Chelsea show spirit vs. old neighbours
LONDON -- It seems like a lifetime ago, even if they frequently see each other in passing. Once upon a time, AFC Wimbledon and Chelsea fixtures were a feature of top-flight life as familiar to their fans as the short stretch of London's Underground that many of them have long traversed on their way to games.
With Wimbledon centre and Stamford Bridge separated by just five stops on the District Line, supporters frequently cross paths in each other's pubs on home match days. For once, in Chelsea's 3-2 win over AFC on Saturday, they were headed to the same place.
If Chelsea only ever visited Wimbledon (pre-Milton Keynes schism, of course) at Plough Lane and Selhurst Park, this sold-out friendly at the Cherry Red Records Stadium would be ripe with historical significance. It was the case for John Terry for one. When he was balancing duties for Chelsea's reserve team with learning his trade from Marcel Desailly in the late 1990s, it was at this stadium -- then just plain old Kingsmeadow -- that he turned out for the second string.
There are more recent links between the two, with AFC Wimbledon's first captain, striker Joe Sheerin, coming through the Chelsea youth academy and making one brief Premier League appearance for the Blues in 1997. Sheerin was a last-minute substitute for Gianfranco Zola in a 1-0 win over Wimbledon at Selhurst. He didn't touch the ball.
Even current Dons manager Neal Ardley has his particular Chelsea memories, having bamboozled poor Kevin Hitchcock with a long-range effort that helped Joe Kinnear's side to a 4-2 win at the Bridge in October 1997, which briefly lifted Wimbledon joint-top of the Premier League alongside Arsenal. Later in that season, Zola picked apart that team's FA Cup hopes in a mesmerising display in the semifinal at Highbury.
From that point, the two neighbours' fortunes sharply diverged. While the signings of Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Ruud Gullit had been financed by superfan Matthew Harding, it was Wimbledon who were first owned by a billionaire. In fact, there were two of them: Norwegians Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten.
The emphatic impact of Roman Abramovich's 2003 arrival in southwest London needs no re-emphasis. Yet the Rokke and Gjelsten era was as disastrous for Wimbledon as Abramovich's has been stratospherically successful for the Blues, with the move out of the capital and metamorphosis into Milton Keynes Dons failing to bring the bounty that owners envisaged. While the majority of Wimbledon's fans have built AFC Wimbledon since 2002, four miles from the town's centre, Chelsea's regulars have observed the patrimony of local football continuing (AFC Wimbledon, incidentally, hold the original club's honours), even if sporting circumstances have changed.
Saturday's game began with another marker of historical precedent in clashes between the two sides; an early goal, with home skipper Alan Bennett heading George Francomb's corner past Mark Schwarzer at the back post after 38 seconds. It harked back to the clubs' first meeting in 1986, when John Fashanu nodded in a Wally Downes flag kick 50 seconds into a December encounter at a then-rickety Stamford Bridge.
Wimbledon won 4-0 on that chilly afternoon, a result that requires a few blinks and a rub of the eyes to believe today, even from those who were actually there. There was more double-taking at halftime, as today's Dons went in two goals to the good. The second was an inglorious moment for Kurt Zouma, with the French defender losing Francomb's raking pass in the flight and then bringing down Matt Tubbs as one of the lower division's most reliable predators controlled to fix a sight of goal. Had this been a competitive match, the former Saint Etienne centre-back would have been sent off. In this context, Tubbs' expertly drilled penalty was the only rebuke.
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It was a similarly composed Chelsea side to the one that had obliterated Wimbledon's League Two rivals Wycombe 5-0 on Wednesday night, mixing experienced World Cup abstainers like Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah with promising prospects such as Jeremie Boga and Patrick Bamford.
Matic, the first period's dominant presence, showed exactly how key he will be in prompting play from deep in midfield, especially after Frank Lampard's departure. Boga, the 17-year-old French midfielder drafted into the XI at late notice, looked composed and authoritative next to the Serbian.
They faced tougher opposition than they had at Adams Park, though, with Wimbledon well-organised and resolute. There were interesting challenges for Chelsea all over the park, with Terry and Branislav Ivanovic facing the Dons' mountainous, bodybuilding centre-forward Adebayo Akinfenwa, an unorthodox and intelligent threat. Tubbs' movement was canny as his reputation suggests, and former Chelsea academy player Sammy Moore grafted smartly in midfield.
In the end, Jose Mourinho paid Wimbledon the compliment of playing to win as if it was 20 or 25 years ago. In the game's final quarter, Chelsea switched to a three-man defence comprised of Terry and returning loanees Oriol Romeu and Nathaniel Chalobah, with Ivanovic pushed further forward. With the Serbian's nose for goal it was an interesting move, and perhaps reflective of their lack of a trusted backup for the incoming Diego Costa.
By the time Terry reduced the deficit from a Lewis Baker corner, nine of Wimbledon's starting XI -- who had done their bit -- had been substituted, but the Blues' set-piece power could well have told whoever was on the pitch. The captain's comprehensive header, from another Baker corner, delivered a last-minute winner after the impressive 19-year-old midfielder had served Salah for a tidily finished equaliser.
The joyous celebrations that followed Terry's winner were yet another nod to the fixture's past, when it really mattered. It was also an indication that Chelsea really mean it this season, and are preparing themselves to give no quarter. Every result matters; there can be no more slips against Aston Villa or Sunderland if Mourinho's ambitions are to be fulfilled. Their hosts on Saturday have their own lofty aims, albeit a few divisions lower. Ardley and company may take Chelsea's desire for every small victory as a handy template.
Andy Brassell is a freelance European football writer and broadcaster for the BBC, The Independent, ESPN, The Blizzard, Four Four Two, Talksport and others.