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FA Carling Premiership, 7/8/99
Watford are back
By Matt Rowson

Hello, remember us?

Eleven years since we left the top flight (and, boy, did it ever seem longer), it's suddenly as if we were never away, facing Wimbledon on the opening day of the season with very little idea of what lies in store. Whatever happens this time, it can't possibly be as desperate as the last season to open with a visit from the Dons.

Now as then, the cheek of the draw which pairs the two sides together on the opening day has to be gawped at. Then, Dave Bassett (who will always be more fondly remembered by the Dons than he will be by us) was taking charge of his first Watford game against the side where he made his reputation. Now, GT comes face to face with an old adversary, ex-Norway national boss Egil "Drillo" Olsen and across the country pompous journalists and fans of "real football" gasp in horror.

Since Bassett's departure, Wimbledon have struggled to live down the long-ball reputation which he had achieved such success with. As if to finally concede that this tag was unshakeable no matter what football was played, Wimbledon have reverted to type with the hiring of the Norwegian Marxist.

Lazy the stereotyping of Olsen's appointment may be, but there can be no doubt as to the approach that his new charges will be asked to adopt. Pre-season games have seen the Dons take on the 4-5-1 formation which Norway employed in the last World Cup, with John Hartson seemingly ideally suited to the Tore Andre Flo aggro role.

Meanwhile the defence has been schooled in a new system that can loosely be described as "attacking the ball". Olsen was reportedly less than convinced by a shaky defensive display in a recent friendly at Dean Court, clean sheet or not, and has admitted that he would have preferred longer to prepare his troops, having left Valerenga less than a month ago.

In goal for the Dons will be Scottish number 1 Neil Sullivan. This is likely to be his last season for the Dons...linked with a string of clubs over the summer, he looks like moving under freedom of contract at the end of the season. Backup in the absence of Paul Heald will come from ex-Luton keeper Kelvin Davis, who featured in a certain October 4th fixture a couple of years back.

Irish international Kenny Cunningham is a fine right-back but fellow ex-Millwall man, the odious Ben Thatcher, linked with a move to Anfield over the summer, looks likely to miss Saturday's game. His replacement will be Alan Kimble, in whom little confidence seems to be placed. Now if only Nicky Wright were fit....

Centre-back is an area of interest, as the Dons will need to fill the void vacated by the popular Chris Perry. Long-serving Dean Blackwell, recently back from injury, is likely to partner new boy Tore Pedersen. Pedersen, who had a brief unsuccessful spell at Blackburn a couple of years ago, left Eintracht Frankfurt to join his compatriot Olsen in south London. Another option would be a second Luton old-boy, the much coveted Chris Wilmott.

There are plenty of options to string across the middle of the park, with several players previously used up front by the Dons dropping back to supporting roles.

Andy Roberts is yet another ex-Millwall man whom I seem to remember not being too fussy in the tackle. Robbie Earle MBE is also likely to feature, although the days when he topped the Dons scoring charts seem a while ago now. England U21 stars Carl Cort and Jason Euell may well be involved, although there is a fitness doubt over the latter, and Marcus Gayle has come on in leaps and bounds since his awkward performances for Brentford against us five or so years ago. Gareth Ainsworth, who played out an awesome, boisterous swan song for Port Vale at the Vic last season, is finally fully fit, and Neal Ardley is still around to provide another wide option.

The spare man may turn out to be Michael Hughes; despite having rubbished recent transfer speculation, this most elegant of the Dons midfielders wouldn't appear to fit into Olsen's mould. Then again, David Ginola is still at Spurs with George....

Up front, John Hartson has a lot to prove, and probably won't be given the warmest of welcomes by the newly populated Rookery. Shame. Efan Ekoku, another attacking option, looks set to leave Selhurst Park leaving the enormous Carl Leaburn as Hartson's most likely deputy to the astonishment of all at Charlton Athletic.

Damn it, this was never supposed to happen. Plans were in place. Every reasonable precaution was taken. Words were had in the appropriate ears. The strategy was waterproof.

But not GT-proof. And, of course, trying to get Wimbledon to play ball is like trying to blow a tractor up a cliff face. So it is that at the start of its eighth season, the FA Carling Premiership is playing host to a match between Wimbledon and Watford.

Stuff fans of "real football", real football fans will love this.