MATCH REPORT: AFC Wimbledon - Manchester City (FA Cup)
Wembley Stadium, Final
AFC Wimbledon Starting XI: Brown; Fuller, Bennett, Fundingsrud, Kennedy; Sainte-Luce (Francomb 85’), Pell (Porter 105’), L. Moore (Sweeney 85’), Bamba; Green (Bald) [c], Green (Other)
AFC Wimbledon Substitutes: Strutton, White, Sweeney, Francomb, Porter, Frampton, Sheringham
Manchester City Starting XI: Hart; Richards, Lescott, Kompany [c], Kolarov; Jesús Navas, Yaya Touré (David Silva 59’), Vidal, Nasri; Guidetti (Nimely 85’), Jovetić
Manchester City Substitutes: Zabaleta, Nastasić, David Silva, Pantilimon, Milner, Nimely, Cole
Nerdfighter Football Club were not granted a media pass to the FA Cup final. Your humble narrator had to cover the game and take notes from the Wimbledon supporter’s’ section. On the one hand, there’s nowhere I rather would’ve been. On the other hand, you try taking notes on a day like today.
I was sat next to a man named David. He works as a busker (playing the folk harp) while pursuing a doctorate, splits his time between Porth Tywyn and Leicester, and has two adorable children. The eldest, 4, went to her first football match earlier in the season, when the Wimbly Womblys played away to Newport County. He’s also been a fan of the club almost since the beginning. The cup final left him in a bit of a quandary- this was his weekend with the kids, but he couldn’t get tickets for them. (Even if he could, he was afraid a Wembley cup final would be too much for a 4 year old and an 8 month old.) Some of his mates in the Tempest End spread the word and soon a fellow Wimbledon supporter offered to mind the kids while he went to the game. Because that’s what AFC Wimbledon supporters do for each other. He gave excellent colour commentary throughout the match, which I’ll be sharing bits of throughout the report. It didn’t have the professional polish that an Alan Smith or a Clarke Carlisle brings to a broadcast, but nothing about this club is polished.
It seemed right that we played Manchester City in the Final. The match took on an outsize significance in the British sporting media- in a stunning turn of events- because the storylines are so ripe. Writers more eloquent than I observed that the game was a proxy for our own conflicted feelings about the state of modern football. Lining up on one end is a team owned and operated by its fans, mostly residents of working class South London neighborhoods, hewing to a philosophy that football is about glory, community, and above all things love. And lining up on the other end is a team owned and operated by the powerful Sheikh Mansour, awash in oil money, run on a philosophy that titles and honours in football can be bought like biscuits from Tesco. Costel Pantilimon, City’s backup goalkeeper, makes almost three times more than AFC Wimbledon’s entire playing budget. This was as close to a morality play as you’re likely to find in football, so much so that there was a danger it would veer into a grotesque spectacle. But it’s easy for the media and casual observers to forget that there are real people singing songs urging their sides to glory. I couldn’t forget, because I was sat with them.
Manchester City were keen to put three or four goals away before half time and cruise to the Royal Box. AFC Wimbledon, for their part, were just trying to avoid making stupid mistakes in the back and then try to nick a goal. What was astonishing was seeing City get frustrated after failing to break down Wimbledon’s defense and then change their approach by trying to catch them on the break. It’s like they were playing Barcelona in the Champions League. They’re not supposed to struggle against these kind of teams.
There’s no way to describe the run of play other than ferocious. Wimbledon almost got on the scoreline within 10 minutes when Bald John Green sent in a cross towards Harry Pell, but Joe Hart got his hand up high enough to swat the ball away. The Dons threatened again near the 35th minute- a cross, a bad clearance, some good build-up, a shot from Kevin Sainte-Luce that should’ve gone in. For their part, City held the ball well but didn’t look genuinely threatening until just before half time- a counterattack following a Wimbledon corner nearly had Stevan Jovetić alone on goal. A few passes led to a cross from Yaya Touré, a headed clearance, and a rebounded shot from Jesús Navas blocked by Callum Kennedy. A City corner, another clearance, a Dons counterattck, a cross, a reach about Yousseff Bamba for the ball. Half time.
There was no gradual warm-up in the second half. Wimbledon won the ball outside their own 18 and got the ball to Bald John Green holding space in the midfield. He took a few touches to set the trap, then sent a long ball to his partner on the break. Other John Green rendezvoused with the ball inside the opposition’s box and hit the volley- the shot was improbably saved by Hart, the Bald Green followed in for the rebound, but he was just beat out by Joleon Lescott. Counterattack after counterattack after counterattack. This game was not for the faint of heart. For most of the match Wimbledon looked the better side, but lacked that extra half second of pace to finish. I say this not to excuse the Dons performance in the final third, but rather to provide a context for the injustice of what happened in the 70th minute.
Samir Nasri muscled his way past Sainte-Luce and pushed toward the corner flag. He sent a cross in to, presumably to meet an onrushing Jovetić. That turned out to be a decoy to distract from John Guidetti lurking unmarked at the far post. A hop, a snap of the neck, a sickening roar from the opposite end of Wembley.
There was stunned silence in our section. The goal hurt, but the worst part was the sense of grudging acceptance that started to creep in. We weren’t supposed to win. This is Manchester City. We’re just lucky to be here. It spread like a medieval contagion. Even I started to feel it. But David was immune.
”We’re not done yet.”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me, or others around us, or himself. Maybe all of the above.
Soon after the restart Bamba and Luke Moore had some interplay on the left flank before sending in a cross that was easily cleared. Was this the script now? City looked ready to enter cruise control. They got their goal, they just had to sit back and defend. Don’t work too hard. It’s unseemly against a League Two club. And anyway, the Premier League title is still in the balance. Save your strength for that. You got your goal. Don’t get cocky.
But then City started throwing men forward again. Maybe they wanted a second goal to be absolutely sure. But Fundingsrud won the ball and sent it to Moore. He started his run down the left flank, and you know. Somehow you just knew.
”We’re not done yet!”
Luke Moore bombed down the left completely unmarked. By the time Micah Richards realized the peril it was too late. He sent the ball into the box. Bald John Green flew. Kolarov jumped for the ball too, but he was spurred by panic while Green was fueled by love and glory. The snap of the neck. Hart’s dive, just a fraction of a second late. The bulging net. Bald John Green ripping off his shirt. Bald John Green standing on the advertising boards yelling “Now do you believe us?!” Bedlam. Crying.
”WE’RE! NOT! DONE! YET!”
I wish I could tell you the feeling we had in the Wimbledon end. Any other team and the supporters would’ve felt like they had robbed a bank. But this. This felt right somehow. Poetic. The next movement in the story. City only scored the goal to make our story worthwhile. This was our story. This was always our story. City were just filling in for the role of the foil. The moral arc of the universe was bending once again towards Plough Lane.
City became gripped with panic. They didn’t want to go to extra time. They really didn’t want to go to penalties. Beating a League Two team shouldn’t be this hard, even in the cup. Why is this so hard? Wimbledon were resurgent. Almost fey. Terrible, in the classic sense of the word. Like the dawn. Soon after the restart the Dons almost, almost, made it 2-1: Bamba beat his defender on the wing, attempted a cross, the ball deflected, fell to Kennedy, passed to Moore, passed to Sainte-Luce, a clever turn with his back to goal, a shot that should’ve gone in.
Just a minute later. Four minutes from full time. Pell wins the ball in the attacking third. Bombs to the left, drawing the back line with him. The Cruyff turn to beat Navas. The cross. Francomb running in to hit the volley. The ball slipping underneath Lescott AND over Hart. It’s going in! It’s going in!! CLEARED OFF THE LINE!!!
How anyone in the Wimbledon end survived cardiopulmonary arrest is anyone’s guess. City tried to get the ball and break but couldn’t hang on to it. The Dons kept the ball in the attacking third but couldn’t find a killer pass. Swordfighting on the edge of the cliff. Screaming. Endless screaming. The ref had to blow for full time twice. The players couldn’t hear it. Or maybe they tried to ignore it.
Extra time was jittery, ugly football. Both teams pushed through fatigue and nerves. Wimbledon got a lot sloppier in possession and sent fewer men forward. City almost put it away in the 101st when a free kick taken quickly got the ball to Navas and into the box before the Dons’ back line realized play had restarted. They recovered (barely) and got the ball to Francomb who made an unmarked run down the right. (City’s marking was awful, just awful.) His cross connected with Other John Green, but Hart, giving his best Jerzy Dudek impersonation, threw his body in front of the ball and deflected it out. In the second half of extra time Bald John Green almost put it away but the linesman called him offside. Jovetić responded with a quick counterattack but was dispossessed in the box by Fundingsrud. If game in regulation was a thrilling swordsman duel, extra time was two drunkards waving steak knives in each other’s general direction. No organization, no shape. Just tired legs and a ticking clock.
It wasn’t enough. Neither team had enough. It had to be penalties.
We all know the story of AFC Wimbledon. We all remember the penalty shootout against Luton. But that was the Conference promotion playoffs. This is the FA Cup Final. We’re not supposed to get through this. We should just be happy we got this far and held one of the biggest, richest clubs in the world to a draw after 120 minutes.
Other John Green took the first penalty for Wimbledon. He took so long to shoot he almost drew a yellow card for time wasting. Green shot right. Hart stood still. 1-0.
Jovetić went first for City. He tried the stutter step. Brown didn’t fall for it. He shot for the corner. Brown pawed away. 1-0
Porter next. He waited for Hart to commit. The keeper dove right. Porter shot left. 2-0.
Vidal next. The shot rockets left. Brown never had a chance. It’s Arturo Vidal. 2-1.
Kennedy. He fakes left. Hart commits. The shot drifts wide and stays just inside the post. 3-1.
Nasri. He hits it straight down the middle. Brown displays latent telepathic abilities and stands his ground. The ball flies squarely into Seb’s midriff. Two penalties. Seb Brown saved two penalties against Manchester City. He has two stories now. 3-1.
Sweeney. If he hits this, it’s over. Deep breaths. He shoots wide to the right. Too wide. 3-1.
David Silva. He has to score or it’s finished. 90,000 people hold their breaths. Brown and Silva lock eyes, like rival pack alphas. The shot fires straight ahead. The wind catches it. Pulls the ball right. It knocks over a microphone. The sound. The inexplicable roar. Like the world being born all over again.
In 1988, Wimbledon FC beat the most successful club in English football history at the time to win the FA Cup, having played non league football just about a decade prior. 15 years later they were moved to a town 60 miles away and rebranded (though they insist on keeping the “Dons”). The fans started a new club. 9 years later they were in the Football League. And now they, too, have won the FA Cup. Most people will say this was impossible, and maybe they’re right, but everything is impossible until it happens. We knew, though. All of us knew. David knew. We looked at each other and nodded, because we knew. A new club called Wimbledon, in a new stadium called Wembley, lifting the oldest prize in football. It was always going to be this way. Like the club itself, finding its way back to Plough Lane. We’ve all come home again, the long way ‘round.
AFC Wimbledon 1-1 Manchester City a.e.t. (3-1 pen.)
Scoreline: Guidetti (MCI) 70’, Bald Green (WIM) 79’