PERCHANCE TO DREAM; AY. THERE’S THE RUB. So who would you like to play in the third round of the FA Cup on January 3: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Blyth Spartans?
AFC Wimbledon will go into the hat and the last 64 for the first time after an unexpected accomplished victory over League 2 leaders Wycombe Wanderers at Adams Park on Sunday to give the Dons’ season a shot in the arm of badly-needed adrenaline with a win that could yet have far-reaching repercussions….. we’re at least allowed to dream at least until Monday night’s Cup draw; we haven’t had that luxury before.
So bin that trip to Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium on January 3 for now; shove to one side, momentarily, the Dons’ undistinguished 16th spot on the League 2 table and savour the football supporter’s birthright: dream of taking on one of the big boys in a money-spinning tie, or pack the bags and the woolies for the 620-mile (1,000 kilometre) mid-winter roundtrip to the Northern Premier League’s Blyth Spartans in Northumberland.
Neal Ardley had spoken about what a “massive’ game this 2nd round FA Cup tie against Wycombe Wanderers was in the context of a season that has stalled since those wins over (then) leaders Burton Albion and Bury back in September/October.
“I know the importance of this and it would be massive if we could be in the hat for the next round. It would mean that we would go into the rest of our December fixtures knowing that there is an FA Cup third round tie for us in January. We could have something to look forward to and it could be a big lift for everyone,” he said.
Well Ards, you’ve got it now and the joint’s buzzing and hopeful. The team is in the hat, hobnobbing with the rest and Erik Samuelson can at least look forward to a cheque from the lovely FA for £27,000 as second round winners, with the promise of more to come ahead of an important few months in the club’s evolution.
Put to one side, the financial aspect of winning Sunday’s game and what it could lead to, and rather reflect on the hopeful beneficial effects it will have on the team’s fortunes.
Wimbledon, even with the injection of Adebayo Akinfenwa, Matt Tubbs and Dannie Bulman, have hardly set League 2 alight this season. The inability to string together some wins like Wycombe Wanderers and newly promoted Luton Town have achieved this season with far less salubrious football names has had the Dons oscillating in the lower reaches of the league lately.
Ardley sensed the FA Cup offered his team an opportunity to kick-start the season heading into the half-way point and the possibility of reinforcements in next month’s transfer window.
“There is no point in doom and gloom and we have to try and pick everyone up. I do believe that we’re not far away from building some momentum,” the gaffer said earnestly on Cup eve.
Now contrast that with Ardley post-match at Adams Park where the travelling 1,035 Dons fans — among their number his esteemed predecessor Terry Brown — raucously turned it into a home game for their team, given their uplifting and constant support behind the goal.
“How good were the fans? They gave me goose bumps because they sang and cheered everything that we did. I’m so glad that we’ve got into the third round for them and hopefully we’ll now have something good to look forward to in the next round,” he said.
The Dons had been stifled by the Chairboys on their previous trip to Adams Park two months ago. Wimbledon were without the influential Dannie Bulman, suspended on that occasion, and were reinforced at the back by new on-loan central defender Jake Goodman, allowed to play in the Cup-tie by Millwall.
Both had big roles in the reversal of the Dons’ fortunes in the Cup. Goodman came in for Alan Bennett and partnered Adam Barrett in the heart of the defence and hardly missed a header with his big gangly awkward frame.
“I thought Jake was immense,” Ardley said. “He won bundles in the air and at the end he had cramp and could barely jump. On one hand the game was always going to be ideal for him because it was going to be high-tempo and they were going to throw a lot of balls forward, but it was also brave to throw him in for such an important match. He should be proud of his debut.”
Goodman talked about putting himself about and being physical and he carried it out to the letter as Wycombe had few scoring opportunities and when they did goalkeeper James Shea pulled off some great saves, particularly his one on a Sam Wood howitzer late on.
But importantly, Wimbledon offered a goal threat, which they didn’t do in the league game. The Dons used wide men Sean Rigg and George Francomb to good effect and when injuries and fatigue set in late on Ardley injected Ade Azeez and Harry Pell to maintain the tempo.
“Having played Wycombe, we had experience of what they are good at and we did our homework,” he said. We decided on a shape that would give us the best chance and we were brave because we played with three forwards.
“We trained with a high intensity all week to get ready for this game and I think that is the difference from the last game here. We prepared unbelievably well for the game and the boys have carried out the plan.”
The winner came in the 56th minute. Akinfenwa showed great vision to pick out Francomb, who put Rigg through and the winger steered home with an outstretched boot to put Wimbledon 1-0 up. The Dons seized the initiative and brought it home.
It was Rigg’s fourth goal and an important one, much like his equaliser in the 3-2 win over MK Dons in the JP Trophy in October.
So now we wait and hope for the draw. The Dons are number 50 in the hat.
“I hope and pray, and we don’t get much luck with this generally, that the club gets the draw they deserve,” Ardley said. “I hope they get a glamour tie. We’ve got a busy schedule between now and January, so to have that to look forward to is massive.”
The Dons have done the hard bit, now for a bit of luck.
Read more views on the WDSA forum match thread