Main Menu
What's New
03/04: Reports:

Combined Counties League, 25/10/03, 3.15pm
AFC Wimbledon
A pleasure
By Ian Grant

It's a different world. A completely different world.

This is Whyteleafe, in Surrey. Very much in Surrey, in fact. Nestling luxuriously in a sheltered spot in the North Downs, it has the pleasantly relaxed, ramshackle feel of the truly expensive, a cut above the mannered neatness of ordinary suburbia. And it's probably not used to this kind of thing.

Somewhere along this lane - a jumble of allotments on one side, some really rather gorgeous houses on the other - is the home of Whyteleafe Football Club, borrowed for the day by Chipstead for the visit of Wimbledon. Prior to the arrival of nearly two thousand Dons fans, you'd imagine that precious few of the residents even knew that they had a football club. Now, as we stroll along with the crowds, you can almost make out the scratching of expensive pens on expensive paper behind expensive net curtains, distressed letters to the local MP....

Which is probably greatly unfair to the good folk of Whyteleafe. But, as we stand and lean against the railings at the far end of the ground, a muddle of concrete in the middle of a scene so picturesque that it makes Withdean look like the New Den, it's hard to escape the feeling of incongruity. At the bottom of a hill draped elegantly in all of the colours of autumn, preparing themselves for a vital match at the top of the Combined Counties League, are the loud, boisterous and fairly numerous supporters of a team that was so recently among our First Division (and, briefly, Premiership) rivals. From any kind of non-footballing perspective, it probably doesn't make much sense. When you're here, though, it makes absolutely perfect sense.

There's a load of stuff about principles and morals, of course, and I've already been there in the preview for this game, as a justification of this site's continued standpoint. But there's one angle that can so easily remain neglected. Because, while you can found a football club on principles and morals, it takes much more for that football club to survive and thrive. Two thousand people don't traipse to a posh part of Surrey to take part in a demonstration, especially not more than a year down the line. It's football. You have to enjoy it. And, bloody hell, you can see why Wimbledon fans do enjoy it.

A wonderful sense of camaraderie has always seemed to fuel the Dons' efforts, making them something of a BSaD favourite even before recent events. Here, all that is flourishing, freed from the world of reserved seating, high ticket prices, and, perhaps surprisingly, football politics. Time and again, we were thanked for coming to show support for the cause; time and again, we said that it was a pleasure. And it was a pleasure, too. It was a real pleasure, an afternoon that was memorable simply because it was such tremendous fun.

There will be better football matches, naturally. Even so, the game was littered with incident in a way that the more controlled environment of the higher levels will probably never permit. From the first few seconds, when a shot hit the inside of the post, Wimbledon thoroughly out-classed their opponents to replace them at the top of the table...and, while we could never truly feel it as we might at Vicarage Road, there was still so much to take in. Never a dull moment.

Three goals, and one of them was rather special too, Gray's dipping half-volley from out on the left drifting magnificently into the top corner to give Wimbledon an early lead. The second was rather less convincing, a penalty for an off-the-ball incident, but received no less joyously. That was all the scoring for the first half, but far from all of the action, which included a pretty spectacular brawl in the centre circle that the referee improbably resolved without brandishing any cards. His linesmen, both of a certain vintage, managed to pretend to offer their immediate and decisive assistance in breaking up the fight, while keeping at a very safe distance indeed.

Throughout, people wandered over to offer their thanks, to chat about our respective fortunes, to ask whether we were winning in Milton Keynes, and generally to make us feel so welcome. "Watford, give us a wave!" requested the fans on the covered terrace at the other end; when we did so, "We love you Watford, we do!" came back at us. Aw. You're not too shabby yourselves, you know. Matt, elected our spokesperson for the day without being asked first, was interviewed for Radio Four. A man slowly paraded around the pitch perimeter with a board listing the registration numbers of cars to be moved immediately; another board shortly afterwards, this time with the golden goal and raffle winners, and two illegitimate apostrophes. He wouldn't let me rub them out, unfortunately...but you can't have everything, I suppose. Really, you could get used to this kind of life....

The second half was no less enjoyable. For a start, three players were ordered off, each departing in less than gracious fashion. To begin with, one from either side for another of those unseen, off-the-ball incidents midway through the half; later on, another red for a mouthful of dissent from one of the stars of the afternoon, a Chipstead substitute who, with no-messing 'tache and permed mullet, really could've been a refugee from the Ipswich FA Cup winning side. An extravagantly bad-tempered stomp to the dressing room followed, which only added to the comic effect.

Somewhere amid all of this, Wimbledon added a third, substitute Scott thumping a volley into the roof of the net after a sweeping attack down the left. And there might've been more too. Harvey from So Solid Crew - no, really - made an impressive debut for the Dons at left-back, and was unlucky to hit the post with a fine effort. A couple of goalline clearances as well. And very, very nearly an absolutely spectacular own goal, as a Chipstead defender sliced a clearance towards his own net from the edge of the box, the keeper missed his kick completely, and the ball span narrowly wide. Oh, and some entertaining nonsense between the Dons' corner-taker, repeatedly placing the ball half a yard outside the quadrant, and the linesman, repeatedly asking him to put it where it belonged. And more banter, more thanks, more of that splendid camaraderie. And, finally, a great ovation for the victorious team.

A marvellous experience, really. It's an honour, as ever, to stand alongside the Wimbledon fans, to support what they're trying to achieve and to reject what they've rejected. To represent Watford in that way. A small contribution, perhaps...but it means something, to them and to us. More than that, though. It's just so much flippin' fun.

Saturday afternoon in Whyteleafe. Incongruous, perhaps. But a deeply refreshing reminder of what football is all about, and of what football can easily live without, too. Because it's about people, ultimately. And there are some wonderful people here. And they've created a wonderful thing.

Now, then...where were we? Ah, yes....

Come on you 'Orns....