The game: AFC Wimbledon v. Northampton Town.
The ground: The Cherry Red Records Stadium.
The conditions: dreary, dour and prone to spitting. Not dissimilar to Jonny Evans.
Good Friday is a significant date in the calendar. As everyone in England knows, it marks the beginning of four-day weekend in which we all devour obscene amounts of milk chocolate, venerate grotesque man-sized rabbits and drink egregious quantities of Montepulciano. This is not its only significance, of course.
For the footballing community, Good Friday also heralds a welcome round of weekday fixtures. Amongst them this Easter was a mid-table League Two clash which – much like egg-shaped confectionary – I found strangely impossible to resist; the ‘Dons’ of AFC Wimbledon hosted the ‘Cobblers’ of Northampton Town at The Cherry Red Records Stadium (i.e. Kingsmeadow), both sides still hoping to set off on a late-season run and possibly, just possibly, steal into a play-off place.
With a more-than-healthy holiday crowd of 4,667 turning out for the game, the ground was absolutely packed at kick off. Despite the dismal weather, the atmosphere was equally impressive; while the home fans and the substantial travelling contingent got the singing going on the terraces, Dons’ mascot Haydon the Womble leapt about riotously on the sidelines, hyping fans up, high fiving people indiscriminately and punching the air with such force that he almost lost his giant foam head on several occasions.
The start of the match wasn’t quite as enthusing. Though John-Joe O’Toole and the spritely James Gray made two prompt chances for the visitors – striker Ricky Holmes failed to convert either – both sides struggled to find early fluency. Multiple long free kicks were exchanged around the twenty-minute mark, Northampton centre back Ryan Cresswell nodding just over prior to Dons’ midfielder Jake Reeves almost lobbing away keeper Matt Duke having snaffled up a shanked clearance. Apart from that, the play was all about defensive endeavour. Dons’ right back Barry Fuller stood out as particularly committed in this, snuffing out each and every attack on his flank with gusto.
In the twenty-eighth minute, O’Toole latched on to a long goal kick just outside the Wimbledon box; from there, he thumped his shot high. Moments later, Dons’ forward Craig Tanner received a long ball from home stopper Ross Worner in almost exactly the same manner; deftly nipping past Cresswell and defensive partner Zander Diamond, Tanner could only tickle the side netting with a shot that was weak and wide.
In the thirty-seventh, the Cobblers’ Lee Collins and Joel Byrom combined well on the left; the latter crossed in for the waiting Gray, but Northampton’s number fourteen could only head straight at Worner. There was little incident after this and referee Chris Sarginson soon signalled for the break. The muted reaction from the fans was understandable; well, it was to me at least – Haydon the Womble was having none of it, resolutely refusing to halt his manic gesticulating until everyone had shuffled off to the Gourmet Burger van.
Thankfully, the second half was a completely different affair to the first. The home side came quickest out of the blocks, wide man Sean Rigg winning an instant free kick which defender Adedeji Oshilaja almost headed in; the ball was frantically scrambled away at the last. Three minutes later, iconic striker and former Cobbler Ade ‘The Beast’ Akinfenwa – kept quiet up until now – found Tanner in space on the edge of the away area; the Dons’ number twenty-seven smashed a vicious shot toward the top left, one which Matt Duke did exceptionally well to save.
The Dons’ kept pressing Northampton, getting their reward before long. In the fifty-eighth minute, a long free kick fell to Akinfenwa five yards out; he nodded the ball down for Rigg who then poked home past the helpless Duke. The ground suddenly came to life. Haydon went totally feral.
It was only about to get better for Wimbledon. A couple of minutes later, Fuller played a sweet cross-field ball to The Beast out on the left. With not a marker in sight, Akinfenwa took this down, picked his pass and teed up Tanner on the edge of the box; his shot was saved. Happily for the home team, the rebound came straight back to Akinfenwa who played an almost identical pass to the unmarked Jake Reeves; this was powered into the back of the net to double the Dons’ advantage.
Tanner could have made it three-nil straight after the restart; the rampant Akinfenwa dinked a ball over the Northampton defence which his teammate then volleyed onto the crossbar. However, the match was soon to take another exhilarating turn. In the sixty-sixth minute, some quick Cobblers’ passing ended with Gray receiving the ball ten yards out before curling it into the top right. Cue mad celebrations in front of the away fans. They clearly felt a result was back on.
The Wimbledon defence seemed paralysed by the reversal; Holmes waltzed past Dons’ defender Jake Goodman in the sixty-eighth minute, firing low only to see Worner fall uncomfortably on his shot and save. Northampton drew level barely a minute afterward. Lax marking from an away free kick allowed Gray a free header. Leaping like a claret salmon, he clobbered the ball in via the post and Worner’s outstretched fingertips. I was stunned, mainly because the match had inexplicably produced four goals in quick succession.
Everything became tighter again after the equaliser; the sides seemed more interested in redeeming their respective moments of defensive carelessness than opening the game up further. The Dons probably had the best chances to win it, Tanner smashing over in the eighty-third minute, Oshilaja glancing high from a corner and substitute Adebayo Azeez firing just wide at the death, yet a draw felt a fair result by the end. Even Haydon seemed pretty content at the final whistle, fist bumping players in a manner that – compared to his earlier antics – was really quite serene.
Two very different halves of football made for a surprisingly good game, all things considered. Happy enough with my Easter fixture, I hopped on a 131 bus and lumbered my way homeward. My happiness soon turned to pure delight. There was egg-shaped confectionary to be eaten.
Result: AFC Wimbledon 2 Northampton Town 2.
My MoM: Ade Akinfenwa (Wimbledon). Came alive in the second half, got two assists and could have had a third had Tanner’s volley gone in. Beast.
Best fans: Haydon the Womble is the best fan. Uncle Bulgaria would be proud. Or possibly a bit frightened. Or both.