Withdean 2000 2 - 4 AFC Wimbledon
Oh how the mighty have fallen. Last season's squad, CCL champions with 124 points and which won 40 and drew 4 of their 46 league games have virtually all left for Worthing, along with the manager, chairman, coaching staff, supporters and public address announcer, and they have started this season with four straight defeats. Denied promotion to the Ryman League due to a "technicality", there's every chance they'll be starting next season in the hallowed company of Farleigh Rovers and Monotype. From champions to shambles in three months takes some doing!
Lack of a public address announcer meant that not only was there no pre-match music, creating an odd atmosphere inside the ground, the line-ups were not announced either. Not that that would have bothered the grand total of no Withdean supporters, but it does tend to make a journalist's job a little tough. Had there been anyone connected with the club inside the ground, I could have asked them, but everyone on duty inside and outside the stadium fell over themselves to tell me they were Worthing fans and officials and nothing to do with Withdean 2000 FC. "You might have to ask the subs who's playing, or catch the manager before kick off," one helpfully suggested. Politely enquiring the name of the manager of Withdean 2000 FC, I was met with "No idea, I'm Worthing." I thanked Worthing for his help.
Thankfully, Withdean's defence were much more forthcoming in their aid to our cause. The only side we failed to score against last season, and one of only two we failed to beat, were left with just man mountain Jay Pickering and the slightly taller but equally chunky Sean Grice from last season's all-conquering squad who deservedly won the CCL. Rumours that they had taken advantage of the bizarre ruling that allows two clubs to dual-register their playing squads abounded, even Terry Eames expressing concern that Withdean had 75 players to pick from. Worthing FC were playing at Walton & Hersham in the afternoon so the bulk of the first team squad were obviously not available to pick from, but whoever turned out in the now sponsor-less white shirts were not a patch on their predecessors. The Dons dominated the early exchanges while the 1000 travelling fans acclimatised themselves to the sight of Darren Dobinson at left back. With Sean Daly moved inside to cover for the injured Matt Everard, and Simon Bassey also on the treatment table and Paul Quinn not considered fit enough, Eames was left with a decision to make: try out Dobinson and leave Ryan Gray on the left of midfield, or move the more experienced Gray back and restore Andy Sullivan. He opted for the former option and although Dobinson had some shaky moments, particularly in the second half, he vindicated his manager's decision. With Gavin Bolger also missing with a damaged shoulder and Danny Oakins still unavailable, the Dons defence consisted of three of this season's new faces and only four games into the campaign only five players have been ever-present. Eames' squad rotation paid off inside 10 minutes and any feelings the Dons fans may have had of being in a parallel universe were heightened as Steve Gibson's telling cross was, get this, HEADED HOME BY KEVIN COOPER. Yes, really. Cooper celebrated by running around the pitch heading an imaginary ball and pulling his shorts down. I'm sure most of us would have followed suit had we not been in total shock. KEVIN COOPER SCORED WITH HIS HEAD.
Ten minutes later it was 2-0 and the cruising Dons were in total control. Joe Sheerin headed home Gray's free-kick and that should have been that. A 20 yard Cooper curler came close to making it three, and Lee Sidwell and Steve Gibson had the freedom of the right wing, Gray and Dobinson combining with equal ease on the left. However, it was the middle of the pitch where the Dons looked even more solid. Seb Favata was everywhere, tackling, passing, shouting, prompting, shooting as though his life depended on it, ably backed up by the equally pocket-sized Noel Frankum. Withdean's ponderous midfield pairing of Grice and Quigg were nowhere to be seen, with Grice reduced to thumping loose balls as far as his Two Neil Shipperleys-like physique would allow him, only to see the lanky Hunt (as we called him) and Quigg lose possession to the eager-to-impress Dobinson and ably coping Jamie Angell and Sean Daly. It was easy, worryingly so. Withdean could be prised open whenever Favata or Frankum fancied it and it was only a matter of time before a third goal was scored.
It was, but it came from Withdean and an error by Ray Merry. A long hopeful punt into the box by John Standing should have been easy fodder for Merry but he allowed Hunt to get their first and only succeeded in punching the striker's head instead of the ball, which trickled over the line in almost complete silence, punctuated only by the sound of Neil Robson expressing his disappointment at Merry's charity. Withdean's Peters was then replaced by Bart Simpson look-alike Baker, and despite his slight frame atop matchstick legs, the substitute somehow single-handedly panicked Gibson and Angell into giving the ball away half a dozen times in three minutes as half-time approached. Luckily, the final ball was either poor or was dealt with by Merry, Daly and Dobinson who were now beginning to feel like they were being relied on too heavily. More nightmarish refereeing threatened to spoil what had started out as a rather pleasant way of spending an August Bank Holiday Monday. 2-0 up and coasting on the half-hour, the Dons were now hanging on and a Withdean equaliser, although it failed to materialise, would not have surprised anyone. Another possible black cloud on the horizon (not to mention the actual ones that were now treating us to a very unseasonable dark sky and shower) was the fitness of the excellent Sheerin. Signalling to the bench that he'd tweaked a hamstring, it sounded as though he told Eames that he'd come off if we scored a third before half-time!
That Sheerin began the second half was testament to two things. Pickering had started getting the better of the limping Dons captain, and the away side appeared to have run out of ideas of how to break down the home defence that less than an hour earlier they were picking off at will. Ten minutes of toil and little inspiration later, Sheerin made good his exit to be replaced by the hard-headed Wade Falana, If Falana's primary task was to rough up Pickering, it worked, forcing his way past the ample-girthed defender as crosses from either wing were hacked clear. Neat interchanges between Favata and his strikers were threatening to undo the home sides' back line, but on the occasion that Withdean did manage to launch an attack, they looked quite threatening. Daly and Dobinson started to get in each other's way and on more than one occasion Dobinson gave possession away far too cheaply and a better side than Withdean, and a better striker than Hunt could have taken advantage. Eames reacted in the 68th minute by sending on Michael Rootes for his debut in place of Frankum, presumably with the idea of shoring up the midfield at the forefront of his thinking. That Rootes added a third goal within two minutes of coming on made his decision look like one borne of genius. Rootes played a one two with Cooper, surged into the penalty area and lifted the ball over Oakley to lift what had promised to become gathering gloom in not just a meteorological sense. With the third goal came more Dons possession and the gradual weakening of any Withdean resistance. Falana's physical presence was beginning to tell, and it was he that scored the fourth with 11 minutes remaining. Steve Gibson's free-kick, awarded for deliberate handball which denied Gray a clear run on goal but was not deemed worthy of a red card, was spilled by Oakley, and Falana had the simplest task of netting from a yard, much to the chagrin of the entire Withdean team and coaching staff. Oakley did appear to have both hands on the ball, but it more than made up for two incredible decisions by referee Jones. First he only booked Baker when his disgraceful, knee-high challenge on Merry looked to have caused the Dons keeper serious injury and then after reaching for his yellow card to book Quigg for a second time, this time for handball, he responded to the player's request not to send him off by extraordinarily putting his card back in his pocket, this time to the ire of Eames and Robson who had earlier shown incredible restraint when Noel Frankum was penalised for winning a header, not only cleanly, but unchallenged. "Was that for jumping too high?" was Eames line of questioning.
With only a couple of minutes left, Grice pulled a goal back for Withdean when he beat Merry from 35 yards with an unstoppable shot that left the crowd in a state of stunned silence, but a consolation was all it ever threatened to be.
A match that included an episode in which I asked Leon White who the sub that wasn't Ben Chesters was and he responded "Nick. I think he's called Nick but I don't know what his surname is" only to then ask the player himself and discover that Nick was Michael Rootes was never going to be anything ordinary, but to witness a Cooper header, Dobinson at left back and the crumbling of the Withdean empire certainly made it one to remember. Four wins out of four and all without a consistent 90 minute performance. The return of Everard, Oakins and Bolger should mean we are in for an enjoyable nine months.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Seb Favata. The friend of a friend who described Favata as "shit when he was at Croydon" is quite clearly insane. All respect to Frodo and Bass but with him and Bolger in midfield we now have the six best players in the CCL. Anyone care to disagree?