By Matt Rowson
Football is a cosmopolitan drama. There are good guys (Wilf Rostron, Dario Gradi), bad guys (Martin Edwards, Billy Whitehurst) and light relief (Mark McGhee, Crystal Palace). Each match is a single episode of a highly complex interwoven soap opera as much as it is a sporting event. Each has its own subplot, and even if (as cable TV proves) there's no irrefutable link between quantity and quality, the lowest-budget series can be highly addictive.
Wimbledon are, at this moment in time, Glenn Close's Alex Forrest in "Fatal Attraction". An eternity of terrorising the affluent and careless appears to have been brought to an end by the Premiership ganging up on the Dons and holding them flailing and struggling underwater until the spasms stop and the club limply submits to the inevitable. You've read the obituaries...Cort, Thatcher, Hreidarsson, Sullivan and the rest gone, several more unhappy. Wimbledon, who you'd almost forgotten were a lower division club, have capsized and will return inevitably whence they came, never to be heard of in our Premiership-obsessed media again.
Except...well, what happens next? Do the Dons play the role they've been scripted, or do they defy expectation and recover their poise and purpose? History (not to mention Alex Forrest) would suggest the latter. As with all good drama, this one's on a knife-edge.
The Dons started the season with a positive performance at home to Tranmere but failed to score. They were altogether less impressive at Turf Moor (which isn't, in all fairness, the Hornets' favourite hunting ground either) where their twitchy, disjointed performance failed to register a shot on target until the 77th minute. Having said that, they have a number of top players to return from injury and suspension, plus money in the bank... a £3m bid for Craig Bellamy never seemed likely to succeed, but Terry Burton doesn't strike me as conniving enough to register a hopeless bid just to appease supporters.
One thing's for sure...a better chance of success is guaranteed by dumping any slightly surprising Premiership airs and graces sharpish. Tranmere and Burnley are not Manchester United, but they are no mugs either. The Don who rang 606 on the first day of the season to proclaim that if Tranny were standard fare for Division 1 then his side would have few problems has an awful lot to learn. Such an assertion would have been bold after a 1-0 away win, let alone a goalless draw at home. Fourteen years out of the cesspit must dampen your sense of smell.
Saturday's episode certainly appears to be well cast. The key components are there...on our side, last season's two defeats, each painful for slightly different reasons, certainly constitute a bit of history. On their side, Mark Williams has more than a little to prove and is reported to be "up for this one", whilst his new lift to training Johnny Hartson is much beloved by the Hornet faithful. I can see Robson Greene and Timothy Spall in those two roles. Add to this support roles to be played by the Dons' legions of ex-Hatters, plus a mouth-watering confrontation between Paul Robinson (our one) and Wimbledon's emerging speed-merchant Patrick Agyemang, and you have a potential blockbuster which almost demands an audience on a par with last Thursday's Big Brother. Can't see 6.9m squeezing into Selhurst Park mind, but you never know...
In goal, the Dons are likely to field Kelvin Davis, who almost certainly wants to forget his last outing against the Hornets roughly two years, ten months and twenty-two days ago but probably won't be allowed to. His back-up is either long-time Dons reserve Paul Heald or another ex-Kenilworth charmer, the enormous American Ian Feuer.
Wimbledon's defence is seriously restricted by injury, with Irish international Kenny Cunningham, centre-back Dean Blackwell and ex-Palace chopper Andy Roberts already missing and Andy Kimble limping out of Saturday's encounter with a hamstring strain suffered in the warm-up. Erratic Scotsman Duncan Jupp will probably play on the right with youngster Peter Hawkins on the left. The presence of Thatcher and Kimble restricted Hawkins to the reserves last season, but he impressed on his introduction on Saturday.
Alongside Williams, whose aimless ruggedness we are so familiar with, will either be Trond Andersen or another ex-Luton youngster Chris Willmott. Negotiations continue regarding the arrival of Everton's agricultural defender Richard Dunne, but suspension would rule him out in any case.
In midfield, Ian Selley's career has been disrupted by two broken legs, but having been the first signing by Kev'n'Ray's ridiculous Fulham regime prohibits him being taken seriously anyway. Another youngster Damien Francis is likely to adopt the anchor role, and has been tipped as one to watch for some time. Michael Thomas, whose fun and games at Benfica bear testimony to the dangers of getting too chummy with Graeme Souness, is another option. On the flanks, Neal Ardley and the dangerous Marcus Gayle should take their places, with Gareth Ainsworth, as ever, injured, and Michael Hughes also out with a broken leg.
Up front, Johnny Big-pants makes his first start of the season following suspension. Carl Leaburn also limped out of the Burnley game, but this is likely to be academic with Paul Robinson, an impressive catch from Newcastle, and the highly rated Patrick Agyemang the two likeliest candidates to partner Hartson.
The next instalment, then. Hollywood Selhurst most certainly ain't...but this drama is far more real than Tinseltown in any case. I'll make no secret of thinking that Wimbledon are a Good Thing, whatever division they're plying their trade in, but this season, unlike last, we are not partners in adversity. There's no spare capacity for taking prisoners in this division.