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FA Carling Premiership, 4/12/99
Back to Selhurst
By Matt Rowson

It may indeed have been daytime now, as Gollum said, but the hobbits could see little difference, unless, perhaps, the heavy sky above was less utterly black, more like a great roof of smoke; while instead of the darkness of deep night, which lingered still in cracks and holes, a grey blurring shadow shrouded the stony world about them. They passed on, Gollum in front and the hobbits now side by side, up the long ravine between the piers and columns of torn and weathered rock, standing like huge unshapen statues on either hand. There was no sound. Some way ahead, a mile or so, perhaps, was a great grey wall, a last huge upthrusting mass of mountain-stone. Darker it loomed, and steadily it rose as they approached, until it towered up high above them, shutting out the view of all that lay beyond. Deep shadow lay before its feet. Sam sniffed the air.

'Ugh! That smell!' he said. 'It's getting worse'.

'Shit' said Frodo 'I hate Selhurst Park'.

Just when you thought it was safe to attend away matches. One of the great pleasures of promotion was waving goodbye to Crystal Palace; Selhurst was no small part of that. It matters little that top-flight football has been played here since 1989, this is a god-forsaken place that has neither the character of a good Nationwide ground nor the decent bogs of a Premiership venue. Plough Lane, now there was a ground....

Wimbledon have been in the top flight since 1986, and have been patronised, written-off, deprived of due credit and conspired against ever since. Goodness knows it's been a big enough pain in the arse to put up with that for three months...remember how "Chelsea cocked up and lost to Watford"? How every bugger in the visiting supporters' section in the programme has condemned us to the drop? How the video of Mark Williams' sending off at Old Trafford wasn't even reviewed, whilst Steve Staunton had his sending off for Villa revoked?

Little wonder then that the strains of thirteen years of this, not to mention threats of uprooting the club to Dublin, are showing some evolutionary effects on the Dons faithful. Natural selection means that only the seriously warped survive; witness the "Drillo Zone" section of "It's a Weird and Wonderful World" which discusses and contrasts at great length the relative merits of zonal and man-marking defensive systems. I mean, a tactical discussion...on a fan's website. Yikes. Witness also the message board which forsakes discussion of which player should do what and which ref is a bastard this week for contemplation of the best albums of the nineties, occasionally breaking to consider whether ex-midfielder Vaughn Ryan is selling the Big Issue yet. Bonkers.

Let's get one thing straight though. Even pitched alongside the run of fixtures we "enjoyed" from September to October, this is no easy game. Don't be fooled into lumping Wimbledon in with the likes of punchless Derby and hapless Sheffield Wednesday as our rivals to escape relegation. The Dons are fourteenth and upwardly mobile, thank you very much...the capsizing Aston Villa and even Middlesbrough, "managed" as they are, may be more realistic targets.

Two big hopes for Saturday: one, that the Cup-tie at Huddersfield during the week takes place on a strength-sappingly heavy pitch. Two, that "Big Shorts" Johnny Hartson, eternally beloved of the Watford support, fails to recover from the niggle which kept him out (and, in all likelihood, the Dons down to a point) on Saturday.

Wimbledon's defence looked very ropy on the opening day, but the arrival of Hermann Hreidarsson from Brentford and the move of Ben Thatcher to the centre (not that left-back hunting Liverpool have noticed) have eased the adoption of the much-discussed zonal marking system. Tore Pedersen is injured, and Dean Blackwell, who received a red card at the Vic in August and has been in similarly inglorious form since, is out of favour. Alan Kimble is rejuvenated on the left, Kenny Cunningham on the right, with the formidable Neil Sullivan, whose future is still vague, in goal.

A five-man midfield typically features Leicester target Marcus Gayle and everybody target Carl Cort breaking from wide, with Norwegian Martin Andersen, converted striker Jason Euell and veteran Robbie Earle MBE in the centre. Michael Hughes' future seems to be in the balance as Fulham maintain a dogged interest following Hughes' petulant refusal to sit on the bench earlier in the season. Israeli Walid Badir is another option; Gareth Ainsworth is, as ever, injured. Up front, Carl Leaburn deputised for Hartson at the Riverside.

A tough, physical game in prospect, but having said that this will be difficult, don't rule out a Watford victory. Wimbledon, of course, specialise in the unexpected. Full-back Duncan Jupp recently injured himself by crashing a golf-buggy. The year that their players start picking up hamstring strains like every other bugger is the year they go down.