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03/04: Reports:

Combined Counties League, 25/10/03, 3.15pm
AFC Wimbledon
Two-way Family Favourites
By Pete Bradshaw

Ah, those Sunday mornings of my 1960s' childhood. The Light Programme (or Radio Two as we must now call it) and the link up between Forces' Radio in Cologne and the BBC London. Judith Chalmers. I never really understood the programme. Sure, the format and purpose were obvious, but I couldn't say I really understood it. I'd never known what it's like to have family that lived away. Ours was a small, close-knit group. All of my immediate relatives could comfortably fit round the table at Christmas, and we saw each other at least once a week. What I did know was that the radio programme allowed people to keep in touch, or, at least, to have a sense of keeping in touch through the ritual of others' messages for their loved ones. Small groups of relatives, separated by miles, brought together through technology.

I didn't go to Wigan. Not exactly family, but a close friend had a fiftieth birthday party. Much as I pawed over the logistics of getting up from Weymouth to Robin Park (or the JJB as we must call it) and back to Nottingham for the evening's festivities, it didn't appear possible. On the drive up the M1, I listened intently to Simon Oxley and Martin Patching. Not exactly Judith Chalmers. But they kept me in touch. Not exactly two-way either. I suppose that applied to the game. It wasn't the same as being there, but the partisan Patching gave me a pretty good sense of how we had (or hadn't) played.

I didn't go to Sunderland. My son wanted a beach holiday and so we went to Greece. Earlier work commitments meant, reluctantly, we took it in the football season - but family come first I suppose. I was actually back in the country for the game at the Monkwearmouth (or the Stadium of Light as we must now call it), but the journey from Dorset to Wearside coast was just too much. I tuned into the Internet Relay Chat from #vicarage_rd on the Undernet. A small group of fans, separated by miles, brought together through technology. We followed the action the best we could. Some listening to Watford World or 3CR. It wasn't the same as being there, but the banter and partisan comments provided much of what I go to football anyway - to be part of a 'family'.

I didn't go to Milton Keynes (or Wimbledon FC as they say we must call it). The whole business leaves a bad taste in the mouth and I just felt as much a part of the wider family of football as I did part of the Watford family. Last year I simply stayed at home and followed the developments from Selhurst as best I could. This year I decided to go and see some of my football family relatives - the AFC ones, and so ventured down to deepest East Surrey (or Whyteleafe as it poetically is named, nice 'y') to see a top of the table clash with Chipstead. Top of the level eight table that is. Funny how AFC fans refer to levels and not divisions. A family united and not divided perhaps?

My heart was tugging me to go to Milton Keynes, but due to the idiocy of making it all ticket, I couldn't leave the decision until the last minute. Not that I think I would have changed my mind. But I spent the morning reading the Watford Observer, teletext, the websites - getting my Hornets fix. I wanted to know what was going on in my close family. No Mahon, Gayle only possibly, bad news about Micah. Let's hope Jamie Hand has a better game this time out.

I got the train to Harrow and Wealdstone (I'd been staying in Carpenders Park overnight as I'd been to a black comedy at the Lyric, and it takes so long to get back to Weymouth from Hammersmith - the irony of the black comedy being played out at the Hockey Stadium flitted across my mind there). On crossing to platform six, I saw a group of a dozen or so football fans in blue-and-white-quartered replica shirts. Bristol Rovers, I thought - they're the only team that play in those colours. Actually, of course they're the only team in the top four levels. I'd forgotten about the wider family. Wealdstone, of course. Eagerly talking about the game they were going to see, the games they had seen. Reminiscing. Indulging in their family history. "Remember our last game at Yeading - I can still name the team", said one (he was the biggest one, so they weren't going to dispute his XI). And then loads of Chelsea fans. Maybe that's a wad of Chelsea fans. Loads of them. They must have loadsa money to take the whole family - Mum, Dad, two kids - still, they are 'top of the league' (or is that 'a' league).

The train pulled out and soon rumbled through Wembley Central. We all looked. Well, it's part of our history, isn't it? The family seat, or maybe the crumbling mausoleum, being rebuilt off to the left. We had to look, it was part of us. And then onto to West London, past the site of White City Stadium and the British Empire Exhibition grounds. No allegiances to that recently demolished stadium. Put up for the convenience of an event (and for QPR when Loftus Road was bombed). But a passing fad. No one looked there.

The rich uncles got off at West Brompton, the train rumbled on through the increasingly leafy South London station - Wandsworth Common, Streatham Common. Changing at East Croydon, some AFC fans spotted my Watford badge. Smiled. A distant cousin? On we went through Purley Oaks, Kenley - good grief, even the stations are covered in leaf fall. And so to Whyteleafe (population: a fair few, mostly hidden behind large gates, pubs: one). Into the Whyteleade Tavern, packed with yellow and blue. A small group of us sat by the roaring fire. Any news from Milton Keynes yet? Team news? We had WAP, we had friends texting from the ground, friends texting from home in Watford, listening to Simon Oxley's family favourites. We were made to feel so welcome - handshakes, smiles, family. "How's Neal Ardley? Look after him. And Marcus." Oh, and it's not many games you go to where the away team's chairman is drinking in the pub beforehand.

Down the leafy (and do I mean leafy) lane to the ground. Capacity about three thousand, two-thirds full. Reminded me of Weymouth's old ground by the harbour. About twice as many Chipstead fans as there were of us. The game was fair enough, two blinding goals and a penalty in a 3-0 AFC Wimbledon win. But the fans, the family! "We love you Watford!" sang the massed ranks. "Watford, Watford give us a wave!" More handshakes, applause as we walked to the loo past the long covered terrace. Interviewed by the Dons' Trust and Radio Four (the Home Service?).

Never mind all that, Devlin - get in. Reports flashed to phones. We cheered, two thousand others cheered. Webber! MK Dons were rubbish, we were told. Hornets-related banter amongst the small group of us. And a quick round of tree identification, a goal, 2-1 now. Oh no, not the same thing that happened to Burnley up there? No! Fitzgerald (whoa-oh-whoa-oh)! Much celebration, a family united. It wasn't the same as being there, but we experienced some of the emotions, and plenty of socialising. We followed the action as best we could. A small group of fans, separated from the action by miles, brought together through technology.

So onto Cardiff - after all it is my local Division One away ground (if you don't count Selhurst Park, and I don't as it took five hours to get home on London's surburban trains from Whyteleafe). That's the next family get together, albeit with that branch of the family we don't talk about much. "How's Dai Thomas? Did you look after him?"