AFC Wimbledon and the magic of the FA Cup

Every sports fan knows, that every now and then the result of a game beggars belief. On such occasions the form book goes out of the window, and shares in crystal balls plummet. There’s no rhyme or reason to the result…. or is there?

Yesterday saw two Premier League teams exit the FA Cup. In fact only seven of the 20 Premier League teams will play in the 5th round. Millwall beat Wolves in controversial style. But arguably the biggest shock of the 4th round, was AFC Wimbledon’s 4-2 win against West Ham United.

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“Making good use of the things that we find. Things that the everyday folks leave behind”

The Wombling Song – Lyrics: Mike Batt

Wimbledon’s squad are a rag bag, but effective, mix of young untamed talent and seasoned journeymen. In fact the cost of their three goalscorers last night was nothing, nada, niente! By contrast the cost of West Ham’s two goalscorers is £50m. The whole West Ham’s squad cost £162m, which could have bought the Wimbledon squad 3000 times over. West Ham’s squad is full of international players. Wimbledon only full international, Montserrat forward Lyle Taylor, left for Charlton Athletic last summer.

So why did AFC Wimbledon triumph?

A lot has been said about desire. The multi-millionaires of Premier League teams used to the trappings of a closeted existence, having to squash into a small changing room with little of the home comforts they’re used to. Throw in a largely partisan home crowd, and it can feel like a world away from where you’d want to be. But these are professionals. They should be able to deal with such situations, but it was clear that for at least the first half they didn’t.

So is the FA Cup a distraction from the bigger prize for Premier League clubs. You could argue that for the big boys, yes it is. The financial gain of winning the FA Cup pales into insignificance compared to winning the Premier League or Champions League. So the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool could be forgiven for giving the FA Cup a lower priority.

But this was West Ham. They’re currently in 10th place, some 13 points off a European place next season. They’ve next to zero chance of reaching that goal. So with nothing else to play for, why didn’t they:

  • Field their strongest squad.
  • Look like they give a toss for the first 45 minutes.

Surely winning the one piece of silver wear they still had a chance of winning should have been a priority. You could argue that the West Ham starting 11 on Saturday was more than capable of winning the game. With the likes of Mark Nobel, Andy Carroll, and Javier Hernández, it should have been men against boys.

For the first half, it wasn’t. West Ham had one early effort that hit the woodwork, but by half time hadn’t threatened the Wimbledon goal further, and had themselves conceded two goals. Half time saw three changes in personal in an effort to get back into the game. But two minutes in and the three players brought on, only stood and watched as Wimbledon went 3-0 up.

Had that early Hernandez chance gone in rather than hitting the post, maybe things would have ended differently. But Wimbledon had enough of the ball before this to suggest they could make a game of it. And once that first deflected shot went in, we suspected something special was about to happen. When a defensive catastrophe led the second goal, we KNEW the shock was very much on.

The second half brought the West Ham cavalry. They scored a good goal ten minutes after we went 3-0 up, then got another from a direct free kick . With 20 minutes left, we suspected West Ham would sneak a draw, or worse, a win. But as the game went on, Wimbledon looked relatively comfortable defensively.

The final nail came with the Dons fourth goal. With 88 minutes gone, most teams would have run down the clock and keep the ball down by the nearest corner flag. Not Wimbledon. They went for the jugular. Their two goal hero Scott Wagstaff passed to Anthony Wordworth who appeared in acres of space in the West Ham penalty area. One exquisite cross to the back stick later, and there was 19 year old academy product Toby Sibbick heading in his first senior goal. A great goal, and an even better goal celebration. As manager Wally Downes said, that goal gave the fans a chance to enjoy those final few minutes. It was the final nail in West Ham’s FA Cup coffin for this season.

With both Millwall and Wimbledon through, the anticipation of who they’d meet in the next round grew to a crescendo. But dreams of away trips to Old Trafford or Anfield we’re dashed, when they were drawn against each other. Yes Wimbledon are at home again in yet another London FA Cup derby. Haringay Borough, West Ham, and now Millwall.

Could Wimbledon’s dream repeat itself? Only time will tell, but Wimbledon fans everywhere will remember Saturday 26th January 2018 for a very, very long time.

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