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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Devil and the AFC

Nobes takes a look at the contrasts in an intriguing race for the Conference title - a contest which neutrals are keeping more than an eye on.

Terry Brown and Steve Evans are both hoping for Conference title glory this year

Not for many seasons has the race for the Conference title sparked such interest. However, it's not just Non League supporters who are keeping a keen eye on who will top the table come the end of the season.

The battle emerging between AFC Wimbledon and Crawley Town - albeit with Luton not yet out of the equation - is a classic case of contrasts. Two clubs who could hardly be more removed from one another.

One, the phoenix side formed in 2002 by aggrieved fans of the old Wimbledon - angered at how their football league place was usurped by Milton Keynes.

They carry with them the good-will and best wishes of all football fans - as they continue to work their way back up the pyramid. To date, four promotions in eight years have left them just one step away from claiming a place in the Football League.

The other, Crawley, are a club who have been financially mismanaged for a number of years and, in 2007, hired convicted fraudster Steve Evans as manager.

Last summer, the Red Devils, thanks to the finances of backer Bruce Winfield, embarked on an unprecedented spending spree - with the sole intention of bringing League Two football to their corner of Sussex. It has earned them the tag of "the Non League Manchester City."

While the race looks like being close to call, there's no doubt who the neutrals want to see crowned champions come April. For all their money, Crawley can't buy anyone's love.

Not that I can claim to be an impartial party. After all, Evans dragged my own proud club's name through the mud before leaving it days from going out of existence and tumbling down the Non League ladder.

Along the way he picked up a 20 month ban from management and a suspended jail sentence for his part in a tax swindle.

On top of it, he possesses an unrivalled ability to get under opposition managers, players, and fans' skins - all in the name of mind games and psychological warfare.

Indeed, watching Crawley's progress has reminded me of our own bitter race for the title in 2002. Evans raged a war of words across the media with Garry Hill, boss of title rivals Dagenham & Redbridge.

Nine years later, and he is at it again. Over Christmas, he claimed that the Dons would only finish third and would slip out of the title race leaving Crawley and Luton battling it out.

After a recent 0-0 draw at Grimsby, Evans also labelled Wimbledon boss Terry Brown "disrespectful", suggesting Brown had been telling everybody that Town would "win here comfortably."

When the two sides faced one another in September, with the Dons running out 2-1 winners, Evans savaged reporters after the game, arguing that his side had been the only ones trying to play any football.

"Is that the benchmark we've got to be up to there? We've not got a problem," he ranted before swiftly storming out of the interview.

The 48-year-old is a combustible character, whose outspoken manner saw him sent from the technical area half a dozen times in his first season at the Broadfield Stadium, earning him a ten match touchline ban.

However, he is also a capable manager in the Conference Premier and has spent the big money he has been given well. Striker Matt Tubbs, snapped up from Salisbury, is the division's top scorer with 22 goals to his name.

The likes of Craig McAllister, Sergio Torres, and £300,000 man Richard Brodie ensure that Town are a team packed full of goals and attacking talent. However, they also boast a robust defence, with 18 goals conceded the tightest in the league.

Also, while they sit a couple of points behind AFC Wimbledon in the standings, their run to the FA Cup fifth round means they have four games in hand on their rivals, as well as possessing a superior goal difference.

The goals of Matt Tubbs could fire Crawley Town in the Football League

Evans will also be buoyed by the fact his side haven't lost in the league since mid-October and they will have home advantage when the Dons come to town next month.

All of which means that, just like their ancestors at Wembley in 1988, Wimbledon are very much the underdogs when it comes to them continuing their rise up from the ninth tier of English football.

However, for all football romantics who baulk at both Milton Keynes and Crawley's spending, the idea of AFC once again losing out to everything they despise about the modern game is one irony too many.

The Londoners aren't even fortunate enough to have their own ground, they currently ground share at Kingsmeadow with Kingstonian, although they are looking at moving back to their Merton Borough home in the future.

They certainly can't compete in the financial stakes with either Crawley or Luton, although they regularly attract home crowds of over 3,000 - which only the Hatters better.

They also have, in Brown, a manager who has proven himself more than capable in the Non Leagues and who deserves a chance to prove his abilities at a higher level.

He couldn't have come much closer in the past either. As manager of Aldershot Town, he took the Hampshire side into the Conference in 2003, leading the part time outfit all the way to the play off final.

There, they cruelly lost on penalties to Shrewsbury and, 12 months later, they again lost out on spot kicks, this time to Carlisle in the semi finals.

Ultimately, he only left the Shots in 2007 to take care of his ill wife, before returning with the Dons and taking them to back-to-back promotions.

Now, with a largely young squad plucked from the Non Leagues, and a desire to try and play the game the right way, Brown is hoping to make it third time lucky and gain elevation to the Football League.

Certainly the 58-year-old has brought into the ideals of the club, stating that the old Wimbledon were "sold down the river" by the Football League and that promotion would see AFC claim "what is rightfully ours."

Wimbledon are a model fans club - run by a board of nine people elected from The Dons Trust - a paid-for membership scheme involving around 1700 supporters. Being "sustainable" is the goal, as well as moving back to their true home.

While some Dons players have reacted to the taunts of Evans though, Brown insists that the Crawley boss doesn't get under his skin, going as far as saying that his opposite number's mischief-making even benefits the Conference.

However, the two clubs did lock horns over the summer, with Crawley's much-publicised failed attempts to sign Dons skipper Danny Kedwell. Brown must ensure he now doesn't light the blue touch paper during the run-in.

Arguably, Wimbledon can look ahead knowing the pressure is all on their rivals. However, they would, for once, echo the words of Evans who admitted "there is a certain feeling that when it is your year you have to take it."

Judging by the general coldness that Crawley's FA Cup run has been received by lower league supporters, it will be interesting to see the reaction should they indeed take the title and automatic promotion.

However, it is AFC Wimbledon who will carry the vast majority of support from the rest of the Conference. As Brown commented, "If and when we do get back into the League I'm sure every proper football fan will rejoice with us."

You get the feeling they would even more so if it happens this particular year.

4 comments:

  1. Hmmm good article, but I think Wrexham are still in with a shot. They play Crawley twice next week and have two games in hand on AFC and only 6 points behind the top. So it could potentially be a four horse race.

    Sadly Crawley have 5 games in hand, I'm hoping the FA cup distracts them enough. If it does, I'd put money on Luton taking it.

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  2. "albeit with Luton not yet out of the equation" Luton are a point behind the Wombles with 2 games in hand, maybe more in the equation than you think!

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  3. I think you're forgetting one very important fact... the headline wouldn't have worked with Luton being included too.

    I'm not gonna let the facts get in the way of a good play on words.

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