dons line up saw a first half that was reasonably even with the Dons having the best of the chances but with only Keith Wards scrabbled effort four minutes in to show for their efforts going in at the break. The goal itself was from a corner; with Wardy finding himself on the end of a Matt Everard knock down via the boot of Danny Oakins. The ball cannoned off the balding maestro and managed to squeeze itself under the bar (just). That's how I saw the goal anyway; I think Oakins, and a few hundred other fans, may have other ideas. However there can be little argument that it was a scrappy goal that summed up what was to be a scrappy kind of game.
Wimbledon fans, treated to six of the best on Saturday at North Greenford United, could have been forgiven for thinking that this would be the start of an avalanche. Ally Russell had a headed goal disallowed for a foul on the keeper and Danny Oakins was unlucky to have an effort ruled out after a 'foul' at the back stick by the ever-dominating Everard. In fact it seemed that the referee found something wrong with just about every Dons corner from then on in. However despite dominating possession this was the closest the Dons got to doubling their lead. Mertsham could have even equalised just before half time but blasted the ball high and wide from an excellent opportunity after some slack Dons defending from Sean Daly and Oakins.
For me the star of the first half was Ally Russell who was winning everything in the air and looking a constant menace. Record chasing Kevin Cooper was holding the ball up well but it seemed the usual power from midfield was missing, with both Bolger and Sidwell having their quietest 45 minutes for sometime. At the back Everard was looking as commanding as ever with Danny Oakins on best behaviour. It was down the flanks were we looked weakest with both Ward (OK I know he scored) and Daly having off days.
However the best summation of what AFC Wimbledon is all about for me came at half time. Having seen an old friend who used to go to Plough Lane and latterly Selhurst Park creep into his seat in the Main Stand just before kick off I took the opportunity to have a chat and catch up. Turns out he went to Sutton in July but decided to follow WFC until they move to MK (yeah I did say 'old' friend). He was experiencing his first taste of AFCW in league action at Kingsmeadow and our conversation reminded me just how special this club of ours is. After a bit of not so gentle ribbing about his continued trips to Selhurts he said how nice it was tonight to see so many familiar faces and that 'the whole club had a good feel to it'. What he saw in 45 minutes appeared enough to convince him that he would now be watching his football at Kingmeadow every Saturday.
It brought home to me how much has been achieved over the last ten months. To form a club is something incredible in itself, but to create a club with the special family atmosphere and that takes me, and so many others, back to Plough Lane is something very, very special. Beyond logical belief in fact. This is why, despite understandable concerns over the Kingsmeadow purchase, or should I say the money raising involved, I believe that if any group of fans can do it we can. That's what Wimbledon has always been and will always be about - defying the odds, proving people wrong and achieving the unachievable. Right through from Burnley to Leeds to Wembley our club has never done the expected. If the history of football in Wimbledon has taut as nothing else it is that hard work, determination and commitment goes a long way. All we have to do is believe. It might be that I arrived slightly later than usual but I can't remember a game this season where I haven't been able to buy a golden goal ticket upon arriving at the ground. Tonight they were sold out. Believe me - it's a big mountain to climb, but we have climbed bigger.
Anyway lecture over; this is supposed to be a match report.
The second half came and went and was very evenly contested. Coops had the best effort of the half with the usual back-to-goal turn and shoot in one move effort which had the Mertsham keeper beaten all ends up but smacked back off the bar and to safety. Mertsham had a couple of decent half chances, including a couple of naïve passes to players in offside positions when the goal was gaping in front of the attacker, but in all honesty it is difficult to remember Ray Merry being forced into a difficult save all game. In fact the second half was nearly typical AFCW. Coops didn't head it once, Matty E didn't miss a header all night and Bolger was now dominating the midfield. You could have written the script during the half time tea and chips. However with Wimbledon always expect the unexpected. There was no sloppy late goal, Bassey didn't get booked and, wait for it, Andy Sullivan was actually getting his fair share of the ball. Yes you did read that right; almost every ball from midfield was finding its way out to the diminutive winger out on the left. Unfortunately Sully found the new found attention from his team mates a little too much to handle and couldn't muster a decent delivery all night. It may be some time until he sees so much of the ball again and the arrival of 'Pop Star' Peter Smith may not bode well for the little winger.
Eventually the tiring Russell was replaced with ten minutes to go by the returning Gareth Graham and the 2,300 Dons faithful, in good voice throughout the ground in the second half, were treated to another brief cameo from the former Brentford man. Personally I thought he looked different class - running, tackling and spaying balls left right and centre - it was as good as a performance gets in ten minutes. Bolger and Graham in the middle next season? My season ticket money is in the post already.
All in all not a great game, but three points none the less. A few more scrappy wins like this before Christmas would have meant not having to worry about whether Withdean are able to complete their matches before the middle of May. The signs are that the ever-improving Dons squad will be a match for anyone in the Combined Counties league next season. Hopefully we wont get to find out though.
MAN OF THE MATCH- Gavin Bolger. A tough call in a game where no one really shone. Everard did OK and Coops had a decent game but I think it comes down to the two central midfielders. Simon Bassey comes very close for managing to go the whole 90 minutes without even a sniff of getting booked, but I think Gavin Bolger just shades it. Despite a quiet first half he covered every blade of grass in the second 45 and even went up front for a bit to make way for Gareth Graham. He has just got better and better since joining and has been an absolute star for the last 2 months.