A quick look down the fixture lists for the Premier League and Football League for tomorrow seem to indicate that this might just the worst weekend of the season, football-wise. Now, Middlesbrough, Derby County, Reading and Sunderland might just manage to squeeze a point out of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, but I wouldn't be betting too much money on it, and there is precious little going on elsewhere, either - of the entire Football League programme, the only match that sticks out is the West Country derby match between Bristol City and Plymouth Argyle, and even that's not a proper derby match (City's rivals are, of course, Rovers, whilst Plymouth have that weird three-way thing going on with Exeter and Torquay).
It's getting towards that time of the season when matches that are potential championship deciders start to crop up, though, and there is one being played this weekend, in the Ryman League Premier Division, where a crowd of around 3,000 (and when considering that crowd, let's not forget that the Ryman League is the seventh division of English football) is expected at Melbourne Park for the match between Chelmsford City and AFC Wimbledon. It's a match that could practically sew up a place in the Conference South for Chelmsford, whilst a Wimbledon win might just set up an almighty scrap for the top spot over the last few weeks of the season. The positions at the time of writing are as follows:
Over the last few weeks, Wimbledon have chipped away at what had been what looked like an insurmountable twelve point lead at the top of the table - they have won five of their last six matches, whilst Chelmsford have won three, drawn two and lost one of theirs. Chelmsford, to all intents and purposes are full-time professionals. They are almost completely the Canvey Island team that went from the Essex Senior League to the Conference in just eleven years have heavy financial backing. Wimbledon, meanwhile, appear to have improved on the team that lost out in the play-offs last season, and have suffered this season because of an occasionally infuriating inconsistency. Just recently, they have managed 4-0, 5-0 and 6-1 wins, but they also contrived to lose 2-1 against a very mediocre Heybridge Swifts side in the middle of these results, after having led 1-0 at half-time. It has been that sort of season for them.
The mathematics of it all are, to Wimbledon eyes, fairly simple. A defeat will leave Chelmsford eleven points clear at the top of the table with just seven games left to play and a critical psychological boost - surely an insurmountable lead. A draw leaves them very little better off. A win for Wimbledon, however, and the whole picture changes. Matters would still be out of their hands, but Chelmsford, with five point lead and seven matches to play would suddenly look that bit more vulnerable, and in a league which ten teams are separated by just four points in the race for the three remaining play-off places below the top two, there will be very few "easy" matches for them in the run-in. Wimbledon, by contrast, would be up to six wins in seven matches, and would have the momentum with them for the final few furlongs of the marathon.
The two teams have already met twice this season. We were actually at the FA Trophy match between the two sides at the start of November. Wimbledon won 4-0 and were hardly flattered by the result. When the two teams met in the league four weeks later, though, Chelmsford won a scrappy match with a single, late goal. It requires only a cursory glance at the league table to be able to see that Chelmsford are setting a very high bar this season. It's quite likely that 90 points won't be enough to win this forty-two match season, and defeat tomorrow might be the moment at which Wimbledon supporters have to admit that, you know, this Chelmsford might just have been too strong for them all along.
While there is hope, though, there is life, and Wimbledon need to keep fighting on until the end of the season regardless of the result on Saturday. The Ryman League play-offs are between the teams in second to fifth place in the table, and are played as one-off matches, and not at neutral venues. The second placed team will be at home to the fifth placed team, and the third placed team will be at home against the fourth placed team - the highest placed winners are then at home in the final. It is, therefore, imperative that Wimbledon play to hang on to second place, even if Chelmsford do sprint away into the distance. Finishing second will guarantee them a home match in the semi-final of the play-offs and, should they win this, a home match in the final. Last year, they had to play their semi-final match away at Bromley where, in spite of a league double over them, they lost 1-0 and were confined to another season of Ryman League football.
Defeat on Saturday, then, is not the end of the world for AFC Wimbledon and their supporters. Indeed, should they lose tomorrow afternoon, how they react to such a set back would be an interesting indicator of how far they have come over the last twelve months. Last year, manager Dave Anderson was unable to sufficiently motivate his team to get past Bromley, and he paid for it with his job. The new manager, Terry Brown, is surely some way off that sort of fate this season (the likely points tally of this year's Chelmsford team here is all-important), but he is a highly experienced manager and he is the ideal man to be able to coax that extra five percent out of his players, should he really need it. I suspect, however, that it's going to be a nail-biting end to the season for AFC Wimbledon's supporter this year, no matter what happens at Melbourne Park tomorrow afternoon.