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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/08/02, 3pm
Franchise FC
Hired goons
By Ian Grant

No, I'm not going to change the record....

After all, what an opportunity! When else do I get to write a match report that can be as biased and as blinkered as I like, safe in the knowledge that there were no opposition fans present to offer conflicting witness statements? When else can I stick the boot in to a club that I despise, without the inevitable response of a deluge of grammatically dubious hate mail? And when else can I do these things with a thoroughly clear conscience?

I mean, this stinks. Whatever the size of its support, Wimbledon was - and, in the form of AFC Wimbledon, still is - such a brilliant football club. A club with roots, a club with ambition, a club with a vibrant community of fans, a club with a mischievous sense of fun. And what is left?

A sad, disgusting franchise. A club with no supporters, bar a handful of miserable loyalists and a bus-load of hired goons with a laughable, suspiciously professional "WE R MK" banner. Even setting principles aside for a moment, you wonder why anyone would want to be part of it when such a vibrant, exciting alternative exists, why anyone would prefer to sit in an empty stand at Selhurst rather than join the AFC party. It's a wretched spectacle...and, while the team that represents the brandname still contains some players of quality, you can see no future that doesn't involve a complete collapse of spirit and inevitable relegation.

So, if Milton Keynes really wants a Football League club, then let it have this empty shell, this waste product of a property deal. No-one else wants it, after all. But let it be the most despised, reviled, rejected, hated, cursed football club in every division that it visits on its journey to oblivion. Let it suffer every humiliation conceivable, before its final, pitiful collapse into financial ruin. Let it bring only shame and embarrassment to its adoptive city.

And, above all, let it return the name, the crest, the colours, and everything else to their rightful owners. And stop the ridiculous pretence that this new football club, whatever you want to call it, has anything whatsoever to do with Wimbledon. And let it be seen for what it is - the destruction of one football club, the creation of another, and the use of a property deal to buy entry into the Football League.

And let that be the precedent.

And then, I might shut up about it. Maybe.

Oh yeah, Watford. Well, the improvement continues...although, on this occasion, we made hard work of beating extremely average opponents, allowing the game to drift for long periods and damn nearly paying for our carelessness. Still, we're in no position to be fussy...and, besides, it made for a rousing finish to a distinctly tepid match, which won't do us any harm at all.

We couldn't afford to lose. Partly because it would've been shameful, for the first team to donate three points to Franchise FC really ought to be flogged in public. Partly because you sense that our confidence is sufficiently fragile, even if it's increasing and growing as the new manager's methods are seen to work, that a setback might well lead to further setbacks. Whatever, quite a lot is at stake in these early games.

You wouldn't know it from the atmosphere at Vicarage Road, of course. For the stadium echoed to the sound of ten thousand people fidgeting, flicking through programmes and chatting among themselves. It wasn't a particularly good game, and there were only about a hundred "fans" in the Vic Road end...but, even so, it's not exactly an inspiring context, is it? Time to do our bit, surely...or perhaps it'll take more than the summer's events, something more tangible, to shake Watford fans out of their complacency. Quick to complain, slow to encourage, that's us.

Five goals, then. But it was a curious game, with great, flat expanses of nothingness and occasional, surprising bursts of action. Really, we were doing all right in the early stages, dominating possession and supplying Neal Ardley with enough of the ball to deliver some piercing, penetrating crosses. From one of these, Danny Webber did what we've been begging the strikers to do, darting aggressively in front of his marker to send in a looping header and force Davis into a fine save to tip over. But the best opening came courtesy of our opponents, as Davis' mis-hit clearance fell to Tommy Smith, whose initial control was poor and subsequent finish, dragged wide of the empty goal from thirty yards, was probably worse.

The possibility of a goal on the counter-attack could never be entirely discounted, however. Indeed, after fifteen minutes, Darlington's darting run down the right wing and low, pacy cross into the box found Nowland unmarked at the near post...but he hooked his shot over the bar when he ought to have done better. The problem will recur - our limited forward options mean that we have to commit numbers to attack, particularly at home - but, in truth, the opening goal was more down to lack of concentration than anything else. Marcus Gayle has done much in his new role to put himself in credit, but he failed to pick up Nowland's run at a throw, and the striker finished neatly with a shot underneath Alec Chamberlain.

Notably, Marcus Gayle re-applied himself, and was not caught out again. And that's precisely the attitude that we need, and that we have shown so far this season. Nevertheless, we were pretty dismal for quarter of an hour, confidence sinking and annoyance rising. We had plenty of time, certainly...but little idea of how to use it, beyond plugging away without inspiration. A bit desperate, really.

Thankfully - and not, you suspect, for the last time - a set piece came to our rescue. Allan Nielsen's long throw from the right, Sean Dyche's massive leap and looping flick-on, and Danny Webber hurling himself horizontally at the far post to head the ball in from three yards. Suddenly, it all seemed fine again, and we returned to our original task with renewed vigour, apparently forgetting that we'd been so forlorn just moments earlier. Which is precisely why the win was so vital, so essential.

Although Nowland sent a curling shot over from the edge of the box, we'd recovered our poise. A stupendous cross-field pass from the excellent Paul Robinson found Neal Ardley marauding down the right, Danny Webber again met his cross, and Davis again saved, more comfortably this time. The supply route was established by now, though. On current evidence, Ardley may well prove to be an inspired addition...a very Wimbledon kind of player, in style and attitude and, particularly, crossing ability. And so far, all we've lacked is someone capable of throwing themselves at those crosses, of battering defenders out of the way and thumping a header past the keeper....

That'll be Robbo, then. Obviously. Forty-two minutes, and Neal Ardley again strides down the right and again sends in a fine centre, hanging the ball up at the far post this time. And Paul Robinson comes steaming in to win the header against two defenders, all desire and bullish fury. But there was a time when Robbo would've concentrated entirely on the contest, on winning the header and flattening his markers and doing the aggressive stuff...and he would've forgotten to do the next bit, probably sending the ball sailing into the stand as a result. That Robbo's gone, though. Instead, he steered a magnificent, Mooney-ish header across the keeper and into the corner. Fine goal. Really fine.

We were on a high now, and had no need of half-time. Allan Nielsen slipped the ball into Tommy Smith, whose angled shot was stopped at the near post by Davis. Danny Webber sliced a shot across and wide from eighteen yards. The earlier crisis forgotten, we were bright and confident and cheerful...and, pleasingly, we appeared well capable of scoring more in the second half.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Chunky Kit-Kat.
Result: By the time I got to eat it, it had turned into a drink. Bloody August. Bring on winter!

Sadly, the momentum evaporated in the heat. The second half tested the players' fitness and the fans' patience, and we failed to find the productive width and the impressive fluency that had brought results before the interval. Instead, the tempo faltered and the result was never made certain. While Wimblestein were similarly uninspired, and while our defence looked solid throughout, you always got the sense that there might be a dramatic, painful twist before the final whistle.

And so it proved. Eventually. Jamie Hand, industrious in the midfield, sent a lob attempt well wide from distance; Williams, head bandaged after an earlier clash, stretched to clear Paul Robinson's header from a fine Dominic Foley cross, the substitute striker making a more assertive claim for a place than before; Hand drove over from the edge of the box after Tommy Smith had held off a defender; Willmott sliced a shot miles wide. Despite these moments, it was dull, disappointing fare, and we'd let our chance of putting the game out of reach slip away.

For a while, it didn't matter. Although Alec Chamberlain had to fall down to this right to collect a low shot from Shipperley, there was no threat from Wimblestein. Just the ghost of a threat, from the ghost of a football club. Paul Robinson bundled his way through (rather than past) Darlington and into the box, before finishing with a curled shot at the near post, when a pull-back to Tommy Smith might've been more productive; Paolo Vernazza received a half-cleared corner and just missed the target with a swerving shot from twenty yards. The game was petering out...and we were happy, if a little underwhelmed....

It worked out rather well, then. But let's not try it again, eh? For the eighty-sixth minute was one of pure desperation, as Williams headed Andersen's free kick into the penalty area and found Francis unmarked to stab home, while defenders protested furiously at the absence of a flag for offside. And the handful of Franchise sympathisers jumped up and down in the Vic Road end, celebrating victory - or as close as victory as they'll get, hopefully - for their bastard football club. And you felt sick.

The eighty-seventh minute was rather better, though. One of those moments, in fact. For Dominic Foley climbed high to flick on a clearance, Tommy Smith had the presence of mind to avoid elaboration and simply dink it into the Allan Nielsen's path...and it sat up perfectly for him to belt a half-volley past Davis. A celebration worth throwing away a lead for...almost. Ray might not see it that way, I guess. Still, he should be pleased at his team's obstinate, dynamic response...even if you feel that anger at the controversial nature of the equaliser might have much to do with it.

It was an inspiring end, anyway. The win would've done, of course...but, hey, we did it in style. Kind of. While we should've won this with far greater ease, there's still a sense that we're starting to build something, that there's more to come.

We'll let Brighton dump Franchise FC into the relegation zone next Saturday. And I'll shut up about it until Boxing Day. Probably.