Saturday 20th March 2021, 1500 Kick Off
AFC Wimbledon vs Charlton Athletic FC
The Build Up
Having shot a few matches for Charlton’s U23 side, the club media team have been good enough to add me to their photography roster, which has opened up new opportunities for snapping matches higher up the pyramid. On this occasion, it gave me the chance to get to my first game at AFC Wimbledon’s new Plough Lane Stadium, and whilst with a baby on the way and a new day job I’m finding the time to blog my matches more difficult now, I really didn’t want to pass up writing about this one.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Dons. As a Cornish migrant in Surrey, AFC Wimbledon are the closest league club to my adopted home, and as such have always given a good opportunity to watch the club I support – Plymouth Argyle – when they visit London. However, I have never, ever seen Argyle beat them.
Founded in 2002 by supporters of Wimbledon, following the FA-assisted theft of their club, the Wombles played at Kingsmeadow for most of their history, before starting this season in a ground share at Loftus Road. This was my first experience of the new Plough Lane stadium (more on that later). It’s been a ropey few weeks for Mark Robinson’s side, who haven’t won since a Jack Rudoni strike overcame Gillingham on February 23rd. Since then, four points from a possible 18 had left them struggling to keep their heads afloat in the relegation battle which has dogged their season. Sitting 22nd in the division, Wimbledon can at least take heart from the struggles of their rivals, with only three points separating bottom placed Swindon Town from Bristol Rovers in 19th.
Visiting Charlton were coming into the match on the back of a good week. First, an eminently watchable 3-2 victory over the aforementioned Bristol Rovers took them into 6th place, before they filled their vacant managerial position with impressive rapidity. Having seen Lee Bowyer depart on Monday, it took just three days for them to appoint Nigel Adkins, who has something of a knack for overseeing promotions from the third tier. A useful trait when managing a club who would like to win promotion from the third tier. His first task at the Valley would surely be to instill some consistency – his new side haven’t won back to back matches since November.
Having beaten Bristol Rovers in midweek, it was time for them to draw again, and with Wimbledon recording four draws in their last five matches, the smart money was surely on a stalemate…
I took the train to this game, making it my first public transport match in 2021, before walking the 0.8 miles from Earlsfield station. I then spent about fifteen minutes trying to find an entrance to the stadium which was open – one of the unexpected problems caused by COVID.
The ground itself is one of the smaller stadiums in League One, with a capacity of 9,300 putting it 20th in the division from a size perspective, but it may well be top for internal aesthetic. Since formation, one of the club’s driving ambitions has been to return to the London Borough of Merton, and after years of planning, development and graft plans were finally approved in 2015, and the stadium completed in late 2020. On November 3rd they opened the new ground in their old home with (fittingly for this season) a 2-2 draw against Doncaster Rovers. Also fittingly, the first goal was scored by Joe Pigott, who has been such an influential figure in the club’s recent on-field history.
The stadium has a striking design inside, with the placement of gold seating amongst the blue giving the terracing a mottled effect. Flanked on two sides by higher rising housing developments, when there are fans inside the noise will reverberate nicely around the ground – hopefully recapturing some of the old intimidating, close-knit feel which (I’m told) the old Plough Lane had. Without fans, like every ground, it loses something, though the now familiar cardboard cut outs of fans adorn the area behind the goal in the Cherry Red Records Stand. After a full season, a good number are now missing their heads courtesy of stray shots, but thankfully the canine cut outs have survived. Slightly weirdly, that stand also played host to a lone – slightly unsettling – fake head on the floor. Anyone out there who knows why, please hit me up.
The Dons came out of the blocks faster, and had two half chances inside four minutes. First, Ayoub Assal (making his first ever start for the Dons) had a shot well saved by Ben Amos low to his left, before the Addicks scrambled the ball away moments later when Pigott was well placed. Assal is one of a number of the Wimbledon players who has earned his stripes in the non-league game, and in particular, with the Met Police. He started today, and looked bright, whilst fellow Old Bill graduates Ethan Chislett and Nesta Guinness-Walker made the bench.
After his fine performance in midweek, there was disappointment for Conor Washington early on in south west London, as he was forced off with injury after only five minutes being replaced by Diallan Jaiyesimi. With that early disruption to the match plan, as well as Wimbledon’s energetic start, it was no surprise that the Dons made much of the early running. However, with the pace and trickery of Liam Millar as an outlet on the wing it was also no surprise when Charlton took the lead. With Wimbledon pressing the Charlton defence, Ben Amos went long, and found Millar on the left. He drove at right back Luke O’Neill and made his way to byline with minimum fuss. Once there, he cut the ball back to Jayden Stockley on the six yard line, who contorted his body to get a header away and send it inside the near post. The 6ft 2 striker from Poole has the aerial presence of B-52 bomber, and used it to good effect to open the scoring.
Two minutes later Jaiyesimi found Albie Morgan down the right, but his low drive was saved well by Nik Tzanev on the Kiwi international’s fifth appearance of the season. I like Morgan as a player, he’s tenacious, good on the ball, and works hard, but most of all, he has a name like a World War One Sergeant, and I find that endearing.
On 14 minutes the Dons found their equaliser, via Brighton loanee Ryan Longman, who bagged his seventh of the campaign. Found by Joe Pigott on the edge of the area, he took the ball past Jason Pearce, who potentially clipped his heels. A man of lesser morality may have gone down, but not Mr Longman – he took a touch, moved it on to his left foot, and curled a perfect shot just inside the base of the far post. And that, kids, is why you shouldn’t go down too easily.
Charlton were spurred back into action, and in what was fast becoming an end to end match the Addicks were next on the score sheet. Again it was Millar with the assist, but if we’re to accept that the horrible American terminology of pre-assist is here to stay then credit is surely due to Jake Forster-Caskey for his ball to find the Canadian winger. He jinked past O’Neill, apologised for his actions (probably) before squaring it to Jaiyesimi and apologising again (probably). Jaiyesimi – who was having his 2m social distancing expectations respected in full by the Wimbledon defence had around three weeks to pick his spot and fire past Tzanev to put his side back in front. Unfortunately, I was so surprised at just how long he had that I started writing goal notes before he’d kicked the ball, and completely forgot to use my camera.
And that’s how it stayed until the break. Just like the first half, Wimbledon started brighter, and two minutes after the restart, the impressive Assal broke down the left and saw his side footed effort blocked. On 56 minutes, the hard running Longman played a dangerous looking ball across the six yard box, but his teammates elected to admire the pass from a distance, instead of trying to actually score from it. Longman signed a new contract for Brighton in the summer, and his performance today gave some indication as to why Graham Potter sees promise in the Epsom born forward.
On the hour mark Jaiyesimi made good progress down the Charlton left, before playing the ball to Jake Forster-Caskey. Forster-Caskey played a lovely first time pass to Andy Shinnie, and he drove goalwards. Having scored his third of the season on Tuesday, Shinnie clearly fancies his chances at the moment, and after beating his man hit a right footed effort, but it drifted wide of the goal. This prompted action in the Dons dugout, bringing on former U23 and U18 captain Jack Rudoni, as well as Sir Alec Guinness’s grandson, Nesta Guinness-Walker. It was fitting that with the full back being related to Obi Wan Kenobi, he would be going head-to-head with Stockley, who is built like Chewbacca.
It would be helpful from a writing perspective to say those changes had an influence on Wimbledon’s equaliser, but it would also be a lie. Wimbledon’s equaliser was all about one man – Akin Famewo. Originally from Lewisham, Famewo has taken a somewhat circuitous route to playing for his local club. The Norwich City loanee has played for Luton, Grimsby and St Mirren on the scenic route to a club fifteen minutes from where he grew up. He’d have been wishing he’d stayed in Norfolk on 65 minutes though, when he tried to play a five yard pass to Ben Amos, only to realise that Amos was ten yards away. I’ll tell you who wasn’t ten yards away though. Ryan Longman. He was much closer, and nipped onto the loose pass to poke the ball into an empty net.
On 73 minutes Joe Pigott almost got the goal his performance had warranted, but his right footed effort struck the base of the post, then five minutes later he had a half chance from a Nesta Guinness-Walker cross. As the ball dropped to Rudoni outside the box he was brought down for a free kick which Pigott would take. The former Maidstone United man curled his free kick up and over the wall, and despite Amos’s good starting position he still had to dive full length to palm the ball over the crossbar.
As both sides searched for the winner, Nigel Adkins brought on Darren Pratley and Chuks Aneke to try and swing the match in his favour, and it was Aneke who came closest to a winner. The 2019 signing from Milton Keynes was a renowned talent when he came through at Arsenal, and despite making most of his appearances from the bench is Charlton’s joint top scorer so far this season. With 90 minutes played, he broke through the tackle of Guinness-Walker, and sent a low shot goalwards. It crashed off the base of Tzanev’s post (not unlike Pigott’s, but it gets more focus because I have better pictures of it…) and rolled across the face of the goal, before bouncing off an ankle and into Tzanev’s grateful arms. Aneke looked like he could burst into tears, genuinely.
The Wash Up
I absolutely should have put money on a draw. The stalemate makes it five draws in six matches for the Dons, whilst continuing Charlton’s weird obsession with the win/draw alternation. However, as both teams went all out for the winner, it made the match a thoroughly absorbing contest. A point didn’t really do either sides any favours, but similarly, it didn’t do them much damage either.
Charlton retained their position in 6th, and the hold on the final Play Off spot. In the top half, only Accrington, Blackpool and Portsmouth took maximum points, so it was situation no change for most teams. At the bottom, Wimbledon dropped a place to 23rd after Swindon ripped up and ceremonially burnt the form books, by beating Fleetwood 2-0 to jump from bottom to 19th. Swindon had lost four on the bounce, whilst Fleetwood were unbeaten in six – football is mental.
There were good performances from individuals on both sides, and for Charlton it was imposing physical performances at either end of the field which caught the eye. Jason Pearce was strong at the back, whilst Ben Amos’s handling under crosses and high balls was exemplary – as was his save from Pigott’s free kick. Up top, Jayden Stockley put in a distinctly Jayden Stockley performance. Big, bustling and a bit of a bastard, he is the dictionary definition of a target man striker. His training regimen must be about 80% grabbing fistfuls of shirts from various manikins to lever himself higher in the air, whilst exclusively passing the ball with his head or chest. It may not be pretty, but it’s effective. I was impressed by Aneke as well when he came on, and cannot for the life of me understand why just 12 of his 31 appearances this season have been starts.
The Dons also had a good duo up front, with Ryan Longman and Joe Pigott dovetailing nicely. Longman will have taken the headlines with the brace (his first in professional football), but Pigott assisted his first and the two linked up well throughout. Cheye Alexander impressed me, and looks every bit a Football League player after earning his stripes with Aldershot and Barnet in the National League. In midfield, Ayoub Assal impressed on his full debut, but tired and was substituted around the hour mark, whilst Jakko Oksanen put in a committed performance. Man of the Match for me though goes to George Dobson, as the Sunderland loanee’s tenacity set the tone for a Wimbledon side whose performance belied their lowly position in the table. Strong tackling, and with a good range of passing on display, he was the best midfielder on the pitch today.