It would probably be fair to say that, for AFC Wimbledon, this season has been a story of "two steps forward, one and seven-eighths of a step back". It started with quiet optimism that, having stalled in the Ryman League Premier Division for the previous couple of seasons, this year would be the year in which they finally took another small step on the road to fulfilling what a sizeable proportion of their supporters regard as their destiny - winning back the Football League place that was swept away from under their feet by a three-kangaroo court appointed by the FA in May 2002. In the previous six years, however, a feeling of optimism has started to be replaced by the altogether more familiar feeling of frustration that the club has, in some ways, under-achieved. Last season, they briefly led the table during the spring before fading towards the end of the season and eventually losing 1-0 at Bromley in the play-off semi-finals. AFC Hornchurch, meanwhile, were formed in 2005 after Hornchurch FC closed down. The original club had been bank-rolled by the a double glazing company whose own sudden closure, with the team playing for promotion from the Conference South, left themin serious financial difficulties. The new club started again in the Essex Senior League, winning their way quickly back into the Ryman League, where they won the Division One North championship last season. This, in other words, is a club that is not used to losing.
Getting to the ground, it becomes apparent that circumstances have taken their toll. The queue for home tickets is long, but roadworks and bad weather have taken their toll on the travelling support - only a couple of hundred have decided to brave the trek across or through London to get here. The crowd is later confirmed as 2,987 - in one sense slightly disappointing for such an important match, but it is worth recalling the weather and the unholy allure of Manchester United and your own sofa. With as many people as possible seeking respite from the weather under the three covered terraces and in the main stand, it looks fuller than it is, and atmosphere is, as ever, excellent. Hornchurch start the more confidently of the two teams, though their pressing doesn't create many chances. At the back, Wimbledon are reliant on the veteran Marcus Gayle, who marshalls the defence excellently whilst displaying a lightness of touch that was overlooked during his time at Selhurst Park in the 1990s. Suddenly (and quite out of nothing), Wimbledon take the lead, when Anthony Finn touches the ball inside to Luis Cumbers, who shoots into the bottom corner of the net. There's a heart in the mouth moment shortly afterwards as the Wimbledon goalkeeper Pullen fumbles a header from a corner, but it is cleared, and Wimbledon surprise everyone by doubling their lead three minutes before half-time, when a throw in is flicked on at the near post for John Main to hook the ball past the goalkeeper.
The second half starts with Hornchurch having no option but to attack Wimbledon, but the home team still look the stronger of the two, and the gaps that Hornchurch start to leave at the back prove be inviting for the home team's strikers. The big chance to kill the match once and for all comes twenty minutes into the second half, when Steve Ferguson runs forty yards with the ball before his shot is blocked by the Hornchurch goalkeeper Dale Brightly. Wimbledon's supporters' fears rose back to the surface with fifteen minutes to go when Hornchurch pull a goal back, Harry Elmes hooking the ball in from eight yards out. Suddenly, Wimbledon's backs are against the wall. For all the pressure, though, Hornchurch fail to create much in the way of clear chances. The seconds, however, still turn to minutes and the minutes to hours as Hornchurch launch ball after ball towards the Wimbledon goal time after time. The clock ticks over ninety minutes and the announcement that four minutes injury time will be added is greeted by a single, collective, anguished moan. They needn't have worried. With thirty seconds to play, John Main picks the ball just inside his own half and, as if it's suddenly no more than a practice match, runs. And runs. He leaves the two remaining Hornchurch defenders for dead and rolls the ball past Lightly and into the goal. The roar of the crowd is almost primeval, threatening to completely tear the roof off The Tempest End, in front of which the ball has just been deposited. Seconds later, the full-time whistle blows and it's over.
Well, it's over for now. Ten minutes or so after the match, the news filters through from Wheatsheaf Lane that Staines Town have beaten Ramsgate 2-1 in the other semi-final, and now a tricky away match awaits them in the final. After a season that has stopped, started and misfired, there was an air of serious trepidation around Kingsmeadow last night, and the crowd's reaction to the result was cathartic. They are, however, only half-way there, and the over-confidence that has blighted their season threatens to yet ruin their season if they don't retain their focus and concentrate on a difficult match ahead. They beat Staines away in the Ryman League this season, but that will count for nothing at five to three on Saturday afternoon, and Staines' form indicates that seeing them off for a third time will be no mean feat. Still, with 1,000 tickets sold in a 2,600 crowd on Saturday and no cast iron stand-out players in the Staines team, it promises to be a tense, nervy afternoon.
Videos of the goals from last night's match are available here.