An afternoon with the Wombles: Burton Albion 3 AFC Wimbledon 2
“It only took nine years”, they sing. There is a mixture of pride and defiance in the delivery, the words not hurled towards the Pirelli Stadium pitch or the Burton Albion supporters in the stands but instead bounced around the away end. A short, bald man in his forties turns to grin at his mates as he sings. As football supporters go, these look pretty content with life. And AFC Wimbledon were 2-0 down at this stage.
There is another song too – one that many different sets of fans have taken on in recent months. “I just can’t get enough”, sing the Wimbledon fans, before ending each chorus with the refrain “Dons! Dons! Dons! Dons!” It’s all true – it only took nine years for their club – and, of course, it really is their club – to reach the Football League and they just can’t get enough. Now they have to see what their first season in League Two brings.
A couple of years on, they could be Burton Albion. On this evidence, Paul Peschisolido’s men will stay in the promotion picture thanks to a committed back line, a creative midfield and the dangerous front pairing of Calvin Zola and Billy Kee. The latter’s goalscoring form has been remarkable this season following his move from Torquay, two more added to the tally this weekend as Wimbledon threw away a bright start.
Burton had barely ventured into the visitors’ half before they opened the scoring. And it all seemed to happen in slow motion, Kee turning his marker and rolling the ball into the far corner of Seb Brown’s net. If that was a frustrating way to concede, the goal that doubled Burton’s lead verged on the ludicrous. A high ball should have been cleared by Brett Johnson but the Dons centre-back inexplicably let it drop over his shoulder and Kee pounced again, winning a 50-50 challenge with Brown before curling into the empty net in front of the perplexed Dons supporters.
Only then did we begin to see the best of Burton. Zola and Kee possess many of the necessary attributes to flourish in League Two, Wimbledon unsure whether to sit deep and try to contain Zola’s hold-up play or push up and risk Kee running in behind them. The Brewers’ midfield is also impressive and Adam Bolder orchestrated much of the play from a deep-lying central position while Jacques Maghoma and Cleveland Taylor darted around on either side.
In contrast, the Wimbledon midfield looked lightweight for long periods despite the clever probing of Sammy Moore. They found a lifeline on the stroke of half time when the ball broke to Luke Moore who struck from close range. But they needed to show more in the second half from an attacking perspective.
Up front, Jack Midson showed some clever touches and posed a constant aerial threat but too often found himself involved in linking play down the channels rather than getting into the box. When Midson did get into the area, he showed glimpses of his fine goalscoring form so far this season. He had two opportunities with the score at 2-1, one left-footed shot fired into the side netting from a wide angle and then just failing to get on the end of a low cross from the right after some excellent build-up.
At the other end, Wimbledon had Brown to thank for a pair of magnificent saves as they clung to hopes of a point. The two sides exchanged goals after the break, Bolder smashing home following a quick Burton counter-attack before Aaron Webster turned a cross past his own goalkeeper to give the Dons some impetus for the final seven minutes or so. Midfielder Lee Minshull was thrown on up front but failed to impress and wasted the best chance of the closing stages when he sent a header just wide of the post when well placed.
It had been an entertaining encounter, although low on quality for long periods. The most interesting aspect of the experience, however, came not on the pitch but in the stands. There is a real community feel to Wimbledon’s support and I stood at the back of their section as a procession of fans burst onto the terraces to be welcomed into one patch of friends or another. I got the feeling that I would have been strongly welcomed had I mentioned to any of the group near me that I was merely a curious and well-wishing onlooker rather than a lifelong Wimbledon fanatic. But it was more interesting to maintain my silence and observe.
There was a sense that this level suits Wimbledon. Higher up, there are no tickets available on the day. Seats rather than terraces. More stewards throwing their weight around for no good reason. Fewer kiosks selling the variety of traditional football food that Burton lay on for reasonable prices. The dreaded spectre of the “matchday experience”. There are so many simple pleasures that supporters of a team rising from non-league through the divisions of the Football League must sacrifice. I doubt there are many Wimbledon fans that would be disappointed to see their club continue its elevation in the pyramid over the coming years but these are certainly days to be savoured in case it does happen.
Of course, all that must seem a long way off at the moment. Early form has faded away in recent weeks to leave the Dons mid-table and this position looks about right at present given their display at Burton.
There were two moments of note that merit a mention as a rare insight into life in League Two.
One of the players who received criticism from the Dons end was central midfielder Ricky Wellard, a generic London name if ever there was one – and sure enough, he was born in Hammersmith.
At two corners in quick succession, Wellard took up a position three yards from the front post. It is a role that most teams employ but one Wimbledon fan was spitting blood that the midfielder wasn’t marking anyone. As if magnetised by this outburst, the ball landed straight on Wellard’s head and the clearance was made. Soon after, Wellard took up the same position but Midson called him to beyond the back post where a spare Burton attacker had managed to ghost into the box. The ball broke to the edge of the area and Wellard was able to block the shot. If he had not been called across from his original position, Burton would almost certainly have scored.
This cause and effect is part of football and exists at all levels of the game. It is analysed in microscopic detail in the top flight. Up close, though, you can see what a large part fortune plays in deciding the outcome of matches. Had similar events happened in a Premier League game but ended in a goal, Alan Shearer would probably have castigated Wellard for making the wrong decision.
The other moment of note came late in the game when Nathan Stanton was involved in a tangle next to the visiting supporters. Stanton received a volley of abuse from the Wimbledon fans, duly stood up and launched a tirade of his own back at them. It was something you hardly ever see further up the divisions but there was no queue forming at the nearest steward. In a moment, it was forgotten. Explanation of the obvious contrast with life in the Premier League seems superfluous.
Looking around at the supporters trooping out of the away end at the final whistle, some were angry and frustrated at their side’s shortcomings and others were exasperated by one or two decisions made by the referee. But without wanting to add weight to the argument that a holier-than-thou attitude surrounds some fan-owned clubs, there is definitely a different feel to AFC Wimbledon. The sense of togetherness among their support is unquestionable. I had wanted to experience this for myself so I gave up a Saturday afternoon and a few quid for the privilege. Part of me left the Pirelli Stadium wanting that experience every Saturday afternoon.