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Nationwide Division One, 2/1/01
Home and away
By Ian Grant

The First Division rules of combat:

Rule #1: You are nothing special.
Rule #2: You are not better than anyone else.
Rule #3: You are not too good for the division.
Rule #4: You will not finish seventh - it's reserved.
Rule #5: You will not have fun at Selhurst Park.
Rule #6: If you die in combat, you will not be mourned.
Rule #7: If you win your freedom, you will not be celebrated.

It takes a bit of getting used to, admittedly. Even after that grafting win at Barnsley, you sense that we're still adjusting, still trying to shake off the superiority complex that makes us wait for success rather than work for it.

We're not alone, of course. When you look around the division, you see so many clubs that are trying to come to terms with what they are, as opposed to what they want to be. Premiership wage bills married uneasily with Nationwide income; fans that demand "ambition" and "investment" without understanding what either really means; players that believe they should be plying their trade at a higher level, yet haven't done enough to earn the right to do so. Right now, we're one of those clubs.

Realise this, though. The clubs that resolve that identity crisis will win the promotion battle.

For years, Wimbledon had the most immediately recognisable identity of any club in the country. As a brand, it was unique. Perhaps not as commercially viable as Manchester United, but still unique. They stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb in the Premiership, even when their willingness to enter into the high end of the transfer market began to dilute their "small club" ethos.

Back in the Nationwide, they're no longer unique. For some, that anonymity was welcome. The "one step back, two steps forward" theory about relegation is as over-used as the "concentrate on the league" line after a cup defeat, yet there is an element of truth to it here. Following changes of ownership and management, and with the dream of returning to home territory still unrealised, there is much re-building to be done. The chance to do that away from the spotlight represents some kind of silver lining for the cloud that enveloped the club towards the end of last season.

Bearing in mind that most people lazily forecast that the Dons would plummet down the leagues as soon as they dropped out of the Premiership, it's not going too badly. Sitting comfortably in mid-table, a New Year challenge for a playoff spot isn't out of the question.

To do that, they're going to have to solve a fairly obvious problem. As Watford fans know all too well, winning at Selhurst isn't easy...which is a pain in the arse when you have to go there twice, and a complete nightmare when you play all your "home" games there too. Having managed just one victory in Croydon, the Dons are relying on a remarkable away record that's seen them win more matches on their travels than Fulham. If you reckon this is going to be easy, then think on....

It's a pretty formidable squad, actually. Or it would be, if half of it wasn't cluttering up the treatment room. Terry Burton is some way from being able to field a full-strength side and is shifting players around to fill gaps with mixed results.

The current owner of the goalkeeper's shirt is Kelvin Davis - the first of a series of former Hatters, should that be important to anyone. Paul Heald is his deputy, with the gigantic Ian Feuer presumably relegated to the sidelines.

It's in defence that the effect of injuries begins to be evident. With Kenny Cunningham and Duncan Jupp out of action, talented midfielder Trond Andersen - a £2.5m Egil Olsen signing - is filling in at right back. While still effective in his temporary position, his influence is missed further upfield.

On the left, Alan Kimble is the victim of a hamstring injury and is still recovering match fitness. Youngster Peter Hawkins has also been spending time in the treatment room following the humiliating defeat against Palace. Darren Holloway, signed for £1m from Sunderland in October, is playing at left back despite being right-footed, something that might be to Tommy Smith's benefit. To the puzzlement of some, Des Byrne remains on the bench despite being naturally left-sided.

In the middle, we'll find the familiar, hulking figure of Mark Williams, who's established himself as a first team regular and captaincy candidate since his move from the Vic in the summer. One thing hasn't changed, however - he's picked up nine bookings so far. Dean Blackwell is also spending most of his time with the physio, so youth team product Rob Gier and Chris Wilmott, another ex-Luton man, make up the defensive numbers.

The midfield is workmanlike, although players like Neil Ardley and Andy Roberts don't exactly set the heart racing. While Andersen's employed in defence, Par "Pecker" Karlsson - a £40,000 signing from IFK Gothenburg in September - has taken his chance and looks to be a bargain buy. Damien Francis, reckoned by Jonesy's magnificently pithy "It's A Wierd, Wonderful World" site to be the best midfielder in the division when he's in the mood, has also established himself while others are absent.

The rest looks pretty thin, frankly. At thirty-three, Michael Thomas' eventful career is nearing an end. Meanwhile, Robbie Earle's career has ended, following his recent decision to concentrate on reserve team management and media hobnobbing. The bustling Michael Hughes is yet to recover from breaking a leg in the penultimate game of last season, while the excellent but permanently crocked Gareth Ainsworth is finally back in training. So twenty-one year old Ansah Owusu is a substitute in the absence of other options, along with former Birmingham, Derby and Sheffield United man Jonathan Hunt.

Up front, Jason Euell - always capable of brilliance, as we know all too well - has got his arse in gear to be the club's top scorer. In contrast, Marcus Gayle is still under-achieving and woefully short of confidence. Mercifully for those of us who have to write match reports, Paul Robinson won't be playing against his namesake, since he's been loaned to Burnley.

And then there's John bloody Hartson. Nearly flogged to Celtic for another absurd fee recently, he remains lardy, thoroughly dislikeable and barely half the player he ought to be. You tend to think, however, that he saves something approaching his best for games against the Hornets. Following flu and suspension, he was left out of the line-up for the game against Portsmouth in favour of young Patrick Agyemang, so he'll have to win his place back first.

The New Year starts here, then. Having brought the losing streak to an end with that splendid, battling performance at Oakwell, things have to change in 2001.

The support for the team this season has been pitiful, absolutely pathetic. It's about time that we showed everyone how much we want promotion, rather than how much we expect it. Whatever you think about what the players have achieved so far, the manager deserves much, much more.

The few hundred lunatics - proud lunatics, mind - who went to Barnsley in sub-zero temperatures on Friday night showed the way for the rest of us. The same goes for the numerous Dons fans who regularly visit these pages and always have kind, generous words to say - a genuine lack of arrogance that we were once known and admired for too.

We've let our standards slip, both on and off the pitch.

Sing up, Watford. Good luck, Wimbledon.