Just 12 months ago, AFC Wimbledon were sitting in second place in the Blue Square South behind leaders Chelmsford City; now the team is able to visit established Conference National sides such as Stevenage Borough as equals and play to a standard that has not been seen before. Earlier in the season such a visit would have been viewed with trepidation by management, players and fans alike, but such was the confidence within the squad that even with the loss of form players Danny Kedwell, Ben Judge and Steven Gregory to injury, those who stepped into the breach shone.
Ricky Wellard and Kennedy Adjei ran their socks off, and Wellard had two excellent chances to win the game during a second-half blitz. At the back, both Paul Lorraine and Seb Brown delivered sublime and assured performances in yet another rejigged defence which saw Jay Conroy drop to the bench following a knock last Saturday. Conroy’s replacement was former Stevenage youth player Sam Hatton, who came in for a bit of friendly stick from the home supporters. Another ex-Stevenage and AFC Wimbledon player turned up too: last season’s captain Jason Goodliffe came along to renew acquaintances and cast his eye over proceedings on a bitterly cold day in Hertfordshire.
First out of the blocks were Borough, though with their own injury woes they lacked a real cutting edge to their attacks. Midfielder Stacy Long pressed forward in the seventh minute, but his shot lacked finesse and Seb Brown gathered easily. Soon the ball was up the other end, and Ross Montague had a goal-bound header cleared for a corner by former Spurs keeper Chris Day following good work by Hatton.
The mood was set, with the match rather like two heavyweight boxers slugging it out, trading blows while standing their ground, with both keepers earning their wages and defenders putting in last-ditch challenges.
In the 16th minute the home side almost broke the deadlock when Joel Byrom found room for a header, which was excellently saved by Brown. Five minutes later he was left unmarked inside the six-yard box at a corner but he headed well over when it looked easier to score.
The Dons took note and tightened up at the back – unfairly, according to the referee, as Paul Lorraine found himself going into the book following a foul by Borough striker Chris Beardsley. Eleven minutes later Wimbledon’s Derek Duncan received a yellow for an off-the-ball incident on the halfway line; soon afterwards he was injured and replaced by Jay Conroy.
In the 32nd minute Byrom had Stevenage’s best chance: Duncan was left on his backside, and Byrom cut into the box and from 12 yards and let fly across the goal. Brown saved well at his near post, and his clearance sent the ball upfield for a period of Dons pressure. In the 34th minute a passing move involving Adjei, Lewis Taylor and Hatton saw the ball nicely teed up for Montague to shoot from three yards out. All the visiting supporters thought a goal was certain, but somehow the ball was cleared from the line for a throw-in. Continuing pressure saw a corner won within seconds, and when Montague’s thundering header rebounded off the bar the home supporters were stunned into silence.
The second half was much the same, with neither side giving an inch. Wimbledon looked more balanced following Conroy’s introduction, while Stevenage looked to use the pace of Yemi Odubade at every opportunity, often leaving Hatton chasing back. But Odubade lacked the finishing cross or shot, and for all his efforts he was no Aaron Lennon.
Borough wasted a corner in the 55th minute, with Beardsley heading over when unmarked, and this seemed to encourage Wimbledon, who proceeded to dominate for the next 15 minutes. First Elliott Godfrey shot over from 25 yards, then Wellard created some space for himself and after beating two players produced a fantastic shot from 20 yards which the goalkeeper did well to save – but the referee gave a goal-kick. Then it was Wellard again from 25 yards, but his shot was wide. In the midst of this Taylor broke free twice but couldn’t quite find the telling pass for an onrushing team-mate as the Dons continued to press forward.
An injury to Lorraine broke up the play, and soon Stevenage had the ball. In the 77th minute Lee Boylan had a clear chance from eight yards out, but he shot straight at Brown; two minutes later Godfrey performed heroics on the goal-line from an Odubade corner as he headed Boylan’s shot away to safety.
Both teams served up entertainment, and each set of supporters were left asking, what if? Come the playoffs in May, on current form each of these two sides will be involved. Soon the crucial January shopping window will open. Will Graham Westley bring in reinforcements to his already fine squad, and will Terry Brown add a couple of older heads to support the growing self-belief of his young players?
Delight at this fine performance turned to sadness in the evening with the news that Allen Batsford, who had done much for the club since the mid-1970s, had collapsed and died on his way home from watching Fulham play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. He will be remembered by many for his buccaneering sides at Walton & Hersham, Wimbledon and Wealdstone and the championships and cup successes of all three. The previous month he had received some very warm recognition on the pitch before the FA Cup tie at the New Den.
A hard act to follow.