Cove 0 - 2 AFC Wimbledon
On the way back from the Bedfont game in September I remarked that we could probably beat every other team in the CCL with a minimum of 9 players playing well, and probably 16 or 17 teams with 7 or 8 playing well. The problem will come, as will the end of the 100 per cent record, I declared, when we come up against a fairly decent side with only 5 or 6 of the side playing well. This assumption, if yesterday's game was anything to go by, only goes to show why my football career has been based almost entirely around writing about it rather than playing it, as my one 33 minute appearance for the Dons Trust XI this season will underline. In the cold, persistent rain, on a muddy, boggy, puddle-strewn pitch, we came across a fairly decent side with only 5 or 6 players performing to anything like the levels to which we have become accustomed, and still came away with a 2-0 victory. A repeat performance on Saturday at Ash and the run will come to and end, but, like most Dons fans, I have my fingers crossed that yesterday was a one-off.
This was the sort of pitch oft-described as a "great leveller". It was anything but level, and within minutes it was perfectly clear that the Dons preferred style of free-flowing, attacking football was never going to be possible. Quagmire is one of my favourite words in the English language, along with gumple-foisted and serendipity and I'm saving one of them for later, and it perfectly described the pitch. Cove had worked hard all morning to get the game on, and they have to be congratulated for managing to do it. Shame they couldn't have found anyone to man the PA and announce the teams. It's quite possible that I've got some of the Cove line-up wrong, even taking into account the line-up printed in the programme (to which there were at least four changes) and my position right next to the Cove dugout. One of the subs was definitely called William and he didn't come on.
Cove started in sprightly fashion, determined to give the Dons a game at least. With AFC fan Adam Watts in goal, they doubtless had some useful information to keep in mind. Watts was at Kingsmeadow for the Walton and Wootton cup games and if his pre-match rundown of the Dons' didn't scare the Cove players too much, they could attempt to execute a game-plan. The plan, as it turned out, appeared to be "give the ball away at vital moments and then blame Gilbert." Cove's African left wing back, Gilbert Nuako, quickly became a Dons fans' favourite, as volatile manager Salvatore Diprima took it upon himself to blame Nuako for seemingly everything. At one point he berated Nuako for holding on to the ball for too long. Nuako shouted back: "But there was no-one to give it to." Diprima retorted "hold on to it then!" "I did," replied Nuako, "but you told me off for it! What am I supposed to do?" Nuako's shot across the face of the goal with only 10 minutes gone was awful, but was a lot nearer than anyone else had come since we last conceded a league goal, in the first half of the Sandhurst game on 11 October.
Danny Oakins forced Watts into a smart save, and the Cove defence were often troubled by Dons corners, but for the first 30 minutes or so there really wasn't a clear cut chance for either side. Gray and Sidwell weren't getting their crosses in and Cove's two centre halves were dealing with the 43 goal partnership of Joe Sheerin and Kevin Cooper as well as anyone had all season. Cove were looking the more likely side to score, Lee Carroll tipping over a Torson chip and a Damoah header before Cove contrived to miss a superb opportunity to become the first side to beat Carroll in a league game. Some good work between Nuako and Torson saw the powerful striker chip a cross with the outside of his foot onto the forehead of the waiting number 10 (who I think was Edwards), but his header from just five yards out sailed over the bar. Torson was giving Oakins and Matt Everard an uncomfortable afternoon, using his strength and a backside that makes Nathan Blake look like Lee Sidwell, to good use. The Dons below-par showing in the first half, particularly that of Harvey, Sidwell and Gray, should have been punished by Cove on two further occasions but the final ball was never good enough. With five minutes to go in the first half, Gavin Bolger mis-controlled a Seb Favata through-ball and Damoah latched onto it, blasting it as hard as he could back up the pitch. Unfortunately for him, and massively fortunately for the Dons, the ball cannoned back off Bolger's shins and looped over the stranded Watts and into the top left hand corner of the net. You could have been forgiven for thinking that the lead wasn't entirely deserved but Kevin Cooper nearly doubled it within two minutes when his lob, after superbly controlling a floated Oakins pass, just sailed past Watts' post.
On the stroke of half-time, all hell broke loose. Cove's player coach Koo Dumbaya caught Lee Sidwell with a late challenge on the touchline right in front of the home side's bench. Sidwell, in typical fashion, didn't react to it and merely attempted to step over the prone Dumbaya, who then chose exactly that moment to try and get up. The Cove bench erupted, accusing Sidwell of stamping on their man. The Dons bench, admirably lead by a fuming, finger-pointing Terry Eames, leapt to Sidwell's defence, quickly followed by all 10 outfield players. When the entire Cove playing staff then joined in, followed by three of the four match officials, it was surely on a matter of time before a card was produced, and there were more offers of taking the matter further afterwards than you'd at a speed-dating evening. Harvey, in particular, was incensed by Diprima's antics, and it was only the interference of the linesman, who looked like he probably remembered a similar ruck in 1914, that prevented Harvey from an early bath. He probably had absolutely no idea who he was confronting Damoah certainly did, and Harvey politely enquired whether he really wanted to "see him after the game."
The second half started in much the same fashion. The Dons hard work leading to nothing, Cove's hard work leading to even less and more ear-bashings for the hapless Nuako. A couple of hasty efforts by Torson and whoever the number 9 was were easily dealt with by Carroll, but the Dons didn't, in truth, look all that likely to add to their single goal tally. It didn't help that Torson then trod on Steve Gibson's ankle, an injury that eventually saw the full back replaced by Jamie Angell who really didn't get to the pace of the game at all. Nuako forced a couple of corners that the now more comfortable Oakins and Everard dealt with easily. Darren Dobinson replaced the very quiet Gray on the hour.
A superbly weighted pass by Bolger then set Kevin Cooper free but his shot was parried by Watts, and Sheerin's burst on the left, which deserved a finish of equal aplomb, only earned the visitors a corner which was delivered in similarly disappointing fashion to the majority of the others.
With less than 10 minutes remaining, the Dons made it two. Dobinson, with as much time and space as he wanted, saw Harvey overlap him but elected to try and find Sheerin or Cooper in the box, but his cross was over-hit and seemed destined to be plucked out of the air by Watts, much to Harvey's disgust. However, the spin that Dobinson had put on the cross started to take it away from Watts' grasp and the ball floated over the keeper's head for the second lucky goal of the afternoon. "That was embarrassing" said Dobinson as he trotted back over the halfway line after being forced to celebrate his first Dons goal by his delighted team-mates. Game most definitely over, but the controversy wasn't.
With three minutes to go Damoah clearly punched Oakins while they were waiting for a corner, but conveniently none of the officials saw what had happened. When the cross did come over, Watts spilled Danny Oakins' header and Dobinson slid in to prod home the loose ball, but the linesman had, incredibly, flagged for offside, even though Dobo had clearly come from behind his marker. However, that was not the end of the incident. Diprima then called the referee over to complain about something, to which the ref told him "That's your problem, if you don't like it, you sort it out." "Me?" enquired a bemused Diprima. "It's your job, you tell him." Still none the wiser, the crowd of 887 (depending on who you trust) were amazed to see the ref order Dons photographer Paul Willatts to remove his yellow jacket as it was confusing the Cove defence. He'd been sitting in the same position behind the goal since the start of the second half!
The Dons held on for the last couple of minutes of Cove pressure for their 17th consecutive League win (or 28 if you count last season, our boys having won every league game since March 15, and all but two since January 25) but Cove, to their credit, made them work hard for it. The stupid phrase "A win is a win" suddenly seemed like the most intelligent thing I've ever heard.
MAN OF THE MATCH: For me, only three candidates. Gavin Bolger, Danny Oakins or Lee Carroll. With Harvey, Cooper, Sidwell, Sheerin, Favata and Gray all having their worst game of the season, Lee Carroll gets my vote. I'll be very happy indeed if this is the only time this season that I give my award to a goalkeeper.