22 October ~ When AFC Wimbledon lost 3-2 to Bristol Rovers on the opening day of the season – their first Football League fixture some nine years after forming from the ashes of their predecessor – they could have been three or four down even before Scott McGleish's 17th-minute opener. It was a rude awakening to Football League life, with Rovers looking a cut above their startled opponents. But the Dons rallied and were heading for a credible draw until Rovers snatched it with a late penalty.
Encouraging early form on the road coupled with some shaky home displays left supporters not knowing if they were relegation fodder or promotion candidates. Fortunately, still giddy with delight at being back where they feel they belong, the fans kept patience with their young side, liberally applauding at full-time after defeats. Four consecutive league wins from mid-September saw the Dons finally find some form, not to mention the League Two promotion places. But consistency turned to complacency last weekend when a sloppy home display saw visitors Crewe run out comfortable 3-1 winners.
Wimbledon are yet to lose consecutive games this season, with their young squad showing a knack for bouncing back after defeat. But that will be a tall order today when the mysteriously monied, table-topping Crawley visit. The two have become significant rivals thanks to a series of grudge matches in recent seasons. Even the away ticket allocation is a total sell-out.
Steve Evans's Red Devils are flying at the top of League Two. Their strength in depth was best illustrated by striker Wes Thomas having to go up a division on loan to Bournemouth to find regular football. Crawley boast several players – Matt Tubbs, Sergio Torres, Kyle McFadzean – that would improve sides in a higher league than this one. It seems likely their stay in League Two will be a short one. But Wimbledon beat them here last season and will hope for a repeat this time. Their in-form strike pairing of Jack Midson and Christian Jolley – whose goals have more than softened the blow of losing fan favourite Danny Kedwell to Gillingham – will have to be at their best to find a way past Crawley's miserly defence.
The newly shaved heads of manager Terry Brown and several playing staff (part of a charity fundraising effort) will either galvanise Wimbledon to what will need to be their most resilient display of the season, or act as a painful reminder of the day their promotion hopes suffered a heavy blow. Wimbledon beat Stevenage in cup competition earlier this month – another side whose stay in this division was brief. They will hope to show today that they can do the same to Crawley. The lingering joy of promotion is on ice for the day. This is one game their happy-go-lucky fans would not lose so graciously. Chris Lines