COVID-SW19: We’re AFC Wimble-done for the Season… ☹

JUST SIX league games have been played since my last update on the Dons towards the end of last year. I was going to release Episode IV of this blog after the next scheduled match which I’d planned to attend. And now the season is over. All stats have been expunged; there will be no relegation or promotion across levels 3-7 of women’s football. 

I don’t know if irony is quite the right word for it, so I’ll plump for ‘sod’s law’: sod’s law that I’ve made a written record of a season where there are now no written records. There are no other blog updates on the Dons season here, here or here. These are figments of my own crazed imagination. Oh, and I definitely did not interview AFC Wimbledon goalkeeper Charlotte Ferguson here.

Anyhoo, I don’t like leaving things three quarters-finished so let’s look back at what became a potentially thrilling but ultimately unfulfilling campaign cut off in its prime…

Match Nine: Kent Football United (A), W 3-0

Warming up for Kent Football United.

Following defeat to Plymouth Argyle in the Plate competition the Dons travelled to basement side Kent Football United.

Fully paid-up fans of the Wimbledon men’s team know not to assume matches against bottom teams are going to be a guaranteed win. Mercifully, the Ladies’ team were in determined mood and put in an accomplished display to lock down three points.

Prior to the fixture, manager Kevin Foster had signed two new players. Pacey wide player, Evie Gane, came to the Dons from Oxford, having also played at Reading and Aston Villa. Technically sound defensive midfielder, Lily Stevens, was effectively signed to replace Levi Chambers-Cook.

Gane would start against Kent FU; Stevens was on the bench.

Donned in all-yellow away kit, which gave the mud something to contrast with*, Katie Stanley got the scoring underway after 16 minutes. ‘Stanners’ arrived, right place right time, to convert from close range after the keeper could only paw Liz O’Callaghan’s effort away. She would bag another just before half time.

Becky Sargent fashioned herself a second half opportunity which crashed off the bar, before Lily Stevens and Georgia Heasman joined the fray – immediately setting about finding a match-killing third. ‘Cheesey’ – yes, that is Georgia’s nickname – got it and the Dons were safely ensconced in the top three for another week.

*Copyright Karen Hardy, AFC Wimbledon Ladies: Social Media Guru

Match Ten: Actonians (A), L 0-1

December 15th would be the first time – and the last time as it turned out – that the Dons suffered a league defeat. However, it was the third time that they got beat at Rectory Park, home of ‘bogey team’ Actonians; having also lost in two cup competitions to the West London club.

Kick-off had to be delayed from the usual 2pm to 4.30pm which set off a couple of half-baked conspiracy theories on the side lines, but when all was said and done Wimbledon just came out on the wrong end of a hard fought, competitive match with an opponent that had been a complete pain in the rear end since the season began.

An end-to-end first half finished scoreless but both teams had worked the opposing keepers.

Just as the Dons seemed to be getting a grip on the pattern of the second period, Actonians took the lead through Jessica Byrne’s first league strike of the season.

Dons’ manager Kevin Foster shuffled his pack to see if he could force the issue. Katie Stanley, and Helen Ogle both went close, and Steph Mann drew the save of the match from the Actonians ‘keeper but they couldn’t find the equaliser and AFC Wimbledon were heading into the long Christmas break on the back of a defeat.

It would also be Evie Gane’s last appearance in a brief spell for the Dons as she headed off to Championship side London Bees in the New Year.

Match Eleven: Ipswich Town (H) W 2-1

That’s Fergs in the middle, not Mr. Bump, picking up her Player of the Match Award post-Ipswich

“Buzzing for the goal and the 3 points.”

Lily Stevens, January 12, 2020 on Twitter

Almost an entire month had passed when the Dons’ Ladies returned to action. First versus Second squared off at Colston Avenue for AFC Wimbledon’s first match of the new decade.

The Tractor girls arrived in a rich vein of form, having gone unbeaten for the entire campaign to date, and going strong in the FA Cup – they had despatched Southern Premier League’s Portsmouth the previous week.

The Dons, prior to Ipswich, had arranged a ‘behind closed doors’ friendly with Oxford which they won 3-1. This proved to be a smart move by manager Kevin Foster. Rather than risk the players stewing for weeks on the Actonians defeat he looked to get them competing and winning again as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, how would the team react against such a strong opponent?

Well, going a goal down three minutes into the contest was certainly not the game plan. Eloise King put the table-toppers ahead from a swift counterattack.

Then, goalkeeper Charlotte Ferguson sustained a head injury that halted the game for exactly the amount of time it takes to make a player look like Mr. Bump, such was the amount of bandaging applied by the medical team.

The match resumed and the Dons custodian was back in action preventing Ipswich from extending their lead.

A small chink of hope was presented to the Dons just before the break when Town’s Lucy Egan was sin-binned for dissent, but Wimbledon couldn’t take advantage of the extra player and then trumped this punishment early in the second period when midfielder Steph Mann was given her marching orders for apparently kicking out at King**.

Ipswich poured on the pressure but couldn’t find the second goal – a combination of stout defending, profligate finishing and inspired goalkeeping by Ferguson.

A series of ‘eleventh-hour’ free kicks would decide the outcome.

The Dons hit the post with the first on 85 minutes. Then they scored off a rebound three minutes later when the keeper parried, the ball was recycled and Georgia Heasman was quickest to react, knocking in the resulting cross from close range.

What had seemed an improbable winner arrived six minutes into stoppage time. The Dons were awarded one final free kick fully 35-yards from goal. Lily Stevens stepped up and made it 2-1 with the last kick of the game.

Quite possibly posted from the local A&E.

Ferguson would go on to receive the Opposition Player of the Match to go with a broken finger and a check-up at the local Accident and Emergency for concussion.

**Steph’s red card would later be rescinded by the football authorities.

Match Twelve: Cambridge United (A) W 2-0

“It’s great to be in the [leading] pack at this time of the year. However, the girls are just playing and enjoying their football.”

Kevin Foster, AFC Wimbledon Manager

Ferguson was not deemed fit enough to play for the Dons at Cambridge United, so Megen Lynch came in on loan from the FA Women’s Championship side, the London Bees. Megen runs a pub in Reigate and also features in Carrie Dunn’s latest book Pride of the Lionesses with partner Nikita Whinnett. Well worth a read in these times of home isolation.

AFC Wimbledon took the lead inside five minutes with Katie Stanley catching the keeper off her line and chipping her from fully thirty yards.

With the rain falling, Cambridge decided that a physical approach was the way back into the game. Becky McLaren-Johnson, Lily Stevens and Rosie Russell would all feel the effects of the host’s aggression.

Undeterred, the Dons pushed on with their passing game. Hannah Billingham had a tap-in chalked off for offside before winger Georgia Heasman made the result safe on 64 minutes.

There was time for excellent stand-in keeper Lynch to make an outstanding one-to-one stop before the end, but the U’s never seriously troubled the Dons’ goal after that.

Meanwhile, Ipswich Town were knocking higher-league Huddersfield out of the FA Cup. So, for one week the path was free and clear for AFC Wimbledon Ladies to move to the top of the D1SE table.

Match Thirteen: Actonians (H) W 1-0

AFC Wimbledon’s Katie Stanley – ‘Stanners’ to her teammates.

Perhaps it was inevitable that ‘unlucky for some’ match thirteen would be against Actonians. But it sure wasn’t scheduled that way by the league.

Storm Ciara thundered across the British Isles on the weekend of February 9 and that put paid to all women’s football, including the Dons’ fixture with Stevenage.

Ten more days would pass before Actonians’ arrived at Colston Avenue for a midweek match up. Plenty of time, then, for Storm Dennis to exacerbate the damage dished out by Ciara as ‘he’ bowled in six days later leaving more games washed out.

Back on the field, the Dons whipped up a hurricane of their own straight from the kick-off.

Georgia Heasman hit the bar in the opening moments and then played the assisting pass that put Katie Stanley through on goal to fire inside the left-hand post.

Inside 7 minutes the Dons were 2-0 up – Stanley notching her ninth league goal of the season with a shot that found its way underneath the keeper’s dive. Her hat-trick was almost sealed before half time with an audacious chip that caught the keeper in no [wo]man’s land, but failed to come down in time.

Heasman was enjoying her own personal crossbar challenge, hitting the woodwork again. This clearly provided inspiration for dead-ball specialist Lily Stevens, who joined in with a free kick that skipped off the top of the goal frame.

Ipswich had retaken top spot through their games in hand, but the Dons had cemented their place in the top two and were hard on the heels of the Tractor Girls.

Match Fourteen: Enfield Town (A) W 4-2

Georgia Heasman leads the way as International Women’s Day is celebrated at The Cherry Red Records Stadium.

The campaign had become extremely fragmented since the turn of the year and there was to be another two-and-a-half-week break before the Dons played their next league game against Enfield.

It was handy, then, that the Dons could fit in a County Cup match with a Crystal Palace Development side at Colston Avenue to keep themselves loose. The game finished goalless – something that would have pleased healthy, returning keeper Charlotte Ferguson – but Palace progressed, eventually winning 4-1 win on penalties.

The following Saturday the team attended Kingsmeadow for International Women’s Day, raising money and cheering on the men’s team as they huffed and puffed their way to a 0-0 draw with basement dwellers Bolton Wanderers.

When the Dons travelled to Enfield it was with the knowledge that the North London side had stunned league leaders Ipswich a week earlier, beating them on their own patch 2-0. While Billy Highton’s side had suffered similar disruption to their fixture programme and were unlikely to feature in the promotion mix by season’s end, Town had won all three of their 2020 league fixtures. They were not going to be easy to stare down.

As mascot (and manager Kevin Foster’s baby daughter) Emilia-Rae sort of watched on, a corker of a match unfolded at Donkey Lane which gave some of those unsung heroes in the Wimbledon Ladies squad their moment to shine in front of goal.

Again, the Dons started fast. Central defender Sarah Wentworth got on the end of Lily Steven’s corner kick and it was 1-0. But it took Enfield little time to equalise from a corner of their own, with Nuala McKevitt getting on the scoresheet.

Even with the ball rolling sluggishly on a surface that had seen its fair share of rain in recent days both teams sought to attack.

The hosts rattled the Wimbledon crossbar before versatile full back / defensive midfielder Liz Berkeley put the Dons ahead once more with a collector’s item – a rasping left-footed drive towards the top left-hand corner of the net that looked even better for clipping the post on the way in.

The Dons pushed on to extend their lead. Katie Stanley speculated from distance, but her effort crashed back off the bar. Six minutes before the break Rebecca Sargent would also skim the top of the frame before Georgia Heasman’s low drive flew inches wide of the left-hand post.

‘Sarge’ finally breached the Enfield backline, but her goal was disallowed for offside.

And then a slip up in the Dons box presented Enfield with a penalty. Beth Lumsden made no mistake from the spot and, from what had been a dominant period of play the Dons found themselves pegged back at 2-2 with it all to play for.

On 53 minutes the Dons retook the lead. Right back Rosie Russell found herself in the penalty box, cut inside two defenders and fired in low to the keeper’s left.

When Foster brought on Helen Ogle and Liz O’Callaghan in the final 20 minutes it was a statement of intent that more goals were the aim and that the Dons had palpable strength on the bench – both subs having been regular starters throughout the campaign.

Ogle nearly scored from her first effort two minutes after arriving but shinned well wide.

However, the former Chichester City attacker wasn’t going to pass up another opportunity, clipping in from close range after Heasman brilliantly outpaced two defenders down the left flank and crossed off the outside of her right boot.

Snapshot in time. How the table looked – courtesy Talking Woso

“The ladies were excellent today, apart from a 15-minute spell when Enfield scored their first goal.  I thought we controlled the game. The front two in ‘Cheesey’ and ‘Stanners’ ran the channels well and created numerous chances with the wide players being really positive going forward. It forced Enfield into changing their shape in second half and, apart from a slip up at the back, we continued to [take] charge.”

Kevin Foster, AFC Wimbledon Manager

Matches Suspended: Corona Virus 1-0 Women’s National League Football

The following week, all professional football was suspended until the start of April due to the outbreak of the Corona Virus COVID-19 and the fear of spreading the virus through the gathering of large crowds of over 500 people.

The FA Women’s National League, following health advice to the letter, let the season continue along with non-league, grass roots and youth football to the bewilderment of supporters, media and, most probably, quite a few of the players and coaches.

Ipswich Town would be the only Division 1 South East side that played on the weekend of the 15th March, but this was a County Cup match at Needham Market, so the league table was unaffected.

A day later the league was suspended along with all other football until the 3rd April.

Meanwhile, out there in the world beyond women’s football, and for reasons known only to those involved, toilet rolls started disappearing off supermarket shelves en masse as presumably panic stricken people with over productive bowels looked to stock up.

COVID-19 it would transpire is a lung attacking virus. I’m no health expert but as far as I can gather there’s no direct correlation between contracting the Corona Virus and needing to do… erm, well you know, an excess of number twos. But that’s people for you.

Anyway, social media abhors a vacuum. Not to be idle and picking up on a trend that had started doing the rounds on Twitter, the AFC Wimbledon Ladies began a seven-day challenge with more than a smattering of loo roll involved…

This is what happens when footballers have too much time on their hands..!
Recapping the Seven Day Stay at Home Challenge

But on the 26th March the news broke that every level of women’s football below the FA Women’s Championship would be cancelled for the remainder of the season. Fixtures would be expunged, and all stats would become null and void – in other words: no appearances, no goals, no assists, no promotion, no relegations. Imagine that…

“We can hold our heads high and be proud of what we have achieved this season. 1 point from top with all to fight for but we must put everything into perspective and see the bigger picture. Safety and health is [sic] more important than anything. Big things to come for this team…”

Liz O’Callaghan, Winger, AFC Wimbledon Ladies via Twitter

It’s a sad way for it all to end. But it is just football at the end of the day.

At present the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship are pencilled in for a restart on the 30th April but the virus is still trending upwards and appears to have a mortality rate of around 5 in every 100 sufferers – compared to influenza which typically kills one in a thousand. It’s a bad one.

It’s unlikely that the leagues will restart then, but the men’s Euro 2020 Football Championships has been cancelled this coming summer, along with the Tokyo Olympics thereby freeing up several months to get the remaining fixtures played.

The FA, who’s rules don’t usually allow competition football to be played beyond May 31st has sanctioned that the remaining two women’s leagues can take as long as they need to be completed up until early August – assuming they can’t start any time soon.

I suppose that rather begs the question, though : with most grass roots clubs having only eight to ten matches left in their calendars, why couldn’t the same courtesy have been afforded to them?…

Hannah Billingham (right) points the way to goal – photo Tim Badger @TimBadgerPhotos

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A big thanks to Kevin Foster and his coaching team – Abdullah Kheir, Kevin Finnerty, John Parker, Mike Parsonson, Abigail Ingham and Gareth Townsend. And of course to Karen Hardy who provides a stream of online content and images which keep me (and many others) up to speed when getting to matches is not possible.

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Recently, we reached number 29 on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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